Europe South Asia Asia Pacific Americas Middle East Africa BBC Homepage World Service Education

Front Page



UK Politics







Talking Point
On Air
Low Graphics

Tuesday, March 2, 1999 Published at 09:09 GMT

World: Africa

Agony words cannot describe

Moses, one of 300 children forced to fight for the rebels

Fergal Keane reports from Sierra Leone

Fergal Keane's report: You may find some images disturbing
As the rebel army swept into Freetown at the beginning of this year, it was less a battle than a crime against humanity - the worst in recent times. Thousands were killed, tens of thousands uprooted from their homes. Murder, mutilation, rape, it all happened here.

One woman saw her husband and her son shot dead in front of her. She found some of her husband's remains lying among the city's ruined buildings, his head severed from his body. She buried the remains herself.

Massacre at mosque

[ image: Thousands have been buried in shallow graves]
Thousands have been buried in shallow graves
At the local mosque the priests survived only by feigning death after the rebels opened fire. One imam said the rebels shot and killed 11 people here. His son was among the dead, buried in shallow graves behind the mosque.

As the battle escalated, terrified civilians fled from rebel areas. Snipers picked off the stragglers. It was terrifying, but better than the horror that lay behind them in rebel territory.

Burnt alive

Sierra Leone
A Sierra Leonean cameraman was secretly filming the rebels from inside his house. They discovered him and forced him into the street to film their supporters burning a family alive inside their home.

The rebel leaders want power and Sierra Leone's diamond wealth. Many of their supporters are illiterate peasants, driven by bitter resentment of the city elite.

But it is hard to explain what motivates a man to hack off the arm of an 18-month-old baby girl. Or what impulse drives somebody to push a man into a burning house with his family.


One child, a polio victim, was taken to hospital after he was found crawling on the street after the battle.

Christiane Minah, a nurse at the hospital, said she had no idea who his parents were.

"I think he doesn't have any," she said. "We have been calling him Junior. We don't know anything about him, so we decided to name him that way.

Thousands homeless

[ image: 'The struggle to preserve human dignity']
'The struggle to preserve human dignity'
At least 150,000 people lost their homes in the attack. Many fled to an old factory. Aid agencies want to move them to better accommodation before the rains come next month.

The people say they want food and medicine. Diseases like dysentery are already threatening young lives. Amid the misery the struggle to maintain old routines, to preserve human dignity, continues. Aid will alleviate their discomfort, but only the soldiers and politicians can end their misery.


"I feel dehumanised, because we've lost our loved ones, lost our wives, our mothers, our houses," said John Karim-Tarawalee. "We have worked for them for the past 20 years, they have been burnt down. We have no hope of rebuilding them."

[ image: A suspected rebel was shot as he begged for mercy]
A suspected rebel was shot as he begged for mercy
The war in Sierra Leone is without a doubt the most brutal being waged anywhere in the world.

In the space of a few weeks thousands have been killed, and tens of thousands more driven from their homes. The fear now for these people is that the rebels might return.

If they do, people expect little mercy for themselves or their children. People are moving on the streets once again, but at the roadblocks the atmosphere is tense.

Bloody reprisals

[ image: Rough justice for a suspected rebel]
Rough justice for a suspected rebel
As Ecomog, the Nigerian-led intervention force, has regained control, numerous suspected rebels have been executed. We found a suspect at the mercy of troops, after a woman claimed he burned her house.

The soldiers kicked him as he lay semi-naked on the ground, protesting his innocence. Then he was thrust into a vehicle, driven away, and we do not know what happened to him.

Another captured rebel was shot as he begged for mercy.

Children forced to fight

The rebels captured more than 300 children during their attack, and forced them to fight. One little boy, Moses, was recaptured by the Nigerian soldiers, who slapped and kicked him until an officer and a Government minister intervened to protect him.

Later we found him at a camp where children are kept in the care of the United Nations. He is deeply traumatised and spends hours alone.

That trauma is repeated again and again in Sierra Leone, a country whose agony words can no longer describe.

Advanced options | Search tips

Back to top | BBC News Home | BBC Homepage | ©

Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East | South Asia

Relevant Stories

27 Feb 99 | Africa
Nigerian election 'threatens' Sierra Leone

14 Feb 99 | Africa
Ecomog denies abuse allegations

27 Jan 99 | Africa
Freetown bears the scars

12 Jan 99 | Sierra Leone
A suffering that knows no end

07 Jan 99 | Africa
Analysis: Sierra Leone's brutal rebellion

In this section

Dam builders charged in bribery scandal

Burundi camps 'too dire' to help

Sudan power struggle denied

Animal airlift planned for Congo

Spy allegations bug South Africa

Senate leader's dismissal 'a good omen'

Tatchell calls for rights probe into Mugabe

Zimbabwe constitution: Just a bit of paper?

South African gays take centre stage

Nigeria's ruling party's convention

UN to return to Burundi

Bissau military hold fire

Nile basin agreement on water cooperation

Congo Brazzaville defends peace initiative

African Media Watch

Liberia names new army chief