Why January 6, 1999 went down as an unforgettable day in Sierra Leone's history

Zainab Hawa Bangura recalls how Freetown was caught off guard in the days leading up to January 6, 1999. She remembers the fearless, unarmed students and civil society members who stayed behind to confront the rebels. The original article is archived on the website of the University of Makeni in Sierra Leone. 

By Christmas Day 1998, the rebels led by the late Solomon A.J. Musa (SAJ Musa) were at Waterloo and Freetown was under siege. Sierra Leone had collapsed like a pack of cards under the combined invasion of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC).

By some divine intervention, SAJ Musa died mysteriously on the outskirts of the city before the year rolled over. His death delayed the attack on the city as we were later informed. Following reports of his death, we knew it was just a matter of time before all hell broke loose.

The civil society was working with Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG), the Kamajors and many more. We no longer had an Army. Our military had turned against us and they were on the move to slaughter us.

Several street demonstrations and meetings were held at various parts of the city to strategize on how to protect the city. Later we learnt that a chunk of the rebels had already entered the city as civilians and were just waiting for instructions to attack.

When I visited State House on 5th January, together with Allie Bangura and others, to inform the government that even the Gbethis who had been asked to man checkpoints had no ammunition, the chaos we met at State House told me that it was all over. We were sitting ducks.

There was so much panic at State House, people were running helter-skelter. We could not talk to anybody. I went home feeling despondent and accepting for the first time that the city was about to fall. I got a call that evening from Alpha Timbo who was then secretary general of the Teachers’ Union informing me that he was not going home to Kissy after spending the day at the Ministry of Education negotiating for teachers’ salaries. He told me he had information that that night was crucial. I shared with him my experience at State House. He was worried that his family was still at Kissy and he had no idea what he could do to keep them safe.

That evening I gave a defiant interview on VOA and BBC. I got my first call at around midnight from Alpha Timbo breaking the news that the rebels had attacked Wellington. I got out of bed and decided to monitor the invasion on outskirts of the city.

My next call came from the late Hassan Barrie, president of the Sierra Leone Labour Congress who called to inform me that his neighborhood had fallen. I also received calls from coalition members when Clay Factory fell, and all the internally displaced persons (IDPs) were pushed out.

Shortly after, when the checkpoint at Kissy Dockyard -Ferry junction manned by ECOMOG (which we thought was a strong defence) fell, we knew we were in trouble. The ECOMOG soldiers had been overwhelmed by the number of civilians on the streets and could not open fire.

My next call was from Marie Bangura (now Marie Bob Kandeh). She was staying off Fourah Bay Road and came out to watch the movement of people. She was the first person to give me a clear description of the strategy the rebels were using.

The rebels had actualized their assault on the city by using civilians as a human shield.

Thousands were on the move, marching to the city some with vehicles but most carrying their belongings, whilst the rebels hid amongst them. I asked Marie not to leave her location, but to stay and monitor the situation. She agreed and became a very good source of information.

Prior to 1999, the Civil Society coalition that had fought the RUF/AFRC had been reactivated. This particular morning, we were frantically making phone calls. Dr. Julius Spencer and Allie Bangura had been working with ECOMOG troops to keep morale up, coordinating with our Ambassador in Nigeria, Joe Blell, for support and reinforcement. The head of ECOMOG based in Freetown was Brigadier General Abu Ahmadu. The head of ECOMOG West Africa was General Timothy Shelpedi.

Mrs. Fatou Jalloh, who was my landlady at my Liverpool Street office, was the next person to call.

Central Freetown had fallen. The size of the human shield had doubled according to Mrs. Jalloh. It was at this point that we realized that if we did not make a stand, the city would fall. We coordinated with ECOMOG and advised that the defense of the city must be strengthened at the Congo Cross bridge. Based on our advice, ECOMOG decided to deploy all tanks and artillery at Congo Cross.

By dawn, the entire city was awake and on the phone. ECOMOG had assembled its troops at Congo Cross Bridge to defend the rest of the city. As the history books have recorded, that was where the final battle for Freetown took place. When the crowd of civilians arrived at the bridge, they were commanded to lie on the floor and ECOMOG cordoned off that area and all civilians were detained for several hours. Later, I was informed that the battle at Congo Cross was a fierce one and very destructive. Allegedly, my name was one of the names on the “most wanted” list the rebels had drawn up as they prepared to march on the city. Our names were found in the pockets of some of the slain rebels.

As the rebels retreated from Congo Cross, we got reports of civilians who had been forced to come out and wave white bed linens, or any white material as a sign of peace and to dance for the rebels in rebel-controlled areas in Eastern and Central Freetown.

We kept receiving information about people who were being slaughtered in their homes, houses being burnt with people still inside, incidences of rape, and the amputation of civilians by retreating
rebels. Some of the rebels from the battle at Congo Cross bridge fled into Ascension Town, as others headed towards Hill Cot Road and some ventured into Tengbeh Town.

