2008-Competition Winner

I Did It To Save My Life: Morality and Survival in Sierra Leone

by Catherine Bolton (University of Notre Dame)


The dead tell no tales. This is an obvious truth and in a civil war such as Sierra Leone’s, we do not have to wonder about their fates much past bloody news headlines. Among the dead from the brutal ten-year war were women who succumbed to the trauma of repeated rape, children shot attempting to escape captivity after being kidnapped by the fighting factions, and amputees who bled to death before they could reach medical attention. They are the war’s true victims; their life forces extinguished in the chaos that governed Sierra Leone in the 1990’s, when the rebel Revolutionary United Front sparked the country’s descent from a precarious, corrupt dictatorship into anarchy and exploitation. Coup followed coup, rebels joined hands with mutinous soldiers, peacekeepers were repeatedly taken hostage by fighting factions, and from one day to the next, no one knew what the outcome would be. Even so, most people survived the chaos and can speak about it. Ten bloody years is a long time for individuals to figure out how to survive in a world where right and wrong, good and bad are no longer clear.

The individuals who emerged in the aftermath are not true victims; if the dead could speak they would agree. Those who survived placed their lives above all other priorities and followed through with their choices, no matter the consequences. No one should be forced to apologize to the dead for merely surviving the brutality themselves, and yet with the proliferation of truth commissions in the wake of the world’s bloodiest and most incomprehensible wars, it seems that we are not satisfied to let the violence disappear. We must breathe life back into it by speaking it out loud before it can be cast away into the sands of time. Truth commissions, whether they involve reparations or not, are framed as healing tools: ways for perpetrators of violence to seek forgiveness for their transgressions, and victims to speak the truth of their suffering. It seemed to work in South Africa, and was deemed a good fit for Sierra Leone as well. We assume that with the public enunciation of positioned truth: “I was a victim of this war,” or “I am sorry for what I did,” that somehow everyone’s lives are made better. I do not seek to repeat this oft-tried method in this book. I do not write about healing as outsiders think it should be done in Sierra Leone, rather I trace how it is done through the basic building block of recovery: survival, and how it occurs.

I do away with the categories of victim and perpetrator; I find them unhelpful in framing a world—specifically Sierra Leone—where people do not dwell on the past because thinking too much about violence might bring it back. Instead they seek ways to create the world as they want it to be. Using their goal of creating a desirable world, my quest is to uncover the truth of something more fundamental than the mere accounting for victims and aggressors: how ordinary Sierra Leoneans caught up in a war, in whichever way it caught them, navigated perilous paths in order to protect themselves and the ones they loved, and in ways that made a good post-war world possible. This is an unusual task, one that requires that I focus on an aspect of humanity often tossed about in conversations about seemingly inhumane and terrifying wars, but little investigated: morality. When survival trumped all other priorities, how could one possibly make choices and decisions that ensured that one was still a good person?

Good people come in all guises in Sierra Leone. In this book I tell the stories of a soldier, a rebel, a student, a politician, an evangelist, a war profiteer, and an expectant father who all currently live in a town in northern Sierra Leone that was once overrun by the rebels and used as their headquarters. Their stories are lenses through which we can bring into focus how everyday, ordinary people made the choice to survive, even if their choices—a student joining the rebels, a trader ingratiating herself to a rebel leader in order to procure foodstuffs, or a lonely widow becoming a rebel preacher—betray to outsiders a shocking lack of moral integrity. However, from the inside, one can see the terrible choices that were made to survive when people were confronted with a war that literally lived for years on their doorsteps and had the power—through starvation, disease, rebel skirmishes, and constant threats of bombing—to inhabit their every thought and action.

