Remembering the Gendema Invasion 22 Years On
In this special
Chapter One | Where it All Began
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain, Robert Quain*. I would like to welcome you
As the voice of the captain filled the cabin of the small fifteen-sitter twin-engine aircraft, I glanced at my wristwatch. It was exactly 4:15 GMT. We had just boarded a flight at the Spriggs-Payne Airfield in Monrovia for the first leg of our journey to Washington D.C. The day was April 3, 1996. As a Sierra Leonean refugee on a resettlement journey to the United States, one thing became certain; I had finally made it out of the war alive. But another remained doubtful; what lies ahead at my unknown destination.
I tried to ignore the past by deliberately contemplating positively about the future. But this thought quickly gave way to what became an irrepressible and vivid recount of the past five years. What appeared to be a dream was, in fact, a silent reminiscence which came to last my entire journey to Washington D.C.
It all began exactly five years back on a sunny morning, April 3, 1991. The sun had just begun to rise. My sister Mamie; her husband, Alfred; their five-year-old daughter, Matu; and six-month-old son, Sulaiman; and I had just arrived at the family’s farm. The farm was located on an island off the Moa River near the village of Mbomi, in southern Sierra Leone.
Mamie had quickly settled to prepare breakfast as I looked after Sulaiman. Alfred had just returned from checking on the fish basket. “It was definitely a catch.” He proclaimed. “Look at these Mus,” referring to me by the nickname most in my family call me; while emptying his catch into a saucepan made of aluminum. One after the other came down several crabs, four catfish, eight tilapias, and a herring.
“You know what, Alfred?” Said Mamie. “I will fry them and keep some for tomorrow’s dinner.” She continued.
“No need to,” Brother Alfred replied. “Let tomorrow cater for itself,” Alfred added in a popular Mende adage which made an inference that we should eat all the catch for today’s dinner and that tomorrow should take care of itself.
Looking at Alfred and shaking her head in what appeared to be disbelief, Mamie smiled. “Okay! I am out,” Alfred declared while stepping across the huge plank that lay at the entrance of the farm hut. The plank was used as both a seat and also a bank to keep the water from entering the farm hut when it rained. He quickly disappeared into the field where he had begun plowing rice. As the patty—porridge made of potato―being prepared for breakfast was ready, Mamie set the pot down from the fire. She grabbed the bucket and went to the bank of the river to fetch drinking water.
“How is school?” she started.
“Fine, I passed all my exams,” I replied.
“What position did you take?” She continued.
“We are not ranked by positions in my new school.”
My sister was used to seeing me come home with report cards that ranked me in the top of my class. But after a year off from school, I was only beginning to get back into school mode. Due to my brother’s abrupt layoff from his job a year ago coupled with his subsequent departure for Zimmi Dandai, our mom’s home in Liberia, I came to stay in a boarding home.
In the boarding home, I struggled to stay focused in the wake of peer pressure to try everything possible but study. I had just turned seventeen and completed my second semester as a junior.
I hang my head as I thought about my response to Mamie since I knew like every one of my siblings; Mamie has very high expectations of me. As she noticed I was embarrassed by her questions, she stopped.
“Everything will be fine. You have done very well,” she added in an encouraging tone. I looked up and glanced at her face defined by her long, broad jaws and nose, the trademark of my father. She continued to smile. I smiled too.
The food had cooled down and Alfred had just returned from the field in time for breakfast.
“Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! Crack,
“What is that? I asked in a terrified voice.
Smiling, Alfred replied, “It is the sound of the guns from across the border in Liberia where the rebels are located.”
It was my very first time hearing those kinds of sounds. Alfred proceeded to explain to me that it happens every now and then
“It is much louder today and has moreover lasted too long,” Mamie declared.
After about an hour, the sound ceased. Both Alfred and Mamie looked at each other and smiled as if they were trying to reassure each other. Alfred got up, picked up the hoe and disappeared into the fields again. Mamie picked up the bucket which was sitting in the corner of the farmhouse and turned to look at me.
