Amputations by ax are the tools of terror

By Steve Coll
The Washington Post
January 30, 2000

  FREETOWN, Sierra Leone - Alpha heard banging at the gates of his family's compound, then gunshots. He looked out a second-story window and saw the rebels.
  Some wore the combat camouflage of Sierra Leone's disintegrated army. Some wore black jeans, Tupac Shakur T-shirts. A few had wrapped their hair in handkerchiefs patterned with the American flag. All of them wore red bandannas around their foreheads. Adhesive strips patched their faces, as if they had been cat-scratched. The strips masked incisions where the rebels had ingested cocaine, amphetamines or other drugs that wired their heads for battle.
  In eastern Freetown on Monday morning, Jan. 18, 1999, a war that at that moment was the world's cruelest, as well as its most invisible, entered the parlor of the Jalloh family, where breakfast lay unfinished on a table in the center of the room.
  It was not easy to say why the rebels entered one house and not another, but a faint air of prosperity hung over this gated compound on Kissy Road. Dalibeh Jalloh's nine children by two wives included the three sweet-faced sons now standing frightened by the window. The oldest was Alpha, 22, who traded gold-plated watches he bought in Guinea, had a girlfriend, danced in Freetown's nightclubs and now listened as the rebels crashed through the last door and climbed the stairs.
  They demanded money, and Alpha's father handed over bundles. Gun barrels swung to the brothers. A rebel commander ordered them outside. Their mother sat in a chair before the unfinished food and wept. Their father begged: "Please don't take them. They are my children. Don't take them."
  Outside, the rebels forced them into line. They marched up a red clay road past small shacks and shops toward grassy hills. The brothers began to cry. The line of youths swelled with other abductees as they walked. Some rebels told the boys their hands would be cut off and sent back to the democratically elected president of Sierra Leone, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, as a symbol of the rebels' power. Others said the boys would be killed.
  Two hundred yards up the slope they reached a school driveway. Before a metal gate stood a tall, thin rebel the others called Tommy. Drug strips covered his face. He held an ax.
  A neighbor boy went first. As rebels trained assault rifles at his head, he stretched on his stomach on broken concrete before the school gate and extended his arm.
  Tommy raised the ax high above his head and slammed it down. Once, twice, three times, four times. The boy's severed hand seemed to jump away from him.
  The line shuffled forward. Alpha, weeping and shaking, watched his younger brother Amadu, 17, stretch out his right arm.
  As Tommy raised his ax, Alpha closed his eyes.
  Helen jolted awake. "We've come!" she heard the rebels shout. "You thought we were not coming back to the city! We're here!"
  It was three days later in a middle-class neighborhood up the slope from the school gate, where the war would now force its way into the second-story apartment of a salaried government bureaucrat and his 20-year-old daughter, Helen.
  Helen, an earnest student who radiates energy and beauty, has a daughter by her boyfriend, Abdul. She lives at home in the wind-caressed suburban hills above Freetown, where she lounges with her doting father, and sneaks away with Abdul, and thinks about going into business, as she and her girlfriends sometimes have done in small ways, trading shampoo and food.
  Like Alpha, she belongs to a generation of young Africans whose parents' ambitions have delivered them from rural poverty to urban aspiration.
  In Freetown, the capital of what the United Nations describes as the poorest nation in the world, there is not a regular supply of electricity or a reliable telephone system, but inevitably, there is a functioning cyber cafe, and the streets pulse with battery-powered hip-hop music, generator-operated satellite news and the buying power of Western Union money transfers sent by the tens of thousands who have made it to Europe and America.
  A progressive generation of young and ambitious Africans, you might say admiringly, except that besides Helen and Alpha, it also includes Tommy and his nihilistic brethren - ex-soldiers and self-styled revolutionaries who roam and sprawl across the continent, armed with Chinese- and East European-manufactured assault rifles, propelled by grievance, greed and a broad experience of impunity.
  On the night of Jan. 21, two rebels entered Helen's suburban apartment, roughed up her father and told him they were taking away his daughter.
  He begged them to leave her alone. "If you keep complaining, we're going to kill you," one of the rebels said.
  The next morning, her parents watched Helen walk at gunpoint up the hill. She found herself walking with another neighborhood girl who also had been abducted. The pair wept and begged to be released.
  "I am a school-going girl," Helen said.
  "I don't want to know," replied her captor, whom she would come in the months ahead to know as Col. Bloodshed.
  The rebels took them into the grass and raped them. Then they pushed them on toward camp.
  He felt sharp pain when the ax first fell. The second, third and fourth times, Amadu felt nothing. When Tommy had finished, the rebels picked Amadu up and kicked him away from the chopping block at the school gate. He did not stay to watch his brothers, Alpha and Dawda, who were behind him in line. Bleeding profusely, he walked and fell, walked and fell, then collapsed on the clay road.
  Alpha stumbled upon him. He, too, was now bleeding from a stump. They walked about a mile toward Freetown. The streets were deserted. They knocked on a stranger's door along a main road. A family bundled them inside. Alpha and Amadu sought to commit suicide, but instead their hosts wrapped their wounds, gave them milk and tried to assure them that they would survive. The boys slept fitfully in the parlor. Nigerian artillery shells echoed outside. When the sun rose, the boys found themselves on a street newly controlled by pro-government forces. They were taken to a hospital and bedded in a ward where dozens of amputees were beginning to arrive.
  The next day, their half-brother tracked them down. He told them that their 10-year-old brother, Dawda, had bled to death in the street after his amputation and had been buried in a makeshift grave nearby. Their parents and younger sister had been locked inside their home, which the rebels had set on fire. There was nothing left of them or the house, only charred concrete and rubble.
