opinionBy Osman Benk Sankoh
Freetown — Nobody saw it coming. Well if they did, no visible sign of it was displayed if judging from what our Commander- in- chief of the Armed Forces and father of the nation had said at a jam-packed convocation sometimes in December of 1998 at Fourah Bay College.
In his words, "the backbone of the RUF has been broken." Well if you have had such lofty and confident utterances from the pa himself, what justification then would you have for the contrary?
However what was bogusly parroted and trumpeted to be the dislocation of the RUF turned out to be something else when they descended upon Freetown this day four years ago and smeared the city with their unwanted stamp.
Even when some journalists including Sulaiman Momodu (now of UNHCR) and BBC's Lansana Fofanah reported that the rebels were poised on marching into town, they were hurriedly declared wanted and accused of creating false alarm and putting the security of the state in jeopardy. Indeed, despite his bravado and his lethal pen, Sulaiman had to temporarily change his address for some 'caves' up the hills overlooking Freetown to escape the wrath of former Information Minister, Dr. Julius Spencer who had wanted to teach him and others their social responsibility theory behind bars.
And so, it happened. They descended upon the city like a cloud of locust or if I should borrow a leaf from the late Dominic Kabbah -Kargbo, " like manna from heaven." in spite of the much talked of security alertness in Freetown, the rebels came knocking on the city gates with barely little or no resistance leaving those at Hill Station hurriedly packing their bags and baggage for another voyage to Conakry. Even the Kamajors that were removed from mende heartland to come and defend the city from the incoming barbarians had to throw away their ' ronkos' charms and amulets for safety.
The uneasy calm that had enveloped the city was finally virginated. Sleep was murdered. Fear was given a new sense of life. Hopes were dashed. Law and order literally thrown into tatters with the singing of " we want peace" forced on the people as if was their saving grace or as the Moslems would cling on to the " Khalimatu shahada" in times of trouble or at the point of death.
I was in the east end of the city, Wellington to be precise when the unwanted strangers came knocking.
Apart from theirs arms and ammunition cleverly wrapped in bundles of rice bags or 'lappas', what they also had as cargo were humans they used as shields. Rudely deprived of my much-needed sleep, it was the clatter and cacophony of the now infamous singing of the AK47 with its ' boys, girls come to school' that finally confirmed the fears which I had all that while tried to kick off in my mind.
Yes, as Kingsley Lington (now with Unamsil) had predicted in an article way back in 1994 or thereabout, the rebels whom he wittingly refereed to as Barbarians indeed came to town and it was weeping and wailing everywhere right from the hills and corners of Allen Town unto to the bridge at Congo Cross in the west-end of the city.
The security personnel who had earlier encouraged us to sleep with both eyes tightly shut and if possible, continue snoring in bed were nowhere to be seen. In military parlance, even ECOMOG had retreated to the relative safety of Wilberforce or Aberdeen and Lungi.
What beats my imagination was that even with all their prophetic supernatural capabilities and powers of preventing bullets from piercing through the skulls of those were targeted at, our kamajors were the first to beat the retreat.
Civilians like my humble self in the east end of the city were now left to battle it out for themselves.
Colleagues like Umaru Fofanah (now with Unamsil), Atomic Pen (of UNHCR) Karim Sei (award winning journalist of the year) and Lans Fofie (BBC) to name but a few all had harrowing experience of their days behind enemy lines. For them, identifying themselves to be members of this noble profession meant instant visa for a trip to the great beyond.
If these had traumatic experiences, other colleagues were not so lucky. Our own James Ogwogwo was carted away by the marauding bandits and on to date, his whereabouts could not be ascertained. Is he dead? Quite sure but possibly, with the setting of the TRC, the truth on Ogwogwo's whereabouts or what happened to him may one day come to past. A colleague at Standard Times, Paul Mansaray was also brutally murdered together with his entire family inside a church at Peacock Farm, Wellington. Famous Freetown radio DJ, Jenner Cole (JC) was not spared of the rebel's orgy as the energetic and handsome young man met his death through no fault of his when he met face to face with the rebels.
In a desperate bid to make their presence felt, the rebels engaged in a systematic and well planned burning, looting, raping and killing. Contemptible acts were carried by little boys as young as 8 or ten with guns dragging behind their backs as if they were pens and pencils for them to use in their nursery schools.
During all these days, the east end of the city was really like hell with areas like Kissy and Fourah sharing a maximum portion of the wallowing catastrophe.
For well over fourteen days, residents had to put all their trust and hope against hopes with no imminent sign of a move by pro government forces to send the rebels back to the jungle. The rebels made their presence felt by claiming that they have drooped a helicopter gunship, taken over Wilberforce barracks and Pa Kabbah has once again, in his traditional and well known fashioned, escaped to Guinea.
My personal experience during all this, I would not want to bother you. I don't want to tell you that I had to spend some close to fourteen days behind rebels lines and literally witnessing the complete razing down or our well furnished 5- bedroom apartment house at Wellington. In fact, don't wait to hear from me that I escaped to safety with barely a pair of shirt and an old denim jean on as all I had as my earthly possession. I was frail, fragile, and unkempt with an overgrown beard when I resurfaced in town that my friend, Bunting together with his fiancée ho had gone to town to look out for relatives completely missed the figure that was now before him. For him and in real sense, this was a pale shadow of the former self.
Thank God January 6th today is a completely different scenario. Peace is now here. Rebels are no longer in the jungle, but rather, have transformed themselves to what a visiting British Labour MP had described as ' new citizens.' Our brothers and sisters who had spent the better part of the past years in the diapora have returned home to come and have a taste of once again how sweet home is. Even the atmosphere you are today breathing does not smell folly of how it was.
Can the barbarians descend once again to town? I pray thee not.