“Please don’t let Sulaiman go out in the fields so he is not bitten by the ants. I am going to wash some clothes and will be back in a moment.”
“Okay, ” I replied.
She departed the farm hut walking toward the bank of the river with the bucket strapped to her left elbow. I remained in the farm hut and continued to look after Sulaiman and
She pointed it toward my mouth and said, “Eat”.
I smiled and started chewing my mouth as if I had taken a bit of what she had on the spoon. She smiled too, and grabbed my lips, trying to pull them open in an attempt to confirm I was actually eating her cook. Moments later the feeding bottle was half-full and Sulaiman had fallen asleep. Mamie returned from the river and was hanging the clothes on a rope tied between two poles outside of the farm hut. It was around
“Someone is calling from across the river," declared Alfred.
“Are you expecting someone,” Mamie asked.
“No, No” replied Alfred. He began to run toward the river. The three of us, Mamie,
“Hurry… pack our things and get the kids ready” yelled Alfred. He ran faster as he yelled this repeatedly. At this time he was much closer.
“They said the rebels have crossed the border. We must go to town at once,” he added.
We quickly packed our belongings. Mamie strapped Sulaiman on her back with a cloth tied around her waist. Alfred placed Matu in his arms. I strapped Sulaiman’s diaper bag across my chest as we departed the hut for the river crossing.
The rebels from Liberia had just crossed into several border towns in Sierra Leone including the main border town of Gendema. At this time, we did not know exactly what the story was other than the fact that the rebels had crossed into Sierra Leone. On our way to town, we met several Mbomi residents returning home upon hearing the news. As Alfred questioned others about what was happening, the stories became mixed. While some spoke of rumors indicating that the rebels have come to collect money from traders, they’ve entrusted with their loot, others stated that they heard that the rebels have come in search of food.
When we arrived in Mbomi, the village was crowded with displaced people from the border towns and villages and Liberian refugees who had been residing in towns and villages close to the border in Sierra Leone. There were hundreds; many of them were women and children. Most of them looked very tired and weak. They had been running from their towns and villages under attack by rebels. I could not figure out what to make of what was happening.
I went to the Court Barray where most young men my age were hanging out and discussing the event. I began to ask some of the teenagers about where they came from and whether they saw the rebels. Some of them were arguing about what the rebels looked like. It was clear most of these young men did not take what was happening seriously. Not knowing what to make of the rebels, we began to argue about how they had supernatural powers and rumors we’ve heard that they are devils. Some of the young men were confident the rebels had magical powers and could disappear and re-appear in a matter of a moment.
“If they wanted to be here right now, they could just appear from the air.” One of the boys who had been referred to by his friends as
We did not know the rebels were actually humans like us. But as the argument continued, one thing was obvious. There was something to worry about. I could recognize the anguish in the eyes of most of the older people. While I had never had experience with war, this began to disturb me. These were devastated people running nowhere fast and looking for whatever they could find to eat. Most of the residents of Mbomi including Mamie began to offer the displaced and refugees whatever food they had.
It was now approaching dark. And by then, there were almost more than one thousand people crowded into Mbomi. The story began to change as more of the Liberian refugees continued to arrive in the village. New rumors began to spread that the rebels had come to bring back to power the SLPP [Sierra Leone People’s Party] political party which had been dormant for over two decades. But another twist to this SLPP rumor was the fact that a man called Foday Sankoh was named to be the head of the movement called RUF, which had allegedly come to bring back SLPP to power.
But something about this rumor began to ring bell. About a month earlier before I left my boarding school in Koyeima― approximately twenty miles north of Bo, there was a BBC Focus on Africa program aired in which a man claiming to be a rebel leader by the name of Foday Sankoh had promised an attack on Sierra Leone in ninety days. I began to wonder whether this was the attack that was promised. By that time, I began to take what was happening seriously.
