Laura Conteh didn't know what war sounded like until the night it engulfed her life. She was 12, and although her tiny west African nation of Sierra Leone had been submerged in bloody strife since 1991, the fighting hadn't yet reached her small village of Binkolo. So when the gunshots and the crackle of thatched roofs on fire began, Laura said, ‘my older sister was the only one who understood that the rebels had arrived.'
‘We didn't have time to pack anything,' Laura, now 27, said of that night in 1999. ‘We just ran.' They headed into the bush and, from a distance, she saw her childhood home go up in flames. The Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels had surrounded them, and in the ensuing chaos Laura was separated from her family. ‘There was no way to escape,' she said, ‘so I was captured.'
For the next three years, until the end of the war, Laura remained with a rebel contingent, a large group of boys and men who went by code names such as Rat and Boss Man. She spent most of her time cooking, fetching water and maintaining their makeshift homes. She was also given a gun, which was so heavy that she sometimes let it drag behind her as they marched. But she wielded it under orders during the raids on nearby towns and villages when her group stole crops, food, clothes, radios, batteries – anything, really – to sustain their lives in the bush.
Her weapon, however, did not protect her from her fellow rebels. The sexual abuse started the night she was captured, when one man ‘virginated' her. Later, a different man claimed her as his ‘bush wife'. Although this was supposed to mean she belonged only to him, that did not stop other men from raping her. Her son, now 13, was born during this time.
Reports by groups such as Human Rights Watch and Médecins sans Frontières are filled with stories similar to those Laura and other young women in Binkolo recount. ‘I was raped by 10 men on the first day,' Fatsmata Koroma, a husky-voiced former combatant, said. Fatsmata thinks she was 11 at the time. She added, ‘They took turns with me and then left me lying there.' Others remembered being penetrated with foreign objects such as poles. Laura said, ‘You just wished you weren't beautiful because they didn't let the beautiful ones do anything or go anywhere, even to fetch water. You were guarded day and night because they really didn't want you to escape.'
At first female involvement in the war had nothing to do with gender – the rebels simply needed manpower. But a few years into the conflict the rebels began targeting girls because their soldiers had little aptitude for the domestic chores such as cooking and cleaning traditionally relegated to women, so they brought in girls to do it for them. In this way, the former soldiers say, daily life in the rebel camps wasn't so different from normal. ‘We spent our time cooking and bringing water,' Mimunatu Bangura, a shy, wide-eyed young women in her late 20s told me. ‘Kind of like what we do now.
‘If they even thought you were thinking about escaping they would flog you,' she added. Other infractions included showing homesickness, or crying when seeing someone else tortured or killed. The women rattled off common punishments: forced squats holding your ears, being locked in the toilet for a day, or even ‘having to eat the toilet'. None even considered resisting a sexual advance. ‘You just got used to it,' Laura said.
But they were not only victims: they were forced to become combatants, too. The young women used the word ‘we' when talking to me about the ‘bad things' they did. ‘We were given guns, we learnt how to shoot them and we killed people,' Laura said, as her friends nodded agreement. ‘We asked God for good food, for the war to end, and for forgiveness.'
In January 2002 the war did end, almost as suddenly as it had begun. What had started with a group of young rebels challenging deep-seated corruption among the ruling elite had degenerated into one of Africa's most bloody modern conflicts: 50,000 deaths, hundreds of thousands displaced, and thousands more left as amputees. Coup had followed counter-coup, and it was only the intervention of a large UN force backed by Britain that finally brought the fighting to an end.
‘The message came on the walkie-talkies,' Laura said. ‘There was an order that there was to be no more looting, no more raping, no more killing… And anyone who didn't obey would be killed.' Her rebel camp was near Binkolo, so she walked back, carrying her son, who was not yet two years old. Her family had rebuilt the childhood home she had watched go up in smoke. She remembered feeling happy and relieved to be back. Then she, like many others, realised that the final part of her daily prayers had not yet been answered. For, after 12 years of horror, the country now had to put itself together again.
