Sunday, 10 September 2017

Salone's gangs: Children of a civil war

Posted by Amy Marsden

For three months, I lived in Kenema, in Sierra Leone’s Eastern Province, as part of the ICS scheme. Our group was mainly involved in peaceful conflict resolution discussions with members of violent street gangs and young people in the four different communities. Over the course of 12 weeks, we covered everything from Ebola, to mental health, and the civil war in our group discussions.

Sierra Leone has a long history of disruption, disasters and violence, the most recent of which being the devastating landslides in Freetown. However, it is arguably the eleven year civil war (1991- 2002) that caused most chaos and that is almost as prevalent today as it was 15 years ago. During this period of war, war crimes were unabashedly committed and countless human rights were breeched. It is thought that at least 50,000, if not as many as 300,000 lives were taken. A prominent feature of this war, as with some other African conflicts, was the proportion of children involved in the fighting.

The aftermath of the war is still painfully prominent in Salone society, both in its people and its geography. Deep into the Kambui hills and those of the Gola rainforest, you can still stumble across rebel ammunition and weaponry; both of which can be easily found in the Kenema black market. If it isn't enough of a reminder being in the shadow of rebel hideouts up in the hills, you can see the effect of the war in Kenema's people.

Child soldiers. Above - the reality; below - J-Boy and Small Mikey play with wooden guns in the yard (Photo: Amy Marsden)

The stories of burned villages, mass executions, war rape, child soldiers and cannibalism lives on brutally in the minds of survivors, now 15 years since the war ended. It isn't any wonder that there are many suffering with severe mental health problems because of what they experienced. One of the older participants in our group sessions in a community called Nydandeyama, was a young man during the civil war. He told us of the joy in which the rebels executed people, and the songs they sang before they did. He remembers the hysterical fear he felt when hearing one of these songs as he was stopped at a rebel checkpoint with his mother. He felt sure that if they had not been hidden in the back of the van, they would have both been killed.

As UK volunteers, we couldn't help but wonder at how these kind of experiences had affected people. With only one mental health nurse in the whole of the country, and no NGOs working in this area, there is no help for those who desperately need it. When we spoke to people about the war in our talks, they were understandably reluctant to open
up. Sierra Leonians don't talk about the civil war, it seems that they prefer to pretend it never happened, potentially providing a breeding ground for further emotional and psychological issues. However, some seemed relieved to unburden themselves from the pressure of this secrecy. Many spoke of their personal grief; losing mothers, standing as their homes burnt to the ground. However, it is arguably the long- term effects of the war that have created the biggest impact on modern Salone society. This is primarily because of what the children of Sierra Leone experienced in those eleven years at war.

Small Mikey doing headstands on the dining room table (Photo: Amy Marsden)

Kenema’s Street Gangs

It is the children (now aged between 20-40) who lost parents and senior members of their families who have grown up without essential support systems. Those who did not find this support in religious or community groups formed or integrated into street gangs, known in Sierra Leone as ‘cliques’. This could have been to simply to feel a sense of community and togetherness they no longer had within a family. It seemed that the bonds they shared and the power they felt from having such a support system could have been a small comfort against the losses they experienced in their childhoods. Despite how charming and seemingly childish these men are, the vast majority of gangs are involved in serious violence, the most powerful having mafia- style authority over their communities. Although most of the younger men involved in the cliques have typical jobs, like okada drivers (giving people lifts on their motorbikes or mopeds), the older men seem to be a part of something a little more suspect. Some of them are part of the diamond trade, one that is still as dishonest and unsafe as ever. Many diamond traders and labourers are part of street gangs; helping to find, sell and trade both illegally and unethically sourced gems. Sierra Leone is the fourteenth poorest country in the world, and for young adults and children living in poverty, these wealthy gang members must be inspirational for some of them. Young people in Kenema are desperate for jobs or some source of income, and from the outside, these ‘cliques’ seem to provide that, despite their members being frequently in and out of prison for violent crime.

Howareyou playing in unfinished house (Photo: Amy Marsden)

During the war, boys as young as 5 were taken from their homes to fight. These children, now men, are less likely to be involved at all in Salone society, or even in street gangs. They were subject to such extreme and constant violence that they were expected to become immune to  it. Many were forced to kill their own families, because, in theory, if you've killed your own parents, who will you not kill? These child soldiers were also forcibly given drugs and strong alcohol as a further brainwashing technique, to keep them inhumanely detached from their actions. Because of this, there are many survivors today with chronic drug and alcohol issues, either unable to break from the addiction that engulfed them during their time in the war; or because they are using these substances as a coping mechanism. These young people are often isolated, or isolate themselves from society. 

One would think that the atrocities seen during the Salone civil war would be enough to persuade the country to be peaceful for a long time afterwards. However, in the community named ‘Burma 4’, many of the people we spoke to believed that another civil war was inevitable. The government is still selfishly corrupt, and those it is meant to be helping are still desperately trying to carve themselves a life out of poverty. Our community discussions indicated that many people across Kenema believed this to be the case, that a second conflict was on its way, as shortly as 15 years after the last ended.

Amy is about to start her BSc in International Disaster Management and Humanitarian Response at the University of Manchester.

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