In telling these stories I shed light on a sometimes confounding attribute of Sierra Leoneans’ recovery from their civil war: their will to forget what happened in the past and move on with their lives in the present. There are no massive monuments to the war dead—though a keen eye will spot the occasional mural to fallen soldiers in the country’s capital of Freetown—nor was every last rebel commander jailed. There are not even any “ex-combatants” roaming the countryside, stigmatized as though they wore scarlet letters, shunned by civilians and forced to live out their lives in solitary, infamous despair. There are merely civilians who actively choose to put the war behind them and work towards a better future by being “good” people, that is, people who love, help, live with, support, and need others. Most people will defend the paths they walked during the war as good and moral, because, in spite of the choices they made, those choices were always done to enhance not only their own chances of survival, but the chances of those they loved.

A good, moral person in Sierra Leone cannot just live alone, self-sufficient and independent. Sierra Leoneans are interdependent beings; a good person is defined by how well he or she engages in reciprocal relationships with others. One is obliged to honor and support his parents for raising and looking after him, and assist anyone else who ever contributed to his future success, such as paying school fees. Obligations to family are enduring, as children are expected to look after their parents when they are old. The eldest son especially is responsible for his family when his father passes, and this obligation does not fade even if he has not been economically successful himself. Success, however, is sometimes worse than failure, for if a person is the only relatively wealthy member of a family, he or she can expect that everyone else will expect support. Destitute people often give a child or two to successful siblings to raise because they are financially able to do so. Success is fraught with responsibility.

Obligations do not necessarily stop at members of the immediate family. As the saying goes in Sierra Leone “everyone has a man in front of him and behind him.” Wealthy, well-connected people are called “big people,” and the pronouncement—though often true about their physical girth—is mainly a comment on their ability to command the loyalty and labors of others. Big people, whether they are chiefs, successful traders, politicians, or wealthy farmers, serve as patrons for the less wealthy. They expect their clients to be loyal to them in political and social matters, and to provide them with labor on their farms or in their business endeavors. Clients can in turn expect social connections, assistance with ventures such as marriage and education, and an economic safety net in times of trouble, such as crop failure or deaths in the family.

It is impossible to be a moral person, a good person, in Sierra Leone outside of all of these contexts. You cannot live just by yourself, outside of relationships of love, animosity, loyalty and obligation, and still be a full human being. This ethos persisted during the war, which is why those people who lived by its credo are able to rebuild their lives in the aftermath. They still have those connections to friends and family that can be mended and leaned on in persisting times of trouble. Those who deviate—by living alone, refusing to share, showing neither sympathy nor need—are struggling to survive the poverty that has engulfed the country since the aid glow faded. They may be self-sufficient, but this is not a desirable quality in a person.

We cannot understand the psychology of the war without understanding the underpinnings of morality in Sierra Leone. In Sierra Leone in 1991, people did not initially detest and fear the invading rebel force, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), as much as they despised the corrupt government, the All People’s Congress, which ruled the country at the time. President Joseph Momoh slid comfortably into the economic habits of his predecessor, Siaka Stevens, who ruled by patronage and granted favors only to his loyal inner circle. Instead of being patrons for the whole country, clients who “stood behind” their presidents, Stevens and Momoh concentrated their power and its spoils in the hands of a few. Many people had watched the overthrow of loathed dictator Samuel Doe in neighboring Liberia and asked themselves, “Why can’t we have a war here too?” The people welcomed a military coup in 1992 ending the reign of the corrupt All People’s Congress dynasty, though they soon became disillusioned by the military officers’ excesses—strongly resembling prior governments’ tendency to favor themselves—and argued for democracy, so they could choose a president who would look after all the people.

The RUF ran rampant through the jungles of southern and eastern Sierra Leone and “recruited” young people to join their cause. Recruitment tactics were framed completely by Sierra Leonean morality, with a brutal twist. Acknowledging that young people’s primary attachments and obligations were to their parents, rebels would kill the parents of recalcitrant youngsters to force them to join. By breaking these attachments, children quickly formed new ones with their commanders, the men who “adopted” them. The civil militias, originally formed to protect villages from the RUF, and even the national army also recruited children into their folds as “irregular” fighters, removing them from their families for years at a time and using them for menial, but critically important tasks such as digging diamonds or carrying heavy loads. The factions fought each other for control of territory and country; at one point in 1997 the soldiers joined with the RUF, staged a coup and declared war on the civil militias, which were supported by the wavering democratic government of the day.

