On women’s empowerment; when good comes out of evil
It was about 5:30am on Friday 8th January, 1999. Normally I would have been woken up by the normal cock-a-doodle-doo of one of our cocks that slept in our pantry but this day I had been forced to jump off from underneath the bed where myself, four sisters and a neighbour with her two children squeezed in.
We had been forcefully woken up; if at all we had been sleeping. For in those days, sleep was a luxury. The rebels had attacked Freetown; our hearts were pounding very fast, adrenaline running high. If we sleep too deep, the rebels could just send a Rocket Propel Grenade or some destructive weapon at our flat and our whole family would become extinct. We were always alert like soldiers on state of emergency.
The lack of cock crow and the sounds of gun fire had not stopped Papa from performing his daily morning ritual; to perform the morning prayers. I did follow Papa in prayer only to appease him, my heart was in my hands, for every time I heard the gun shots, I would shift and turn both sides looking for my suspected terrorist who might be lurking in some dark corners. I was absolutely not ready for worship on that day.
My sisters and I had discussed just a day before that if God was going to save us he would and no weapon would pierce us and if God had destined for us to die no amount of prayers would save us. Papa had insisted that gun shots or not we performed our five daily Salat. ‘It’s not just about God saving us but if we are going to die, let us die and go to heaven.’ Not even these glorious words of courage of his could tamper my trepidation. I was in constant fear.
It’s the end of Ramadan and I had stopped fasting since I heard the rebels had attacked the east of the city. Even though this particular day was Ei-dul Fitr and was meant to be a day of celebration and feasting, nothing special had been planned. Neither Mama nor Papa had talked about cooking a special dish of Jollof rice and chicken stew. Even our fowls celebrated this day for they were assured of their safety; thanks to the rebels.
The rebels had been in town since the sixth of January just a week from school reopening. Just a week from me using my brand new leather back bag Mama had bought for me, just a week before I was meant to put on my brand new uniform to school. It was going to be the second term, the term we celebrated our thanks giving service and march past, our inter-house sport meets, our inter-house quiz and literary and debate competition. Those were the activities that excited me and made me very enthusiastic to return to school, not news of rebel attack. But my enthusiasm had been trashed by that horrible news on that cold and dry harmattan morning of December of 1998.
The BBC journalist had reported on network Africa that he had seen rebels descending from the hills of waterloo, about three miles from Freetown, like mannas from heaven. He had used the biblical term ‘mannas from heaven’ to describe the number of rebels that were to attack Freetown. And unleash terror on innocent people like us, just as they had been doing for almost a decade. The news came like a nightmare and sent shivers down my spine. I had always cried whenever I heard of rebels, I had thought they were not humans; I thought they were aliens from another world whose description was beyond my imagination.
How I wished these rebels were indeed mannas from heaven, thrown down on us by God to help heal the sick, provide food for the hungry beggars that I saw on the streets of Freetown daily; women and children meant to be in school, shelter for the displaced and homeless, justice for the abused women and girls raped, forcefully married and abducted by their fellow rebels. Oh how I wished, these rebels were real ‘mannas from heaven’ not terrorist with a desire to unleash agony on Sierra Leoneans, not murderers that killed innocent people, not renegade fraction with a resolved to revenge, not vampires that fed on innocent blood. Oh! How I wished!
I and the other children in the house finally came outside after we heard familiar voices of people we knew in the community. I was sweeping the veranda as part of my morning chores when this stout looking gentle man running just stopped by, I pretended not to have noticed him because at a time like that it was common for people to be running even though no one could be running after them. In fact running was gradually becoming a taboo in some communities, for once people saw one running, they were tempted to follow suit. I decided to wait and see what caused the running.
I continued sweeping and the guy with only a short on was halted by my sister who asked him what the matter was. ‘The men have surrounded us, they are all over, down the beach, at the cemetery and others are marching from Kroobay,’ he informed. At this news, the broom dropped from my hand like a dry leaf from a tree in the harmattan, I didn’t know what to do, I collapsed on the floor. I sat like a beggar ready to be given something to eat or a soul waiting to be saved.