I thought about my mom and grandmother, both of whom I had left behind in my village, Koiboma. I wondered what would happen to them if they had to become displaced in my absence. With these thoughts, I decided I needed to return to Koiboma immediately. I called Mamie on the side and told her I wanted to return to Koiboma the next day. She agreed with me and cautioned that I, therefore, needed to go to sleep and get some rest. I bid her Goodnight and then went to bed.
As I lay in bed, I heard sporadic sounds of gunfire, including automatic rifles and heavy artilleries, started to rise through the skies again. This lasted for more than an hour. I found it hard to sleep as I lay there with my eyes gazing at the roof. The noise from the crowd grew louder as more and more displaced and refugees continued to arrive. After a few hours, I fell asleep. But around six o’clock in the morning, another round of gunfire roared in the air. The sound became louder by the minute and was coming from several directions this time. I got up, packed my bags and went to the kitchen where Mamie was found preparing breakfast.
“Good morning” I greeted her.
“Did you have a good night?”
“Didn’t she hear all the gun sounds all night?” I murmured to myself. “The guns, I hardly slept,” I replied.
I took the bucket filled with water and went to the bathroom to take a shower. Upon return, Mamie had finished preparing breakfast. She then handed me a bowl filled with fried potatoes and groundfish and vegetable stew.
“Take this with you and eat them on the way.”She also loosens the top of her lap and gave me five notes of twenty Leones each. I hang my head and smiled in excitement. I then raised my head and glanced at her face. She was smiling too.
Moments later, Alfred entered the kitchen and reported that the government soldiers and members of the Special Security Division (SSD) had arrived in Mbomi. The men had instructed everyone to gather
Under the Court Barray, were seven men; four soldiers, three of whom were dressed in woodland variant camouflage and the other in olive fatigue. The three SSDs were dressed in blue urban variant camouflage. Two of the men were armed each with what appeared to be old G3 automatic rifles, two with an Uzi, and the other three were unarmed. Four of the officers were sitting on a long bench at the entrance of the Court Barray while the others stood guard outside. As the men looked at the crowd putting up what appeared to be smiling faces, I could tell the smiles were not real. I began to wonder these men had seen more than they were trying to portray. The more they tried to remain calm, the more they looked wary.
As they addressed us, they took turns to scan the gathered crowd of displaced and refugees as if they were expecting something to happen. The one who appeared to be the leader rose from his seat and walked to the steps of the Court Barry. In a deep, heavy voice, the short, muscular figure with a long beard introduced himself as sergeant Kamara. He continued in Creole while an interpreter translated in Mende.
“Please keep quiet, ” he begged for silence. “Yesterday morning, our post at Gendema was attacked by the Liberian rebels. Two of our men were shot dead and the rest of us retreated after facing them for about an hour. We were overpowered by the firing force of the rebels. They have more sophisticated arms and they out-numbered us. We are going to our regional headquarters in Pujehun for re-enforcement. We ask that you exercise patience in case they arrived here before we return. Please do whatever they tell you to do. Do not resist or put up a fight. It will be dangerous and you may be killed. Please take care of yourself”
By now there were murmurs all over the crowd as everyone tried to make sense of what the soldier was saying. Without entertaining questions, the men immediately placed their backpacks on their backs, stepped out of the Court Barray waved their hands to the crowd as they departed the village. I began to wonder what to make of the officer’s message. I thought quietly to myself for a moment. Do you mean the soldiers are fleeing, leaving us behind? Will they ever come back? What will the rebels do when they arrive here? Of course, my questions were not meant to be answered, but instead formed the basis for my next decision given what was becoming a helpless situation.
Standing behind me the whole time unnoticed was Alfred. He pulled me by my arm. I turned around. I was a little shaken since I was lost in my thoughts.
“Let’s get out of here,” he instructed.
We both walked back to the house. Sister Mamie had also just returned from the square and like everyone else, she looked very worried.
“I must go," I declared. They both walked me down a small dusty road leading down to a small creek. The creek was about two hundred yards from the town. The couple stopped before the bridge. I climbed over the bridge and crossed to the other side of the creek. The bridge over the creek was made of four logs made out of palm trees. Two logs on each side placed in what appeared to be carefully calculated distance apart so as to allow vehicle tires to climb past. I stopped as I climbed down the bridge.