Janet Masaray's family had thought she was dead. That was the rumour her parents heard during her almost three-year disappearance. She had managed to get word to them that she was alive only just before the war ended, so when she appeared following the ceasefire, pregnant and with a daughter born in the bush, no one thought they were seeing a ghost. She remembers her mother's smile and embrace. ‘My father didn't want to see me,' she said. Janet is a tall woman in her 30s who has a commanding presence and likes to wear football shirts on top of her traditional colourful wraps. ‘He was ashamed of me. He and a lot of others here thought we weren't fit to live with our families any more because we had been with the rebels.' This was the norm. ‘People would say to me and the other girls, you are rebels – you don't belong here,' Laura remembered.
Families and communities throughout the country shunned young women returning from war; the reasons were multiple. First, not everyone realised that most of the girls had been captured, or that they had stayed with the rebels because they feared being killed if they tried to escape. Reliable information was so hard to come by during the war that some families thought their daughters' and sisters' absence must have been because they were enjoying a life of sex and stealing in the bush. Others understood that the girls were virtual prisoners, but that didn't matter: girls who had been raped were considered stained and thus brought shame on their families. Many households were afraid of losing face in the community if they accepted their daughters back. In turn, they were de facto barred from schools and they were given skills training, counselling, medical treatment and more. They were offered free tools or stipends to start businesses or continue schooling in their home towns or elsewhere. While the programme was theoretically open to any rebel, girls and young women seldom attended. Throughout the 11-year war, virtually all the rebel camps, and some of the government bases, too, were heavily populated by girls: it is estimated that between 10,000 and 20,000 (roughly 30 per cent) of the children involved in the nation's war were girls between the ages of eight and 18. Yet only 506 girls, compared with 6,952 boys, went through the DDR.
‘We weren't fortunate enough to have a gun,' Janet said, shrugging her shoulders as a way to explain why she and almost every former girl combatant she knows didn't go through DDR. Although some of the girls had weapons, when the war ended and word spread that a firearm gave access to free services or cash, the boys took their guns. There were other reasons, too. ‘I just wanted to get back to my family,' Mimunatu explained. Moreover, in order to access DDR services, a photo ID was issued. For girls already facing severe stigma for having been in the war, the last thing they wanted was their face on a card that labelled them as an ex-rebel.
Those involved in the peace process in Sierra Leone say that girls weren't purposefully sidelined but that they were overlooked. ‘We thought that girls were fine and that all was OK,' Raymond Senesi, a programme manager for Defence for Children International in Sierra Leone, admitted. He said that it was not until he started on a study to assess the progress of reintegration efforts commissioned by the International Rescue Committee that he realised the former girl soldiers were far from OK. ‘Most of the girls broke down in the interviews,' he told me.
Late one afternoon this spring, Laura, Janet, Mimunatu and the other young women whom I had met in Binkolo made their way through the village as the sun began its swift descent towards the horizon. They doubled over in laughter as they joked with young men leaning on their motorcycles in the middle of town. Further along the road, the group exchanged greetings with elders sitting on the stoops of their mud homes, enjoying the respite dusk brings to the day's heat. At the dirt volleyball court Laura, an avid player, joined in a game. A little while later the others left her there, heading to the soccer field to watch some of their children play.
‘We feel much better now,' Janet said with a smile, keeping one eye on her daughter, Mamaiye, now 16 and one of the village's best young soccer players. The girls in the group are no longer in shacks. Janet's father died several years ago, and she told me they had made peace. Many continued with schooling and are managing to support their children. They all have boyfriends, although none has yet married.
More than a decade on from the war, former combatants throughout the country are living lives very different from those they were living when the war ended. ‘In the long run we can't forget, but we have learnt to forgive,' said Joseph Conteh, a 25-year-old motorcycle-taxi driver from Binkolo, who spent months hiding in the bush when his town was attacked to avoid conscription by the RUF. ‘At first, after the war, we all had a lot of rage towards the rebels, the boys and the girls. But then that slowly went away,' he said.
