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Observation Post: The People Who Come and Ask a Lot of Questions and Then Go Away — Sierra Leone

By Philip C. Winslow

A Freetown neighborhood. For Sierra Leone’s poor, life was precarious. Terror was never far away.
A Freetown neighborhood. For Sierra Leone’s poor, life was precarious. Terror was never far away. Photo credit: Philip C. Winslow

This is the second of three parts of a photo retrospective on three countries where Philip C. Winslow has worked since the mid-1990s: Angola, Sierra Leone, and Myanmar (Burma). All photos © Philip C. Winslow. Read part one

Thirty years ago when I was reporting the civil war in Angola, a Catholic nun needed to explain to people in a remote village what a journalist was, why I was there. With no word in the local language, she created one that translated as “the people who come and ask a lot of questions and then go away.” Her delightfully accurate description stayed with me for years as I interviewed people in other countries whose lives were in turmoil or about to get that way.

Looking back now at Angola, Sierra Leone, and Myanmar (Burma) is partly a late-in-life feeling that I owe people whose stories I wrote down before habitually leaving for somewhere else. My sense of benign debt follows the plea that I (and many reporters) frequently hear in troubled places: “We are alone. Please tell our stories.” Tell their stories I did. Some may find the notion that I “owe” highfalutin; it was a job, right? I reported, and moved on to other stories.

Memory and fondness (or loathing) are personal, and what we pick up along the way stays with us. Many of the people I’ve interviewed and photographed are displaced or dead. I’ve had the privilege, and the luck, of being able to go away, as the nun said. Most of these people had less opportunity. Many fled as terror descended. Or, they stayed put because wherever they were was home. Decades later, I want their lives, or at least their faces, seen through other eyes and remembered. That’s all they asked of me.


Sierra Leone’s civil war ran from 1991 to 2002. I reported it occasionally, in 1994 and 1995, mainly about a group of South African mercenaries hired by the Freetown government. (The same mercenaries had also worked in Angola.) In 1999-2000, I worked there again, not as a journalist, but with UNAMSIL, the United Nations peacekeeping mission, with 17,500 troops then the world’s largest. Against a weak and incompetent central government, the war was prosecuted with indiscriminate brutality by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), which relied on conscript child soldiers and was headed by an addled faux revolutionary called Foday Sankoh. The RUF had plenty of competition from an array of equally violent splinter groups. The war was materially backed by Liberia’s Charles Taylor. For eleven years, civilians suffered serial war crimes and crimes against humanity: murder, mass rape, amputation of limbs, abduction of children, and slavery. The combatants’ sole motivation was to acquire Sierra Leone’s diamond wealth; there was nothing revolutionary or liberating about their motives.

My photos are from the war’s second phase, when I worked for the UN and when the RUF and other groups still controlled large parts of the country. The photos are not necessarily in chronological order, as UNAMSIL operated in the same areas at different times.

Since the war ended, the people of Sierra Leone have seen some justice: many of the rebel leaders and the worst of the fighters are dead. Others, convicted by the Special Court for Sierra Leone, are serving long prison sentences. But it cannot be said that the civilian population has recovered from its long trauma.


A- Lumley beach Freetown peninsula copyLumley Beach, Freetown peninsula, looking over the Atlantic.


B- ECOMOG checkpoint Lumley Beach copyAn ECOMOG (West African Monitoring Group) checkpoint on Lumley Beach. I don’t know which prospect scared me more: waking the dog or waking the sentry inside the hut.


C- Freetown neighborhood copy

A Freetown neighborhood. For Sierra Leone’s poor, life was precarious. Terror was never far away.


C1- Freetown police station from 1999 copyA Freetown police station burned in a terror attack in 1999.


D- Jungle flyover copyHeaded north from Freetown in a Russian-piloted UN helicopter.


D1- masiakajungle copyJungle near Masiaka, forty miles east of the capital, at the start of the rainy season. UN troops were conducting operations against the West Side Boys for their serial atrocities.


D2- Jordanian with casualty  Magburaka copyJordanian troops rescue a man from the jungle grass. Wounded by the rebels, he lay hidden for more than a week. He called out only when he heard UN troops speaking Arabic.


D3- JORBAT on break copyUN Jordanian battalion troops on patrol near Magburaka, central Sierra Leone.


E- WSB2 rogberi copyMembers of the West Side Boys gang blocking the Rokel River bridge. Heavy drinkers and drug users, the gang repeatedly raped women and girls and randomly amputated limbs of women, children, and men.


E1- WSB AAgun copyWest Side Boys joyriding on a stolen ECOMOG gun truck. (ECOMOG was the West African force that preceded UNAMSIL.) UN peacekeepers had been conducting disarmament negotiations with rebels in a roadside tent. Other fighters, in the stolen truck, kept buzzing the tent. We were given a sharp warning of intent, and broke off talks.


E2- WSB AAgun amath copy

A second rebel gun truck after it was caught on the road by South African contractors flying a helicopter gunship. The Mi-24 gunships, owned by the Sierra Leone government, were the only thing the rebels feared.


F - rape victims in Masiaka copyNear Masiaka, I stopped at an apparently abandoned village. Seeing my UN jeep, these women and girls quietly came out and told me their stories. All had been raped by rebels. The yellow parcels contained humanitarian rations provided earlier by an NGO or by the UN.