The intent of much of the violence on the part of the fighting factions was to break unaligned peoples’ relationships with their families and patrons so that new relationships and loyalties—with new big people—could be cemented. If no one is in charge, then everyone has a fighting chance of seizing control, and eager parties did so by forcibly securing as many clients as possible. Many war patrons did honor their obligations to their clients, ensuring that they ate, were clothed and sheltered even during the worst of times. Many of the bonds forged during the war hold to this day. And among these people and friendships are acts of honor and moral certitude that defy the supposed degeneracy of the alliances. Rebels risked their own lives to feed others, soldiers walked away from opportunities for wealth and power during coups to live peacefully in their villages, civilians saved mutinous soldiers shot by rebels. By actively forging positive bonds with others and following through on these bonds, people created humanity in the interstices of chaos.

Though people are putting their lives and relationships back together in the aftermath, they have been forever altered by their experiences during the war. The backlash suffered by Makeni, the town in which the people who dot this book live, was a result of deep resentments held by the rest of the nation that, had the town resisted occupation and forced the rebels into a weak political position in the jungle, the war would have ended sooner. The poverty that now blankets the country is hindering people from being successful within the purview of honorable personhood; one cannot often make enough money to feed himself, let alone his family. And yet success is important, as I mentioned earlier, because one cannot really be a “big person,” in the community, or even within a family, without it. And especially for the people in this book: the eldest son, a widowed mother, a new father, or a politician in a burgeoning democracy, they had few other options but to try to negotiate this path, even if they failed. It is their stories that I tell here, and through their words we shed light on how many ways a person can be “good” during a senseless and chaotic war, and how delicate the maintenance of this status of being good is in an aftermath situation so economically precarious that people must live by seemingly flexible moral tenets in order to survive.
The chapters of the book are organized so that the reader can move from the big picture of both Sierra Leonean concepts of morality and the Sierra Leone war through the lives and stories of the people who experienced it, and finishes with a chapter on how the war scarred the nation by brutalizing social relations to such an extent that a whole town—Makeni, where I conducted my fieldwork—was blamed by the rest of the nation in the aftermath for collaborating with the rebels instead of standing firm against them. Each chapter, by concentrating on a different type of person with different priorities, goals, and dreams, allows me to weave bits of the stories of others whose lives and choices were similar, and paint a picture of a town full of people whose activities and obligations are densely interwoven, who are struggling to overcome the post-war poverty that now consumes their lives. They achieve this by working on their relationships, and those who fail do so because they are not “good” with others.

Introduction: Sierra Leonean morality, Sierra Leonean war
In the introduction I will briefly outline the country of Sierra Leone, its recent history leading up to the war, and address some of the most confusing aspects of the war, its fighting factions, and government responses, that arise in the chapters. I will then immerse the reader in a few selected stories (such as a tale about a man who, by staying with his parents to protect them against the rebels, ended up being kidnapped) detailing what a “good” and moral person is in Sierra Leone, emphasizing how it is intricately related to a person’s social networks, and how the very bases of sociability, and therefore morality, were directly menaced by the chaos.

Chapter One. “I must be grateful to them for freeing me”: the loyal soldier and the unholy coup
Starting with one member of a fighting faction and his war story, I investigate how people can become caught up in chaos that they cannot control, and how refusing to engage with the chaos can mean certain death. In the case of this army officer, the chaos took the form of a physical attack by a militia, in which he defended himself and was charged with treason for fighting other government forces. He was freed from jail and a likely death sentence during a combined rebel-soldier coup in 1997, and had to decide how to proceed with his career and his life as a politically tainted soldier in a now tainted army. Weaving his story with that of other soldiers, I will illustrate why otherwise good soldiers “went to the bush” with the rebels, and how they regained their humanity through a purely Sierra Leonean phenomenon: the head of the reformed army invited all rebel/soldiers back to the barracks for retraining. Casting the soldiers out forever would have harmed social healing, and it was never considered an option.

