Sierra Leone Lives Shattered by Violence

CRS regional information officer for West Africa, Lane Hartill, filed this profile that sheds light on life in Sierra Leone.

When rebels beat his father within an inch of his life, Junisah knew he had to join them.

The rebels were a nasty bunch whose goal was to overthrow the government. They were known for cutting off the arms, hands, legs and lips of Sierra Leoneans. Junisah knew that. And he also knew to survive, he needed be one of them.

Liberian refugee

Junisah Kamara, a volunteer vaccinator in Kailahun district in southeast Sierra Leone, sits near the grave of his father. Photo by Lane Hartill/CRS

I met Junisah Kamara on a trip to Sierra Leone not long ago. He’s a tiny, wiry man who, for a few years in the early 1990s, silently patched up and sent back into combat some of West Africa’s most brutal young men.

I met him in the tiny village of Siama in Kailahun district. Things are tough for him these days. Same with everyone else around the world. But when I hear people talk about how difficult their lives are—how expensive things are, the uncertain job market—I think about Junisah. No, I’m sorry, I say. Your lives aren’t that bad. Sit down. Let me tell you what Junisah went through.

He grew up in the early 1970s in Kailahun district, near Pendeumbu, in the southeast of the country. In those days, Sierra Leone was stable.

Peace Corps volunteers worked in his district. He came from a poor farming family and bounced around to several schools. In 1979, after running out of money, he headed for Liberia where a cousin worked as a driver at the state hospital. He could get him a job.

He slowly worked his way up the ladder, paying for school as he went. In 1985, he was put in charge of the pharmacy where he oversaw five staff. He had a good salary, which he sent to his father in Pendembu who was building a house with Junisah’s earning. It was a stately affair, with six bedrooms, a parlor and verandah. Junisah returned every Christmas to visit.

Those were the days, the early 1980s, Junisah told me.

A big cocoa processing plant in Pendembu meant high paying jobs and it attracted people from around the country. At night, everyone made their way to the local watering hole, the Bambara Night Club, where the drinks flowed and people tripped the light fantastic to Michael Jackson, Kool and the Gang and Lucky Dubé.

But the good times stopped for Junisah in July 1990 when war came to Liberia. Then it came to his apartment. His refrigerator and bed and money could be replaced. But his career, How was he going to get that back?

As the war tore through Liberia, Junisah waited it out across the border in Sierra Leone. To earn a little money, he picked up a hoe and started farming. One afternoon, while enjoying a lunch of cassava leaf stew with his father, the rebels showed up, uninvited.

“We just scattered to save our lives,” he says. He ran one way, his father the other. Junisah said the rebels arrived full of good tidings, spouting fantasy: “You should not run, we have come to save you. We came to redeem your poverty” Junisah recalled them saying.

But everyone soon found out that was fiction.

In late April 1993, the rebels accused his father of having rice and not giving it to them. They beat him to a pulp. With no medical facilities, Junisah did his best to care for him. On May 1, 1993, he died. Junisah buried him in the compound of the house they built together.

The rebels weren’t done yet. They destroyed his house, that grand dream that he’d sacrificed so much to build. They stole his amplifier, the Land Cruiser, 10 bags of rice, and his money. He still remembers the exact amount: $1,333. But worst of all, they took the picture of his father. The only one he had of him.

That’s when he knew he had to join them. “I only joined them to protect my life and my family,” he says. If you didn’t, “they wouldn’t respect you.” That was Junisah’s veiled way of telling me the rebels would have harassed or even killed him and his family. By joining their ranks, Junisah could protect them. He could also protect others, like the two men and 21 women he cared for in a distant village. “I didn’t want people to disturb them,” he says.

He was a medic for the rebels, mostly pulling shrapnel out of soldiers. He set many broken bones and cleaned many bullet wounds. He didn’t ask if the men had cut off any hands or arms. He says he never did anything like that. “If anybody told me to (chop arms off), I would not do it.”

He scraped bullet fragments out of men and put back together some of the grisliest rebels. During the war, he worked with Dr. Samuel Kargbo, a future CRS partner who had taken it upon himself to immunize children against polio in the district as well as carry out other immunizations. In order to do this, Kargbo recruited Junisah and other “combat medics” who were working (often to save their own lives) with the rebels.

These days, Junisah vaccinates children in the district. He does this because he cares about them. Nobody pays him to do this. He has to rely on selling pineapples from his farm—at 1,500 plants it’s one of the biggest in the chiefdom—and his rice and coffee. He just barely gets by. He still dreams of becoming a pharmacist and hopes one day to continue his studies. He talks wistfully about the time the Liberian government wanted him to study pharmacology in Ghana.

For now, he’s built a small mud house for himself and his wife behind his father’s grave. The site of the former house is covered with grass now; there’s no evidence that a grand manor once stood there.

– Lane Hartill

Liberia and Sierra Leone are two of more than 100 countries whose people you help when you partner with CRS in reaching the world’s poorest. The global financial crisis has, of course, hurt everyone. It has made helping more difficult even as it increases the desperation of needy people. If you are at all inclined and able to help, know that what may seem an insignificant amount to you is nothing less than lifesaving. Even a little bit can make a big difference.

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