The United States of America and Sierra Leone share little in common, besides their British colonial heritage, but January 6 is a date in infamy for both countries. On that date in 2021, the US suffered the ignominious insurrection on Congress as members prepared to certify the democratic transition. In Sierra Leone in 1999, the rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), finally invaded the capital Freetown. The civil war in neighbouring Liberia had overspilled into the eastern Kailahun district on the common border in 1992.
Ten years before, in 1982, I was a young banker in Kailahun, where I lived with a relatively affluent family, while my residence was renovated.
When, after three years with Sierra Leone Commercial Bank, I got a job in International Development with the United Nations (UN), I knew that was what I wanted to do — working with communities to help them grow out of poverty.
By the time the RUF invaded Kailahun in 1992, I was country director for the Canadian NGO, CAUSE Canada. As implementing partners with the UN, CAUSE was responsible for managing the care and maintenance of 15,000 encamped Liberian refugees as well as distributing relief food to more than 250,000 internally displaced Sierra Leoneans, including people from Kailahun.
At one such food distribution session I was directing in Bo, southern Sierra Leone, I noticed familiar faces from Kailahun. My heart sank and I nearly threw up, when I saw my former host family, standing in line, waiting for food handouts! Unbelievable, I thought. How could this happen to such amazingly generous people? War is so cruel and depriving. These people had a nice house, were self-providing, relatively comfortable and loved strangers. And now, here they were, hungry, displaced and destitute.
For me, this was the kicker. In my own small way, I needed to do more to improve peaceful co-existence among the most vulnerable populations who are always the worse victims of conflict. Living in peace should not be taken for granted. Peace should be pursued. World peace is possible, but there is work to be done.
In 1994, I had the opportunity to serve with the UN Mission in Somalia, UNOSOM. My first experience in peacekeeping was shocking as it was brutal. Peacekeepers were being killed daily and the Somalis seemed to have a penchant for endless war. UNOSOM winded down in 1995 and I returned home just as the RUF war spread throughout the entire eastern region.
After my parents were safely evacuated to Freetown, I returned to Liberia at the request of the UN Mission, UNAMIL. Over Easter weekend 1998, UNAMIL was forced to evacuate Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, after fighters of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) attacked the city and the Mission. The destruction and carnage were mind-boggling. Bodies rotted in the streets next to burnt-out vehicles. Neighborhoods were looted and torched. Anarchy ruled the streets.
That gruesome spectacle was only surpassed by the near-total destruction of Freetown, when the RUF finally invaded on January 6, 1999. During the first night of the invasion, more than 300 Police on duty were killed, thereby annihilating protection for the public and destroying law enforcement.
The week following, I got a strange call from the phone of the Solicitor General of Sierra Leone, Pierre Dupigny. The caller claimed that they had murdered the esteemed lawyer and were using his phone to warn me of their pending visit at my house. In their view, I was a supporter of the government, because I had accompanied the Canadian Ambassador, based in Accra, Ghana, to present Canada’s contribution to the national electoral commission. The commission was conducting elections to usher-in democratic governance as a prelude to ending the war. The RUF could not face an electorate that they had destroyed. They revenge-attacked Freetown and those of us in their crosshairs, had to evacuate. The RUF did visit my house as they promised, but we were long gone; in their fury, they shot my three guard dogs dead.
My family of six flew by helicopter, to neighbouring Guinea-Conakry, courtesy of CAUSE Canada. The day we left, there were 30 neighbours sheltering in our house. Our ground-floor apartment was relatively safe from stray bullets that had killed a lot of people and the government warned people to avoid windows and sleep between walls. Also, my wife, a registered nurse, was a Captain in the Army Medical Services, so we had an armed guard at our house.
Canadian Immigrant Visa applications could not be received at the Embassy in Conakry, so we had to move to Abidjan in Cote d’Ivoire.
There again, our applications were referred to Accra, Ghana, where the Canadian Immigration Processing Center was located.
While we waited for the visas to be issued, I served as regional director for CAUSE, based in Khorogo, northern Cote d’Ivoire. That wait lasted close to two years. We became refugees in another country in conflict while we waited.
In December 1999, Cote d’Ivoire suffered its first ever military coup in more than 50 years of post-colonial independence from France. The resulting civil war escalated quickly, revealing the sharp divisions in the body politic. Pent-up resentment surfaced in explosive rage as southerners sought to eliminate citizens from the north who were regarded as less-Ivorian and therefore illegitimate squatters on the land. Retributive justice took hold. Ethnic cleansing reared a foreboding.
By the time our visas were issued in October 2000 and we prepared to emigrate to Canada, the evidence of a country preparing for a long and violent political stalemate was all too real. Southerners fled from the north. The wealthy were departing for Europe, especially France. Our host family in Khorogo who are southerners, had fled home, leaving us to face the hostilities in the midst of an uncertain future.
We landed in Montreal, Canada, on a wintry night on December 12, 2000. Temperature in Canmore, Alberta, where we finally made home, was -17C. My children experienced their first snow and took up snowboarding with the youth at Trinity Bible Church. Peace at last! School was wonderful. Life was great.
Since completing my Rotary World Peace Fellowship at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, USA, I have served as Assistant Director for the Conflict Resolution program, as well as Africa Director at the Jimmy Carter Center in Atlanta. I have also represented my adopted country, Canada, as a consultant to The Presidency of Sudan, helping to resolve the conflict in Sudan, Darfur and South Sudan.
Having experienced armed conflicts first-hand, I will remain an active contributor in the search for peace wherever the opportunity for service is present: in my community, province, country and globally.