  Outside the hospital where the brothers lay, scores of bloodied stragglers and desperate relatives wandered in the streets, searching for medical help or seeking news of the abducted. On street after street in the eastern suburbs, the rebels had staged elaborately orchestrated attacks. Families were corralled and divided, some selected for death, some for amputation, some set free. Children were raped within earshot or view of their parents. The disoriented survivors zigzagged toward Freetown's center, hoping for medical attention or refuge.
  All through late January, corpses lay unattended in the streets. At the Kissy Mental Hospital farther up the hill, Human Rights Watch would report, about 16 men were executed and six women hacked with machetes. At the Brotherhood of the Cross and Star Church in nearby Wellington, another 12, including three children, were massacred with pistols and assault rifles. Entire streets were sprayed with kerosene and set alight.
  Human Rights Watch, citing the government's senior medical examiner, reported that 7,335 corpses were registered for burial after the January rebel offensive. Thousands more people simply disappeared - dead or kidnapped, their families did not know.
  Helen's family was among them: They had no idea what had become of her after she was led away by the rebels.
  As Kissy burned, Helen lay imprisoned at a rebel camp not far away. For what she would recall as a period of about two weeks, she was gang-raped by boys and men roving in and out of the base. By February, shelled by Nigerian and Guinean troops, the captors struck camp and trekked to the bush. They arrived at an isolated patch of jungle called the Occra Hills and settled in. Helen was forbidden to speak freely with other rebel captives. In the deepest trough of night, she remembers, "when they were asleep, I would raise up my head to see if everyone was sleeping. But there was no way to escape."
  February passed this way. And March, April. The BBC resounded with news of a major war in the Balkans. In Sierra Leone, the war ebbed; negotiations for peace had begun in neighboring countries, sponsored by the United Nations. The rebels awaited the results.
  "One night," Helen recalls, "they were drunk after smoking and drinking. All drunk, and dancing. And they all passed out. . . . I was watching them, thinking."
  Helen and another abductee, Fatmatah, slipped into the forest. For hours they crashed through the blackness, slicing themselves on vines and brambles. They reached a stream and rested until dawn. In the light they stumbled down from the hills, found a village and were sheltered by an old woman. After two days, Helen pressed on for Freetown alone. She walked until she found the main road, waved down a van, spilled out her tale and begged the driver for a ride.
  In Freetown hours later she spotted an uncle in the street, leaped out and asked about her family. Her father, the government official, was in Connaught Hospital. The rebels had burned her home. Everything was lost. But her parents had survived.
  At Connaught, she spotted her father sitting in the sun behind a railing on a second-story balcony.
  "Papa! Papa! I've come! I've come!" she shouted.
  Astonished, he called to his wife and raced to meet his daughter. Weeping and shouting, they embraced in the hospital hallway, and Helen saw the bandaged stumps above her father's elbows where his two arms had been.
  Some of Freetown's amputees live in a village of blue and white canvas shacks, not far from the center of town. The "Medecins Sans Frontieres Amputee and War Wounded Camp," as it calls itself on a sign scrawled near a busy road, holds 371 registered amputees and their families. Drainage ditches run among rows of tacked-together homes supplied by a patchwork of foreign charities. A primary school assembles each morning under an open thatched-roof gazebo. Up the slope, men are raising felled tree limbs to construct a new mosque.
  It is an eerie, nervous time in Freetown. An uncertain peace has held just long enough that some rebels are beginning to drift out of the bush and back into the capital, looking for jobs or friends or just a break from sleeping on the ground. Sierra Leone is small enough and frightened enough that people keep track of strangers in their midst, and sometimes a neighborhood can identify returning rebels as soon as they shuffle up the road. Then questions of justice and equity and international law acquire an immediacy not often felt in The Hague. Some of the returnees have been lynched or burned alive. More often the streets ring out with shouts or threats or spontaneous debates.
  The appetite for peace runs so deep and so broad in Sierra Leone that it smothers all else. Even some who have been badly abused by the rebels are prepared to accept them into politics if it truly means peace. Ask about justice, and you hear about its impossibility - no one can imagine how you could give evidence safely. The rebels are ministers now, they drive around town in new cars with sirens and armed escorts. They can snap their fingers and come and take you in the night. Who is going to testify against them?
  In the voices of the wounded pulses an impressive effort to close off the past. To do so requires a resilience that no outsider readily can imagine.
  And yet there are those who atrophy, even now, even in the snug village of blue and white canvas shacks, where Alpha and Amadu Jalloh, two brothers with two complementary arms, share a room behind a flap and drift off to town most days to hustle and trade in a loose network of shops run by their diminished family.
  It is Alpha everybody worries about. He sickens easily, he won't often leave the amputees' camp. You walk with him around town and you discover that when a 22-year-old with girlfriends and gold watches and a reputation in the neighborhood sees his arm chopped off while lying face down in the road, he loses something more. He becomes a spectacle, a source of political meaning, an object of pity, an object of disgust.
  "Look at what the bastards did!" onlookers call out in anger.
  Alpha is staring at the eroded red clay.
  "Right now, walking with you, I feel ashamed," he tells me. "I have no fitness. They are pitying me."
  They are, of course. If he sits in the cashier's chair at his sister-in-law's vegetable stall, customers simply will walk up to him and hand him money. It infuriates him.
  "I would rather have died than be living like this," he says softly.
  We reach the school gate where Tommy stood a year earlier. Alpha points out the spots where the line formed, where the boys lay down, where the ax fell.
  He doubles over. He is not feeling well. We need to go back down the hill. We need to take him to the doctor.
  "My arm hurts," Alpha says..
Steve Coll is the managing editor of The Washington Post.