Chapter Two. “ They said no one will hide from this war”: kidnapped into the RUF
Here I tell the story of one ordinary boy who was captured by the RUF when they raided his village in the south. Though he tried to escape, he was captured again and spent nearly ten years as an RUF radio operator, a position through which he attempted to mediate communication between rebel leaders in order to prevent unprovoked attacks. He lost his family during the war, and clung to his “brothers”: other young rebels with whom he currently lives and with whom he is working to start a farming cooperative. This chapter illustrates how many young rebels, in their own quiet way, attempted to do the right thing when the opportunity arose. In addition it illustrates that the war, by forcing a traumatic end to pre-war sociality, encouraged young rebels to create new families among themselves, with their own “big men,” and abide by a social code of loyalty and mutual help that persists to this day, even as NGO programs attempted to break them up for fear that these “ex-combatant cadres” were brewing more violence.

Chapter Three. “I held a gun but I did not fire it”: the boy who could not be a rebel because he was a student
This chapter tells the story of a popular student who refused to succumb to despair or rage when he became a target of the rebels during successive invasions in his town. In spite of the torture he endured at their hands, he finally decided to befriend several “good” rebels because he needed access to food for his pregnant mother and younger siblings. His rebel “friends” eventually forced him to join them on terror forays outside of his hometown, but he refused to participate in any violence, and refused to even carry a weapon while in his town. Aside from helping his family, he always kept his schoolbooks and certificates safe so that, once the violence was over, he could go back to being a student. His friends and neighbors never faulted him for making suspect alliances during terrible times, especially as these alliances were forged overtly in order to help—and thus honor—his family.

Chapter Four. Choose allies carefully: A teacher, a double agent, a town councilor 
This chapter analyzes the story of a town leader, a former teacher who became a double agent working for the British government while he appeared to be an RUF consultant in Makeni and at successive peace talks. Through his story of loyalty to the town while appearing to stand fast with the RUF, I analyze how the first town council elected after the war was comprised entirely of the townspeople’s war heroes, considered such because they worked tirelessly to free it from occupation. The people were rewarded for their faith in their “big men” with an embezzlement scandal that led to the chairman’s dismissal—mainly for not distributing the spoils of an NGO grant amongst the rest of the council—and the former double agent seizing power. Here we see how alliances, even those forged during war, can be shattered when tested by greed. To be a truly moral person, one cannot just be uncorrupt, one must be careful to attend to the needs of all his or her clients.

Chapter Five. God loves you (even if everyone here hates you): the evangelist
Even social outcasts can find their niche. However, their personal successes do not always translate into good relations with others if they refuse to engage with their neighbors. This chapter tells the story of a widow from the coast who remained in the northern capital after her husband died, even though she could not shake her distrust of local people and had few friends. Alone and terrified during the occupation, she started preaching the gospel among injured and dying rebels and soldiers in the hospital. She gained a reputation as an angel among the rebels, who caused her no further harm during the occupation. Eventually rescued by her nephew, who had come from Freetown to find her, she spent several years living with her daughter in England, and rebuilt her life in Sierra Leone in the aftermath with her daughter’s money. However, her refusal to forge new peacetime friendships among the same distrusted locals makes her a target of jealousy. She cooks and eats alone every day and lives in terror that her impoverished neighbors will attack her.

Chapter Six. “Life was easier during the war, at least I could feed my children”: the trader
Traders can fill an important role in occupied towns. Here I follow one trader who took it upon herself to confront the RUF leader in her town to demand access to rebel food convoys so that she, and others, could start selling food in the town. She nurtured a friendship with him throughout the occupation that ensured her access to any food that arrived, be it stolen food aid or looted from surrounding villages. Mercenary though this was, it ensured that her family, and others who could afford it had enough to eat. Providing food within the town also meant that low-level rebels who had legitimate access to food did not harass her friends and neighbors. Her loyalty to the ruling rebel cadre was cemented when the government helicopter gunship bombed the market center in its quest to kill rebel leaders, and instead killed one of her best friends, who was eight months pregnant at the time. In her opinion, the rebels never did as much wanton damage to the town and its people as did the government; they honored their commitment to bring food and give civilians a chance to survive. The rebel leaders were the true “big men.”