In a shaky voice as if she was about to cry, Mamie advised me “please take care of yourself and look after our mom and grandmother. "May God guide you.” We bid farewell and I continued my journey.
Chapter Two | Going Back to Koiboma
Not knowing what to expect en route, I began to contemplate alternative actions. What if my mom and grandmother had fled by the time I got to Koiboma? What if a rebel soldier jumps out of the bush and attacks me? I became more nervous as these thoughts traveled through my head. Every movement or sound around me began to scare me. When the birds cried in the bushes, I ran as fast as I could; when I heard animal footsteps through the bushes, I ran for cover.
With a twenty-one-mile journey on foot lying ahead of me,
As I went passed Sacorla―the first village on my way―I saw more displaced and refugees from the border towns. The roads were filled with people. The woman and children looked the worst. Most had all their belongings they could carry packed in bags with U.S.A boldly embroiled in them. The bags were salvaged from relief rice rations which had been distributed by the World Food Program to Liberian refugees in Sierra Leone. Children were on the backs of women while others were being carried in the arms of the men. Most of the old people were too tired to walk and were sitting by the roadsides. Their family member sat next to them waiting. Others were carried in a hammock by gallant men.
Several hours after passing Sarcola, I passed through several other villages and all the scenes remained the same. I arrived in Njaluahun, a town located on the main road leading to Zimmi.
“Where are you coming from?” One of them asked me. I explained to them where I was from and what I had witnessed.
“Well, you have not seen anything yet.” A young man who looked to be around my age declared.
He continued to explain that thousands of people had come and gone through Njaluahun since yesterday morning. Like Mbomi, the story about the rebels in Njaluahun was mixed. I began to wonder why they were sitting here while everyone else was fleeing. I could not help but ask “why are you sitting here while others are running away?”
"We are not going anywhere,” in a reassuring tone, the young man declared.
As he continued to explain his basis for such a decision, his position became even more compelling. He went on to explain to me how they’ve heard that the rebels are now in Zimmi, only twelve miles from Njaluahun. He added that the rebels have promised to take the entire country in three months, after which everyone will go back to their normal business. I began to wonder how the young man came to know all this.
So, I asked, “how sure are you and how do you know all this?”
“Last night, one of the displaced men who slept on our veranda told us the stories. He even told us that when we see the rebels, we should hold the palm leaves in our hands and they will do us no harm.” The young man ended his story. I was a little reassured by the young man’s bold narrative. I woke up and informed them that I was leaving. “See you guys again,” said and departed.
I decided to take the bush path to Korigboma instead of the motor road because the bush path was a much shorter route.
As I approached the river between Njaluahun and Dendegahun—the next and final village in my journey before Koiboma― I saw a group of monkeys sitting in palm trees. The palm trees grow widely by the bank of the river. As I watched them, I noticed they were feeding on the palm fruits. One of the monkeys saw me and began to watch me in turn. It was interesting to watch the monkey as it watched me. When I peeped left, it did the same. When I bent right, it did the same. This was a trick I came to know growing up as a kid when we went into the forest with friends. Several of the monkeys had white stripes on their nose. This was symbolic of a special breed of monkeys referred to in Mende as “Hokparlakway” meaning “white-
Suddenly, a bird started crying deep in the forest. I could recognize the cry to be the sound of a raven. My mother had once told me that this bird only cried to symbolize that some disaster is about to hit the community. She had explained that every time this bird cried, either someone great was about to die or clans were about to go to war against each other. With this thought, my fear had returned. I began to continue my journey hurriedly. As I arrived in Dendegahun, I noticed the town was crowded. I went by one of my late father’s friend’s―Brima Kanneh―house to say hello.
As I approached his shop, he recognized me.