On that gloomy Wednesday morning, even the military barracks at Wilberforce came under artillery attack.

 had cause to call for reinforcement at Tengbeh Town and armored cars were deployed about two hundred yards from my house at Tengbeh Town.

For two days, a series of battles took place around the city. By the end of the first day, Freetown was divided into two parts- the east and central part under the control of the RUF and AFRC coalition, and Western Freetown starting from Congo Cross under the control of ECOMOG.

People in rebel-controlled areas started using all known as well as discovering all unknown side roads to move to the western part of the city.

The 48 hours after the invasion of the city were the most nerve-wracking because electricity supply had been cut off and the phone lines had given up the ghost. I was totally incommunicado.

On the third day, I sat my twelve-year-old son down and informed him there was a possibility that I would not survive the rebel incursion. I handed him a notebook with  names of my friends around the world who he was to contact should he make it out alive; all the foreign currency I had on me; my cheque book in London and gave him directives to jump the fence and hide in our neighbor’s compound when the rebels came for me, and find a way to go to Guinea. He had instructions on who to contact when he got to Guinea.

On the 10th January, the much-expected knock came. I was in the process of saying my goodbyes to my son and dispatching him to the neighbor’s compound when I heard Dr. Julius Spencer's voice.

Our gate was opened and he entered dressed in military attire. He informed me that the government had fled and that we are on our own. I got dressed and we all assembled at the Wilberforce Military Headquarters. Within the day, we reached out to all our coalition members including Alpha Timbo, Allie Bangura, Festus Minah and many others.

An office was given to us and 98.1 FM radio became our main means of communication to mobilize people. Hundreds of young people responded and we set up shop at the Vine Memorial Secondary School and developed strategies as well as rally support for a demoralized ECOMOG, who were being sent reinforcement from Nigeria. 

Nigerian soldiers were being parachuted into the city in their hundreds. We were defiant and determined to win back total control of our city.

We managed to open the Stadium after the rebels were pushed back and made an announcement for all IDPs to assemble. I walked from the National Stadium beyond Ascension Town bridge to inspect the queue of people, picking out old people, mothers with young babies, wounded people, to bring them up the front of the queue at the Stadium.

It was a very painful experience. All these people had lost their houses and had barely managed to escape to the west end to seek refuge. The biggest task was to pick up the corpses on the streets and bury them in mass graves. We turned to young people with "omolankes" who volunteered to pick up the corpses, which were now being devoured by stray dogs and vultures. We requested help from the British warship along the Atlantic Ocean, which delivered disinfectants in 5-gallon containers to clean the city and rid it from the stench of the dead.

Ambassador Joe Blell, played a crucial role in helping to negotiate with the Nigerian government to send us reinforcement. Nigeria at this time was undergoing transition after the death of General Sani Abacha in June 1998, but General Abubakar, the interim president, was gracious enough to send thousands of young Nigerian men, who came and made the ultimate sacrifice to bring us peace.

With no government, the Civil Society coalition had to stand and steer the ship. We visited Cline Town with ECOMOG tanks to inspect stores that had food supply. By this time, the rebels were on the retreat.

We contacted non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to provide blankets and other items to the thousands of people at the stadium.

After a few days, President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah resurfaced and we held a joint meeting between the Civil Society coalition that had managed the crisis at his Hill Station residence. The meeting was chaired by a  subdued president. The angriest member of our team was Alpha Timbo, who did not mince his words.

President Kabbah apologized and we all asked him to call Nigeria's head of state to thank him for his response to our request to send more troops without even a phone call from our own president. The rest my dear friends is history.

We lost a lot of young people during the assault on Freetown. Those who came out to join the troops who were parachuted into Freetown.

State House, for instance, was lost and taken more than 5 times. These young men and women drew maps of the city to help the Nigerian troops to acquaint themselves and understand the streets and geography of Freetown. These were thousands of young volunteers. My greatest regret is that we have never celebrated these heroes and have never tried to document them. In hindsight, it is undeniable that it was the people of Sierra Leone, thousands of them who paid the heaviest price of the war.

On this solemn day, I want us to remember those we lost especially the students and civil society members who stayed behind to confront the AFRC when most of us fled into exile in Guinea after the 1997 coup; the civil society members and people who gave their lives to save the city after the January 6th attack and finally the people who confronted Foday Sankoh at his house in May 2000 and got killed, when it was realized that he intended to derail the peace process.

As we remember January 6, 1999, as one of the worst days during the 12-year civil war, I want to use this opportunity to thank all Sierra Leoneans, mostly young people, but also men and women who responded to our call all those years ago to save our motherland. Most of them were killed and we never got the opportunity to mourn them properly and document their story and heroism. We owe it to them to protect Sierra Leone.

Source: UNIMAK - the University of Makeni, Sierra Leone

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