Chapter Seven. He wept, a lot: the expectant father
To round out the story chapters, I finish with an ordinary man who, because he was too old to be of interest to the rebels as a recruit, was only ever a target for harassment in his town. He bravely tried to defend his family, his home, and his life against repeated attacks by rebels, soldiers, and even small boys, without resorting to violence himself except when he had to physically grapple with rebels for control of weapons they threatened him with. Though he succeeded in saving his family, he suffers permanent scars, both physical and emotional, of the repeated torture. Once the war was over, he tried to heal himself, and make some money to support his wife and baby, by becoming a reintegration facilitator for the very rebels who tried to kill him. He sees redemption and integration only for those who were not “thirsting for money” and were willing to use the courses to create and repair social relations with townspeople.

Chapter Eight. “We were not collaborators”: a town defends itself
This final chapter illustrates how the war’s attack on basic morality—the bonds between people—was so effective that it caused a nation to turn on a town that suffered directly under rebel occupation instead of rallying to the town’s defense. Always sitting on the political margins because it was the seat of the opposition political party, Makeni teetered on the edge of respectability through the early years of the war when it came to light that several top RUF commanders were from the region. As the occupation dragged on and the government made no attempt to flush out the RUF, townspeople began to view the government, and not the rebels, as the enemy. The RUF leader, Foday Sankoh, announced that Makeni people were all rebels, and this propaganda was so effective in a nation that had suffered for so many years, that the president ordered the town bombed “down to the last chicken and ant.” The task of repairing relations in the aftermath was accomplished not by protestations of innocence in truth commissions, but by ordinary people willing to move beyond the war and rely on each other in order to build a livable everyday.

The people who color this book are remarkable in that they are all too imperfectly human. They were able to survive the civil war through their imperfections, their willingness to bend their standards and sacrifice appearances to cope with the brutal situation at hand. Many of them made what seem at first glance to be appalling choices and alliances in the heat of the moment. However, steeped in these tales of horror and compromise are the seeds of human perfections. The clarity of a few years’ distance from the war shows us that the sheer will to survive creates coping mechanisms that allow ordinary, flawed human beings to endure unimaginable circumstances. Brute survival—a seemingly animal instinct that we often see as a reflection of human frailty—was shaped in this instance by a foundational moral code, a need to create and maintain fundamental connections with other people. It is a grain of perfection we can grip tightly during our quest to understand what it means to be human: the mere fact that we are complex, interdependent social beings, and our survival is predicated on us retaining this basic feature. Coping, in whatever desperate ways it manifests itself, is not a flaw of the all-too-human. It is a complex act of social and physical survival, and must be understood and respected as such.

Coping illustrates the resilience of the human spirit. Each person in this book made decisions that they have the luxury of being able to live with. And because they each understand their various survival mechanisms within the context of a war that is now over, they can move on with more productive lives. Their ability to create and nurture relationships with others in the aftermath was predicated on the fact that they never lost the ability to do so during the war, a time when Sierra Leone was portrayed to the world as a nation that had sloughed off its humanity. And even those who supposedly made bad choices—the student who joined the RUF, the trader who allied herself with rebel leaders, the soldier grateful to a murderous coup—have shown through their lives and relationships at the war’s end that they never lost their grip on their own humanity. They never let the war, and their coping tactics, alter their fundamental ability to be good and moral people. And as a testament to the resilience of the human heart in the wake of such devastation, they are fully integrated and fully accepted into a town whose residents do not question the need to cope when there is nothing else that can be done. In this we can see the brilliance of being only human.