14 July 2009

Sierra Leone: A Long Way From the Truth

book review

Freetown — Confusion with Dates

There is definitely a problem with the dates on the book; there is a big misgiving about Ishmael's assertion that his troubles started in 1993 when his village and surrounding areas were attacked and plunged into chaos by rebels. Mohamed Koroma who was living at Mattru Jong but left after 1995 with his father said that there were intermittent attacks by rebels in that area from 1993 upwards, but was very doubtful that there was any mass movement of people from that area in 1993. "More so, attacks by 1993 were very rare and not always successful. Even if someone whose village was attacked around that time got displaced I don't think they would have moved up to Yele, because there was no need for that when other main areas were safe. It was in 1995 that we saw real mayhem around that area which even forced thousands of others and my father who was a businessman to run away for their lives," said Mohamed.

Although this can be seen as a big miscalculation on the part of Ishmael, I wouldn't want to delve into that too much because I can recall that as a boy myself growing up during the heat of the war, there were times in which I didn't even bother to know the dates. Because there was no schooling at some time, and the main concern then was life and death, that said, Ishmael should at least know when the whole chaos erupted because he was going to school then. And the time gap of two years exposed Ishmael and raised serious doubt about his account.

There is another part that exposes Ishmael's date problem in his account, since he was already in Freetown where it was easier to know how time passes; I expect there would be no excuse on this. Ishmael said soon after he witnessed the student demonstration that gunshots continued constantly in the city for the next five months. And according to his account he left for Guinea on October 31st, whereas the actual student demo took place on 17th August. So if his five months assertion was anything to go by, he left January.

Another statement that showed Ishmael's inaccuracy with time is that of his statement which he claimed that he saw a dead rebel boy wearing a Tupac Shakur t-shirt with the "All Eyes on Me" inscription on it. As a youth growing up in those days with Tupac obsession I knew that those Tupac t-shirts which were particularly popular with RUF rebels hadn't hit the stalls yet by the time Ishmael mentioned that incident because Ishmael himself said that he left for Freetown January 1996 which means that he saw that Tupac t-shirt before it reached Sierra Leone.

Med Bangs, a garments seller at Victoria Park told me that those Tupac "All Eyes on Me" t-shirts actually came to Sierra Leone mid 1996. "People used to come from the provinces to purchase a lot of these t-shirts from us, which made them very expensive at the time. But it was later we discovered that RUF rebels particularly cherished the Tupac t-shirts. They were never in the market in Sierra Leone around January 1996, I would challenge anybody who says those t-shirts were here by even January 1996," said Med Bangs. Another man, Kashoe, who is still called Tupac by some of his old friends because of his love for the rapper said that he was an ardent follower of Tupac. "I used to save all my money then just to buy Tupac's latest cassettes, t-shirts and even his favourite bandanas. And I can tell you that All Eyez on Me album was released on February 1996, I still have the magazine and a complete Tupac biography. And for the All Eyes on Me

t-shirt they came to Sierra Leone around June 1996; I was one of the first to get one and I would never forget that I bought it for Le 15, 000. It was a huge pride to put on one by then," said a smiling Kashoe.

View of Freetown after the May 25 Coup

Ishmael also painted a very wide off the mark scene in Freetown in the aftermath of the May 25 coup; he created a far more chaotic condition in Freetown that wasn't actually the case, as he writes: "For the first three weeks people were so afraid that they didn't dare leave their houses." This was a clear amplification, the coup happened on Sunday and myself along with my brother and thousands of other Freetownians went to the centre of town the next day to survey the ruins of the treasury building and a partially burnt Bank of Sierra Leone top floor. Andrew Fatoma who was an O' Level student taking his exams then said he was shocked by that claims; "I was taking my exams then, I used to travel all the way from Kissy to Kingtom to take my papers. It was the Monday June 2, 1997 fighting incident at Mammy Yoko Hotel that forced the authorities to cancel our exams. Even then we used to go out and take some strolls," said Andrew.

The Corporal Gborie Coup Announcement

At the early hours of Sunday 25th May, it was the crooked and disjointed blend of Krio and English voice that we heard of the late Corporal Tamba Gborie, a junior army recruit that announced the coup, but Ishmael stated in his book that it was Johnny Paul Koroma who came on air and announced that Tejan Kabbah had been overthrown. Ishmael points out that Johnny Paul's English was as bad as the reasons he gave for the coup. Clearly everyone who was here at that time knew that what has been referred to as the most embarrassing coup broadcast of all times was delivered by the late Corporal Gborie, who was later convicted of treason and shot by firing squad. Sheik Daud Fofanah, a reporter for Kalleone Radio, who has actually read the book, said he was shocked at the way Ishmael wrote his story. "The whole book is a false make-up, look at this one, it was Gborie that announced the coup, but Ishmael claimed it was Johnny Paul. I really don't know where he got his tales from," said Sheik.

Freetown's Secret Food Market

Ishmael also painted a situation as if food was not available and extremely inadequate. Yes there was scarcity but not like the one he presented indicating there was a secret market where food was sold to civilians secretly for fear of armed men interrupting the sales in broad-day light. Mabinty Koroma, a trader who used to sell goods for some Indians during the 'Revo' period says; "Prices went up, and some shops were closed during that period, but it was not that dire and chaotic. There were also incidents when armed men would sometimes harass us for money but they never robbed us in broad day light or created pandemonium whilst we sell our goods," said Mabinty.

Also, there were instances when civilians were attacked, murdered or robbed at night. But broad daylight instances of such incidence were not so prevalent. In fact there were even marriages and other social events during what was referred to as the 'Revo' (period covering the May 25, 1997 coup to the liberation of Freetown on February 1998). That said, the city was not safe, and many didn't venture too far away from their homes, and those who did, made sure they returned before dark.

Five Months Non-stop Firing

In Chapter 21, page 204, Ishmael presents a case where armed men ran after and fired at a crowd of people in broad daylight. In page 206, he writes, "In the morning, families (in Freetown) sat on their verandas and held their children close, staring at the city streets where gunmen roamed in groups, looting, raping, and killing people at will... Sometimes during the day there were several plumes of smoke rising from houses that had been set on fire by gunmen." This scene is more fitted for January 6, 1999, not for the period under which the much loathed AFRC/RUF regime were trying to convince a resolute public that they had brought 'peace' and they were 'fit to rule'. Also, contrary to what Ishmael pointed out, gunshots never continued constantly in Freetown for the next five months after the students' demo.

There was a lull that halted during the October ship bombing incident in which many believed that the rebels went up the mountain and rained rockets down the city on the pretext that it was ECOMOG's missile attempt to stop one sanction-breaking ship from violating the UN embargo that was passed on the Junta. The other major firing incident before the liberation of the city on February 2008 was when a military plane secretly scaled the city's airspace one night. "That was the most ferocious non stop firing incident in the city many witnessed as we fired from all angles in Freetown towards the air. Many civilians were caught by stray bullets that night, I emptied over fifteen cases of bullets that night," recalled Mark, a.k.a. Makanaky who was then a child combatant with the RUF but now runs a poda-poda (mini bus) as a driver in Freetown.

To be continued.

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