Sierra Leone: the brutal legacy of a forgotten war

Weapons trained on the trembling boy and his terror-stricken aunt, the rebel fighters announced they were holding a raffle and held out two pieces of paper.


The body of the boy’s father, slain with a single bullet, lay slumped and bloody on the floor. Two more shots: his aunt, whose slip had simply read ‘death’, crumpled into the dust.


Ibrahim Bangora, 11 years old at the time, slowly unfurled his scrap of paper – the barrel of a crude but deadly weapon still marking his every move. Two words glowered up at him: ‘long sleeve.’


The fighters tied the boy’s hands together, bound them in plastic, doused them in kerosene and set them alight. By the time he regained consciousness, Ibrahim was in a hospital bed – amputated at both wrists by the ‘chop hand units’ of Sierra Leone.

Ibrahim Bangora, who was mutilated by rebel fighters when he was just 11 years oldImage © Steve Bent

Uncivilised warfare


The brutal civil war that tore through the African nation between 1991 and 2002 has left an equally brutal legacy: as many as 6,000 amputees and at least 50,000 dead.


Former warlord and Liberian President Charles Taylor is accused of arming the Revolutionary United Front rebels responsible for the atrocities in exchange for so-called blood diamonds. He is currently on trial in The Hague for war crimes and crimes against humanity.


At the height of the horrors, RUF fighters were notorious for hacking off civilians’ limbs – a tactic that originated during the 1996 elections, when rebels used machetes to sever the hands of anyone caught voting for President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah.


In the local parlance, the men, women and children mutilated by the units were divided into ‘long sleeves’ who lost their hands and ‘short sleeves’ whose arms were amputated. While the conflict raged, accounts of child soldiers carrying bags of body parts through the streets to the rebels’ commanders were among the most grievous to emerge.

Pa Mustafa, who lost both arms during the brutal conflictImage © Steve Bent

Forgotten victims


But while Taylor’s fate could be determined within the next 18 months, when his trial is expected to conclude, that of the rebels’ victims remains unclear. Despite repeated promises of assistance, sufficient financial support has yet to arrive.


Pa Mustafa, now 47, was captured during the war by RUF fighters who severed his left arm with one blow of a cutlass. Removing his right arm proved more problematic: according to Pa, it took three attempts.


Afterwards, the rebels sent Pa from their camp, ordering him to go to Kabbah – the outgoing president – and ask for new limbs. But Pa, whose testimony has been recorded for use in Taylor’s trial, insists Kabbah has done nothing for victims of the RUF – despite the horrific price they paid for supporting him at the ballot box.


“He gave us nothing: no money, no rations, no school fees for our kids’ education, no homes,” the former coffee trader said. “Instead he told us he was also a victim, whose house was burnt down by the rebels. Kabbah rebuilt his house, but we cannot get our limbs back. The government and the rebels who chopped my hands off are as bad as each other.”

Kabiyatu Fofonah was dragged from a river by rebels who then severed her legsImage © Steve Bent

Recording the conflict


Pa is not alone in his lament. Kabiyatu Fofonah tried to escape by wading into a river after witnessing her sister being made a ‘long sleeve,’ but the rebels caught her and hauled her onto the river bank, a tiny infant still clinging to her chest. “There and then, they chopped off my legs – one after the other,” she recalls, now 47. “Maybe when the trial starts, we will know more about the war and why it happened. I need to understand this.”


To document the humanitarian fallout from more than a decade of atrocities, veteran war photographer Steve Bent, who has spent the past two decades covering conflicts in Beirut, Uganda, Iraq and the Middle East, was sent to Sierra Leone by a national newspaper.


“In September 2007, the Sunday Times sent me to Freetown, Sierra Leone, to cover the presidential elections – the first free elections to be held since the end of a brutal civil war which ended in 2002,” Bent told MSN.


“I have covered the conflict three times over the years, witnessing appalling scenes where RUF gangs would roam the countryside and the capital – mutilating, raping and murdering the population at will.


“The victims of these crimes have had little help from the former government of this diamond-rich country. Its new president, Ernest Bai Koroma, has promised to rectify this by compensating them, opening special training centres and providing health care.


“Until that time, however, most are forced to rely on handouts from aid agencies and live in Sierra Leone’s squalid shanty towns, while others beg at the markets in the main cities and towns.”

Despite the horrors of their past, some survivors are determined to look to the futureImage © Steve Bent

But despite the backdrop of volatility and bloodshed, hope is emerging among survivors. During the course of his most recent assignment, Bent met and befriended a group of young amputees who, despite their injuries, have united to form a football team. Surprisingly spirited, they are determined to focus on their future – in a poignant attempt to vanquish the past.


By Laura Snook, MSN news editor.

January 30, 2008

To see more of Steve Bent's evocative photography from Sierra Leone, click on the thumbnails in the gallery below.

Beckham: 'End shocking mortality rates in Sierra Leone'

Make a donation to Save the Children's Sierra Leone fund