Civilians Caught in the Crossfire Between Government and Rebel Forces
by Geoff Stamp
FREETOWN, Sierra Leone (Compass) -- Rebel soldiers have targeted Christians and churches of various denominations during the past year as this West African country's civil war, one of the region's bloodiest conflicts, shows few signs of abating.
"We have been through a very dark period of our country's history. It is not yet over, but we hope and pray that the end is in sight," said Mrs. Ruby Pearce, executive secretary of the Bible Society in Sierra Leone.
"When the soldiers of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) entered the capital (Freetown) last year, we thought they were not interested in attacking civilians, only wanting redress from the government. Then suddenly the RUF soldiers began to burn buildings, offices and homes.
"They had come with a target list prepared by their leader, Foday Sankoh, and many Christians were on that list," said Pearce.
The rebels burned at least 20 churches in Freetown, including the Church of God on Circular Road and Holy Trinity Church on Kissiy Road. An unconfirmed number of churches in the countryside were also looted and burned.
"Many of these churches were at first occupied by the rebels as bases from which to launch their attacks against government forces in the battle for Freetown. Holy Trinity was burnt because of its known association with Nigerians. Nigerian troops made up the ECOMOG force that defeated the rebels in 1998," Pearce said.
"While it is true that churches seem to have been singled out for burning by the RUF, the reason is more in relation to their leadership than deliberate anti-Christian persecution," said Pearce, whose residence, the Methodist Boys' High School, was surrounded by rebels for 17 days during the battle last year for control of Freetown.
"Many of the church leaders singled out and shot were Creoles," Pearce said. "The Rev. Franklin Vincent, who is our Bible Society treasurer and the presiding elder at the American Episcopal Church in Freetown, had to watch his home being burnt down. Far more tragic for him was to watch his own son being beaten and then thrown into the burning house in which he died."
Freetown was originally bought by the British to resettle former slaves. The descendants of these families are known as Creoles and live in particular areas of the city. The RUF soldiers targeted the Creole families in particular because the RUF had not received Creole support.
"Wherever you go, you cannot escape the reminders of the killing, the rape and the maiming. Sierra Leone is weeping for its children, and will go on weeping silently for many years to come," said Pearce.
There are some 24,000 displaced people in camps around the capital, many of them with limbs, hands, fingers and toes missing -- brutally hacked off by the rebels -- or maimed faces without an ear or lips. These terrible disfigurements were supposed to act as warnings to President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, the country's elected leader.
Thousands of refugees have fled to neighboring Guinea or Liberia. Estimates suggest that hundreds of thousands of Sierra Leoneans have lost their homes. Below the visible pain of those who have lost limbs or been defaced, there is an equally, if not more traumatic, atrocity: that done to women, many of whom were forcibly taken from their families and repeatedly raped.
One Sierra Leonean woman, Zainab Bangura, believes it was a "well-organized campaign to subdue the women of this country by abducting women and young girls, raping and gang raping them and turning some into killing machines.
"We must never overlook this silent suffering on the day of reckoning," Bangura told Refugees, a United Nations publication.
Since the arrival of British troops in May and a stepped-up U.N. presence, there is hope that the rebels can be defeated and that the government can regain control of the whole country. Even then, recovering from the war's devastating effects will be difficult.
"We have much work to do," said Pearce. People are teaching the disabled new trades and how to cope without the use of a limb. Others are helping the traumatized overcome their fears. Churches are involved in this process.
"We need to spread the gospel of reconciliation and forgiveness if we are to avoid more bloodshed," she said. Many of the RUF rebels are street boys, dropouts from the educational system. They have no grounding in family values or biblical morals.
"We are praying that God will give us the opportunity to rebuild our society according to biblical principles," Pearce added.
The Bible Society in Sierra Leone is planning to distribute 5,060 Scriptures among the displaced and injured people in the camps near the capital. There will also be distributions further afield, and it is hoped that Scriptures can be made available to the churches to help counselors in rehabilitation programs.
Sierra Leone Religious Breakdown
Indigenous Beliefs: 30%
Copyright © 2000 Compass Direct News Service. Used with permission.