For in our tradition, as a sign of respect you are not called by your first name if you were named after someone known in authority or an elder. In my case, I was named after my grandmother’s brother, who was once a Paramount chief. One thing
“Where are you coming from?” he asked. “
“Fine,” I replied.
He went on to talk about the news about the rebels and how terrifying the stories of the refugees and displaced who have come to Dendegahun have been. He ended his story on the note that his business was doing very well over the last twenty-four hours. He stated that he was beginning to run out of inventory and had plans to go to Bo in order to buy more goods. None of what he said indicated he was planning to leave. It was obvious he was not planning to leave. I bid farewell to him. He reached into the jar filled with taffy candies and came out with a hand full. I leaned over holding my pockets open and he carefully poured the candies into it. “Thank you,” I said with a smile on my face. I began to eat the candies as I disappeared between the coffee trees to begin the final leg of my journey.
As I approached Koiboma, the sound of the drum symbolizing adhan― the call to Muslim prayers―came blasting through the forests. It was around four o’clock in the afternoon and time for Salat-
Most of them were relatives from the border towns including my cousin, Lamin, and his family. They were all sitting very quietly close to their belongings still packed intact. There was no doubt they appeared ready to run any moment as if they were waiting for the instruction to start a race. “Hello everyone,”I said as I took time to shake everyone’s hand, calling those I knew by name. I went into my mom’s room and noticed everything was packed in bags. My mom was not in the house, however.
“Where is Yea Semuteh?”I asked for the whereabouts of my mom.
“She is in the kitchen,” replied Lamin. “She has not eaten since last night worrying about everything,” he added. I ran to the kitchen which was detached about thirty yards away from our house. Mom was standing akimbo at the entrance of the kitchen staring into the open.
As she saw me approaching, she ran towards me with her hands open. As she hugged me, I noticed tears running down her eyes. “Oh! My son, I was worried about you.” She continued. How is your sister and her family doing? Have they left Mbomi?” She continued to ask the questions one after another as if she was not interested in an answer.
“Where is Mama Guweh—my grandmother?" I asked.
“She is in the kitchen,” she replied.
I went into the kitchen to see my grandmother. She was sitting next to the fire place. On her left was her walking stick which leaned on her left arm. And in her right hand was a lid which she was using to fan the fire into a blaze.
“What are you doing Mama
I took a seat in the hammock hanging in the middle of the kitchen. I proceeded to explain my ordeal to both of them. They sat quietly and without interruption and listened to me. When I finished my mom proceeded to ask me an unrelated question.
“Did you get your brother’s permission before you left Bo?”
“No, ” I replied.
“Well, he sent a message stating that you ran away without permission. He requested in his message that I send you back to Bo.” She continued.
My mom was particularly disturbed. She did not want my brother to get angry with me. He had raised me since I was seven and I had never gone anywhere without his approval. Given the war now fast approaching, I knew I was not prepared to leave my mom behind.
“With the war approaching, I would rather have you stay with your brother in the city,” continued my mom. The more I thought about what would have happened to my mom behind rebel lines without me, the less I regretted my decision to have left Bo without my brother’s permission.
“What about you?” I questioned. “If I have to leave, I will have to leave with you both plus
I proceeded to explain to them the rumors I’ve heard that the rebels are going to take over the entire country in three months and the war will soon be over. I also began to rationalize my decision by explaining to them stories I’ve heard about how the Liberian rebel war was more brutal in the cities than the villages.
“Listen, would you rather be locked up for days if not weeks in a house in the city while rebels and government soldiers fight it out or would you rather stay here?” I asked.
“You are right” my mom confirmed. “Here, if things get tough, we can go to the bush and farms to find food, but in the city, there will be no food if the market is closed,” she added. Our decision to stay in Koiboma was beginning to become well-rounded. Many other families, including some of the displaced and refugees who had been living in Koiboma also decided to stay.
Mustapha Sulaiman Wai is a native of Sierra Leone and an active contributor to the discourse on Sierra Leone public policy matters. He is currently managing partner of Wai & Associates—a public accounting and consulting firm in Washington D.C.