G- RUF at Magburaka copyUNAMSIL military observers and RUF fighters, with their families, posing at an RUF roadblock near Magburaka. After an hour of chitchat that alternated between amiable and tense, we were allowed to pass.


H- Killer and Good Soldier copy“Killer,” left, and “Good Soldier,” the boys’ noms de guerre, at a rope they had strung across a road outside Masiaka. As rebel/terrorist conscripts, they sustained themselves by extorting money and food from any villagers who dared use the road. “Killer” had lost his left arm during fighting in Freetown in 1999.


H1- WSB Riflegrenadekid Masiaka copyDrunk and shy, this young fighter, in new boots and kit, watched a UNAMSIL patrol near Masiaka.


H2- kidguard copy

A child soldier attached to the West Side Boys guarded some empty buildings near Masiaka. He let me take his picture but was twitchy and would not speak. He was about fourteen.


H3- RUF Sesay CPD Magburaka copyThe close protection detail for an RUF commander at Magburaka. They were drunk and stoned, and allowed me one quick photo. Nearby, “Brigadier General” Issa Hassan Sesay was slumped in an armchair under a mango tree, swigging out of a bottle of Tia Maria. The fighters’ prodigious consumption of drugs and alcohol made negotiations or even normal conversation difficult.


I Eye- Mabang Bridge copy

Terrorist attacks had kept the Mabang Bridge closed for years, shutting off vehicle traffic on a main south-north road.


I1 EyeOne- Kamajors nr Mabang copyKamajors, traditional Mende hunters, guarding a closed approach to the Mabang Bridge. The Kamajors then worked for a faction of government called the Civil Defence Forces, run by Sam Hinga Norman. Norman and some CDF leaders later were indicted on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity by the Special Court for Sierra Leone.


J- Abandoned RUF copyFormer RUF fighters who had been abandoned by their commanders. UN medics patched up their wounds as our convoy passed through on the way to Koidu, in the east.


J1- PoW1 copyAfter a jungle skirmish, a Sierra Leone Army officer holds a prisoner suspected of being RUF.


J2- PoW4 copyThe boy was taken to a shed for interrogation.


J3- PoW6 copyThe officer was not satisfied with his answers.


J4- PoW7 copyI hoped that the tough questioning allowed for some flexibility.


J5- PoWs suspected rebels copyThe Sierra Leone Army detained these local men on suspicion of being RUF.


K- Woman who hid from rebels copy

She had been hiding in the bush for weeks, terrified by rebels rampaging through the villages. She came out when she heard Indian peacekeepers setting up camp and she could smell their field kitchen. She eventually got a good lunch.


L- burnedvillage copyA burned village where we had gone to search for remains of UN peacekeepers killed by the rebels.


M- village enroute Koidu copy

As a UN convoy headed for Koidu in the east, an entire village turned out to beg for protection from the West Side Boys.


N- Ruined Koidu copyKoidu, Eastern Province.


N1- UNAMSIL Winslow interview Sesay in Koidu copyWith my UN colleagues, I questioned Issa Hassan Sesay, an RUF commander, in Koidu in the spring of 2000. It was the first formal meeting with Sesay. We hoped to convince him to bring his fighters into the disarmament program. For Sesay himself, it was too late, and he returned to the bush. He was later indicted and convicted.


O- WSB slave release1 copyChild slaves of the West Side Boys being walked out of the jungle after their UN-brokered release. The terrorists used the children as sex slaves, cooks, and porters.


O1-WSB slave release2 copy

Child slaves being led out of the jungle into a UN field station for medical care and hoped-for reunification with their families.


O2- WSB slave release3 with Sikaonga copyChild slaves after their release. UNAMSIL Major Francis Sikaonga (Zambia), at right, had led months of painstaking, secret negotiations to free the children.


P- UNAMSIL observers registering combatants for DDR copyUN officers register surrendering combatants for the disarmament program.


P1- Makeni weapons copyWeapons, not many of them serviceable, surrendered by fighters in Makeni.


P2- DDR Kabala copySurrendered fighters at a disarmament and reintegration camp in Kabala, Northern Province.


P3- WSBs exjungle copyWest Side Boys near their jungle camp, with UNAMSIL Major Richard Rochester. The fighters were deciding whether to join the UN disarmament program.


Q- INDBAT position Koidu copy

UNAMSIL Indian battalion position at Koidu, eastern Sierra Leone.


Q1- INDBAT after Koidu fight copyUN Indian troops resting after a battle with rebels. One Indian soldier was killed.


R- Chinook at HQ copy

A British Army helicopter shortly before an operation in September 2000 to rescue British soldiers held by the rebels. The British assault, separate from UNAMSIL operations, was carried out by 22 SAS and 1 PARA, and killed about two dozen West Side Boys. It led to the surrender of hundreds of other rebels, and ended the long reign of terror. One British soldier was killed.


S- Lumley beach end copyLumley Beach. No tourists in those days.



About the Author 

Philip C. Winslow has been a journalist for fifty years; he has worked for the Christian Science Monitor, the Toronto StarMaclean’s Magazine, ABC Radio News, CTV News, and CBC Radio. He also served in two United Nations peacekeeping missions and spent nearly three years living in the West Bank. He is the author of Victory For Us Is to See You Suffer and Sowing the Dragon’s Teeth.