The country was aided along its path towards healing by a three-year Truth and Reconciliation Commission that held hearings in almost every corner of the country to give victims and combatants, including girl soldiers, a chance to air their experiences and build mutual understanding. Amnesty was given to all but a handful of top leaders. In addition the Special Court established to hold to account the top leaders responsible for the nation's bloodbath indicted 14 men; the charges included sexual violence and sexual slavery. For the first time in history, forced marriage (including the taking of a bush wife) became an international war crime. Some hope that the fact that these institutions made clear that the perpetrators of sexual violence bear culpability – rather than the survivors – will help to diminish, at least minimally, the rape stigma carried by former soldiers.
But more significant in places such as Binkolo are the grassroots efforts to re-establish harmony and empower the young women themselves. Local and large-scale non-governmental organisations set up varied programmes – from skills-building workshops to community radio stations and trauma counselling – for the young women.
One initiative stood out. In a programme led by Susan McKay, a retired professor of women's and international studies at the University of Wyoming, 20 former girl soldier collectives, with a focus on those who became mothers during the war, were established in Sierra Leone, Uganda and Liberia (two other nations with high numbers of girls emerging from recent conflict). ‘It was unique because the girls designed it all themselves,' Ebun James, the director of the Sierra Leone Council of Churches, who helped lead the project in Sierra Leone, said. The girls used micro-grants to fund collective endeavours of their choice, based on their skills, the needs of the region and the market opportunities they identified. The projects ranged from restaurants, bakeries and rice mills to goat or pig farms and small trading businesses. In Binkolo Laura, Janet and about 20 other girls established a communal peanut farm; a few others in the group used the money they were given to return to school. The farm generated a small profit, some of which they split and the rest they put into a communal bank account to be used when members were in need. Once, for example, they withdrew money to pay for a hospital bill.
‘The girls were eye-openers in their communities to the realities they faced,' Agnes Marah, a social worker who worked in several of the project sites in Sierra Leone, said. ‘When my daughter first came back I was very wary of her,' Mamoud Tikoroma, the father of a former Binkolo girl combatant, said. ‘But after hearing from the group about what she went through and seeing her try to better herself, we welcomed her back.'
Marie Manyeh, a retired Unicef child protection specialist from Sierra Leone said that this programme stood out because participants designed solutions fitting to their lives. All too often, Manyeh said, programmes for former girl combatants were designed in offices rather than in the field, and had serious flaws – teaching skills that might not bring in any income (such as hairdressing in an area where no one pays for that service), for example. Few paid any attention to helping the young women to re-establish ties to their families or community leaders.
Regardless of the solid footing, even the McKay project wasn't a panacea. In Binkolo, when the local organisations stopped providing even the minimal economic support they had offered, the project effectively ended. The young women withdrew their share of the communal bank account and went their own ways. (Laura decided to keep working the land, bought a goat with the earnings and now raises several.) The girls uniformly want to study business but seem unsure how best to do this. And the fact that Sierra Leone is still one of the most impoverished countries in the world is a stifling factor.
Yet the group continues to meet – simply to talk. For 10 years the young women have used each other as sounding boards. In the beginning they offered advice on boyfriends and mothering, since few in the community would talk to them. They talked about what to tell their children when they asked about their fathers. For years, those with children too young to remember the bush told them their fathers had died, without mentioning rape or the war. Then they started working through their memories of the war in the meetings organised as part of the collective: the rapes, the beatings, the blood that was spilt. Most had been too ashamed to talk openly about their experiences, but when they realised they had all endured similar fates, the stories flowed. ‘We'd tell each other, it's not your fault and to take courage, that we'll all get through this,' Janet remembered.
The hard days continue still. For Laura, a violent film on television can bring back memories of the war; for Nancy Karama, Christmas is exceptionally painful, because that was the day she was captured and first raped. Sometimes they seek each other out when rage builds up. This may happen, they say, if one of them crosses the path of a man who had raped her and held her captive – men who were also from Binkolo and returned after the war to live there. The girls say these are the worst days, but there is not much they can do other than give voice to what that man did to them. ‘If you keep it in your heart then it hurts,' Janet said, ‘so we've learnt to let it out.'