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Escape from Sierra Leone: A First-Hand Account

Editor’s Note: Daniel Kaindaneh is the acting National Director for CCF in Sierra Leone. In 1997, CCF sponsorship activities were forced to a halt by ongoing and brutal civil war that threatened the lives of innocent civilians, including CCF staff members. This is Daniel’s personal story of his family’s harrowing escape from Sierra Leone, which is a story shared by millions of innocents throughout this region of Africa. Sustained peace in Sierra Leone since 2002 has made it possible to reopen sponsorship.

The rebel incursion from across the border in Liberia marked the beginning of the end of our cherished sponsorship program. The general deterioration in the security situation — and the lack of commitment by the then-government to genuinely prosecute war — led to instability spanning a period of more than a decade. Coups, counter-coups and junta-rebel coalitions resulted in one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history. There was wanton destruction of life, property and maiming through amputation of limbs of civilians.

The call for the reinstatement of a democratically-elected government in 1996 climaxed the lack of confidence in the military, as the latter were suspected of colluding with the rebels in harming children and civilians. Elections were held amidst gunshots, but the people stood their ground and elected a new President. The military reluctantly relinquished power, however and a few months down the line, on May 25th 1997, overthrew the democratically-elected government.

The junta at this point invited the rebels to form a government of national unity. This confirmed the populace’s fear of collusion and resulted in serious clashes between the civil defense forces (CDF) and the military and their rebel allies. CCF International Headquarters intervention at this critical stage included the provision of food and non-food items for CCF-assisted communities and internally displaced children in camps in the city. The psychosocial team also provided services in the IDPs.

Reprisal killings became the order of the day, which forced entire populations to flee into Guinea as refugees. CCF National Office staff was denied access to our affiliated communities. We informed CCF International Headquarters of these developments and overall operations grounded to a halt. Sponsorship was suspended and National Office staff and their families were evacuated to Conakry, Guinea for transfer to Senegal. This singular action by CCF International Headquarters won admiration from other agencies and is among the reasons I am willing to provide selfless service. 

While in exile for about a year, staff continued normal work in the Senegal and Gambia Offices. The former National Director, the psychosocial team and I moved over to Guinea, where a temporary CCF office was established. Cross-border activities into Sierra Leone were undertaken to assess the situation of children and provide psychosocial care. In Guinea, we offered psychosocial training for staff in orphanages and university students displaced by the war.

We returned to Sierra Leone in 1998, after the junta were driven from the city and the democratically-elected government was reinstated with international support. There was a temporary lull in the fighting, but the retreating junta and their rebel allies regrouped and captured major towns in the north, the diamond mining areas and rich agricultural areas in Kailahun in the east. From these locations, they received reinforcement in both men and weapons from Liberia.

On January 6, 1999, rebels overran the eastern and central parts of Freetown at midnight. Since we were residing in the east, our position fell into rebel hands at 1 am. Our ordeal started that night. Instructions were given to the family to dismantle their beds and lie under the mattresses to avoid being hit by a stray bullet, since shots were fired indiscriminately. We put out all of the lanterns in the house and kept the house in pitch darkness to give the impression that it was unoccupied.

After our usual morning prayers, the family discussed the next step. I could sense stress, anger and determination to cope. Every day, we would cook at dawn and eat quickly for fear of our food being taken away from us, then we would retire into the house and lie under the mattress. We had to dress shabbily and keep my four daughters out of view for fear of them been either abducted or raped. Scouting for information was a risky business and no one was allowed to tune in to the radio or even listen to BBC World News.

On one of my reconnaissance missions, I narrowly escaped death because of my height (6’ 1”). All tall men were thought to be Nigerians (who formed the majority of the international peacekeeping army, the ECOMOG), and were being summarily executed. This kept me home for some time, which I used to plan our escape. I rehearsed our escape plan with my children up to the point of perfection, because the slightest error would mean imminent death for all of us. The terrain was familiar and the path chosen was through the hills. Use of major roads was suicidal since anyone caught unauthorized was charged for different intention (DI) and summarily executed.

There were many times I came in close contact with the rebels and could have lost my life. Once, a drugged rebel entered my house with a hand grenade, threatening to blow up the house if his request for money was not met. On another occasion, two rebels entered our home with an abducted young girl and demanded money, forcefully took away my wrist watch (a birthday gift which had lasted me 10 years), took all of my wife’s jewelry, our CD players and plates and set my home on fire on their way out. Luckily, neighbors saw the thick black smoke and rushed to help us put it out.

A couple of days before our departure, our food stock was running out, since we not only had to feed ourselves, but we also assisted neighbors who had nothing to eat or feed their children and were starving. People would come knocking for assistance, as it was no hidden secret that I worked for an NGO. We had to resort to drinking oral rehydration solution and Kool-Aid to keep us going.

The day before the agreed escape date, there was a serious clash between the rebels and ECOMOG and CDFs, and from all indications it seemed that the ECOMOG had the upper hand. The rebels in their frustration brandished hatchets and threatened to start amputating civilians on their way out of town. This threat was actually carried out on January 21st, 1999, the day we pulled out.

Moving in groups was suspect and we agreed that we move in pairs with the leading group serving as landmarks. My eldest son and his sister took the lead. After three minutes they were followed by another set and I left last without closing the house. We had scarcely started ascending the hills when shots were fired at us and the rebel commander ordered his men to chase us. They gave up the chase for two reasons, one, we were out of firing range and two, they too were scared to follow for fear that they will run into a CDF ambush.

Indeed, there was an ambush, because when we reached the forest on top of the hill, we heard the command “Halt!” We stopped and raised our hands into air, and CDF soldiers searched us and granted us permission to continue with our journey. My wife was so overwhelmed she collapsed and fell unconscious. This happened three times before we moved into the safety of one of the mountain villages called Regent.

At our first stop in Regent, we were thoroughly screened by CDF and ECOMOG troops and allowed to spend the night. My family had the pleasure of sharing a small apartment of a colleague of mine who hailed form this village. It was very crowded, but we were grateful that we did not have to sleep in the cold night like other escapees.

In the morning, we stood in line for the usual security check. As we stood there, a toddler recognized one man in the line and identified him as the rebel who had burnt their home. He was interrogated and executed. A couple of others who were identified suffered the same fate.

Our journey continued, and we trekked amidst ambushes and finally got to the city after two days. When we arrived, we had only 30 minutes to curfew time (3 pm). My family had to split up again. My wife and the girls went to a distant relation of hers, while my son and I risked it to my friend’s house. It was a joyful reunion amidst tears. Suddenly my thoughts were of my wife and kids and there was no way to communicate with them. Early in the morning, we set out to check on them and found out that they were okay. Colleagues of CCF were immediately contacted about our safe arrival.

The National Office team strategized and went into action, by providing psychosocial care in refugee camps, attending to the war-wounded in hospitals, and ‘adopting’ the children’s ward by providing television, a VCR, a refrigerator and advocacy for medical, feeding and positive parenting. This experience marked the turning point of programming for national office.

The loss of sponsorship meant seeking out grant funding to support our psychosocial programs. Mobilizing resources for these children was now dependent upon grants, but thankfully, we enjoyed tremendous support from CCF International Headquarters. Today, we are proud to say that their technical and financial support earned us enviable positions with regards to psychosocial programming, both in terms of our interventions and training for other NGOs and CCF’s visibility in-country and the sub-region. Resumption of sponsorship is not only cherished but provides sustained service delivery and hope for the children of Sierra Leone.