At around 10am, we sat at our normal rendezvous, just beside our flat, while we try to prepare something to eat. Just as we started pounding the cassava leaves, our neighbour from the flat upstairs called out to us to go inside. She had seen men in military fatigue jumping over the cemetery fence to the fields just back of our flat. She urged us to immediately go indoors. Soon, there were consistent gun shots coming from the fields. We rushed in and left all our belongings and ingredients for cooking outside.
Our community had been attacked. They were firing shots on our houses, shouting and singing revolutionary songs. They sent threatening messages to us, knowing we were hiding inside our houses. ‘If you don’t come out, we will burn your houses. We are your brothers. How could you love the Ecomog and hate your own brothers?’ they asked. My heart was pounding extremely fast. All of us lay down on the floor on our bellies; adults as well as us children. Some other people in the community came out and urged us to go outside and soon we opened the door and one of the combatants- a boy looking about age 12 pushed our wooden palour door and asked, ‘Who are in here?’ My sister who was old enough to be the boy’s mother answered ‘we are here sir!’ I smiled at the irony and the child combatant further asked pointing to a red radio which was on top of our dining table and owned by our neighbour, ‘Who own this radio?’ ‘I do Sir’ our neighbour who was in her forties also answered, ‘Well I’m taking it with me,’ the boy said and walked off with his gun hanging over his right shoulder and dragging on the floor because he was too short to carry the length of the Ak47. Again our neighbour responded ‘Thank you sir’ and everyone started giggling in their little corner.
Soon after, the whole community was packed at the junction. We realized our homes had been shot at several times and the bullet holes were visible.
The abuse of women was widespread during the war. Women were raped, forcefully married, abducted, murdered in cold blood and in many instances used as human shield by the rebels. As a result, the fear of these offences being committed against women was rife in our minds.
Wife battering was also common in my community; men and boys had little or no regard for women and girls and they have always portrayed themselves to be the bravest and stronger sex over women.
While we stood and wait on the next move by our attackers, I was shocked to hear that the men had asked the women and girls to get white cloths and go to the rebels at a checkpoint they had set up along Battery Street. We were told we must go and welcome them, so that the rebels would feel pleased and would thus not harm people in the community. We were meant to go and share an olive branch with our attackers so that our community will be saved from their wrath. At this order, I sneaked into our bedroom and lie on the floor contemplating on what I had just heard. For once women were being asked to move forward, to champion a cause but for the right reason; to save the lives of the people in the community? Is that the role of women? I asked myself.
In my imaginary world, I was caught in-between two perspectives. Maybe it’s a wise thing for the women to go forward at least for the sake of their children and our dear community. But what if the rebels open shots and kill the whole bunch as it had been reported from the war front. What if the girls are abducted, raped or taken as wives by the commanders? What if I never get to see all the lovely women in my community again? What if I lose my Mom and sisters? I concluded by encouraging myself that the rebels could not be as wicked as the others I’ve heard about on the news.
On the other angle, I was thinking of the men that had overtime portrayed themselves to be the stronger, bolder and braver. These are the men who abused women daily with impunity. These are the men who had raped their wives, beat them if they try any form of birth control and worse still beat their wives whenever they (the men) are caught with girlfriends. These are the men who had made biased decisions against wives whenever there was a family dispute between husbands and wives. These are the authoritative, powerful bullies who had deprived women the much needed justice, liberty and freedom that women deserve. But on this day, could not face their fellow men. The men were continuing their abusive tricks towards the women by using the women as human shields to face the barbaric ill-gutted rebels.
Alas, the women refused as if they had found some strength from the presence of the rebels around. The refusal lead to arguments but the women insisted and the men could not do anymore. Finally, nobody went forward to welcome the rebels and it all led to the start of a completely new episode in the lives of the women.