My family, the victims

Aminatta Forna was raised in Sierra Leone, the daughter of a leading political dissident who was murdered for his beliefs in 1975. Though she now lives in the UK, her extended family remains in a country torn apart by civil conflict. Now she has returned home to discover what has become of them

Today the lines to Freetown were engaged all day. I am used to it. I didn't hit speed redial, but nursed each number through the tangled international lines. When I eventually got through, the gunfire was clearly audible across the wires. The house of the RUF chief Foday Sankoh, the rebel leader brought into the government under the terms of last year's peace accord, is only a few minutes' drive from where my parents live. People have been shot dead.

A few weeks ago I was in Freetown, the city in which I was raised as a child in the Seventies, sitting drinking beer at a small bar on the beach where I learnt to swim. Lumley beach is one of the most beautiful stretches of sand on the West African coast, a wide three-mile curve of pale, golden sand. The country's dismal political and economic record mean that it has never had the opportunity to be spoiled by tourism. Instead, attack helicopters swarm threateningly overhead at an angle to the water. I had been watching a group of small boys and belatedly noticed their play had taken a sinister turn: they were carrying out military manouevres, crawling across the sand on their bellies.

Further up the coast, the Cotton Club, once an upmarket resort, has been turned into a home for former child combatants - children rescued from the RUF, who had taken them from their parents, made them kill their families and turned them into a deadly fighting force. The war has affected many people in many ways - not least my own family.

I was in the country to visit my family and research a book, The Devil that Danced on the Water, a childhood memoir about life in a family of political dissidents. It's a story of the fate of Africa. My father, a medical doctor and the last pro-democracy opposition leader before Sierra Leone became a one-party state under the corrupt dictator Siaka Stevens, was murdered 25 years ago by the then government. Since my father's death, Sierra Leone has been looted by subsequent kleptocracies, finally descending into diamond- and greed-fuelled civil conflict.

I had last been home in 1991. In the years since then, the lives of my large, extended family have been torn apart. Most of my family come from Magburka in the rebel-held north, where a number of UN peacekeeping troops are being held hostage at the moment. The majority of my family are now displaced, living in poverty in Freetown and too afraid to go back. My mother and step-father were evacuated by helicopter from the same stretch of Lumley beach when the city was sacked by soldiers and the RUF back in 1997, events which marked the start of full-scale conflict. They fled from house to house in search of safety while the soldiers, who ousted the democratically elected government of Tejan Kabbah, ran riot alongside the rebel army they were supposed to be protecting the civilians from.

My mother and step-father heard their names on the radio ordering them to report, along with dozens of other middle-class professionals, to military headquarters. Thankfully they managed to secure a place on an airlift out.

My mother arrived in Britain without even her handbag, only to suffer the humiliation of being a refugee in a country where the term has become a badge of dishonour. She never wanted to stay. After the Lome peace agreement was signed in 1998 and peace, at least ostensibly, returned to Sierra Leone, she went back. In January last year, the RUF stormed Freetown again, and I spoke to her for an hour on the telephone, trying to calm her while the shelling drowned her words and thousands were killed, burned and maimed in the streets. Eventually there came a time when there was nothing I could do but say goodbye, put the phone down and pray. Later I sent money and helped set up a charity, but the feeling of helplessness remained.

When I finally got out to Sierra Leone in March, I discovered that my cousin Morlai, who acted as my assistant, had lost two homes to rebel attacks in the time I'd been away. He had been working for a relief agency up-country and had his first house burned when the town was raided. He moved, and began again.

In January 1999 he was one of those the RUF tried to force to act as a human shield when they advanced through Freetown. He watched as they amputated the arms of those who resisted. "Which hand?" one of the fighters asked his neighbour. When the woman offered her left, they laughed and cut off her right hand instead. Morlai told me how he ran, vomiting, through the back of the houses and hid in the bush with his four children.

A computer consultant friend told Simon, my photographer husband who journeyed to Sierra Leone with me, how rebels tried to burn him alive in his house. While they were squabbling over his belongings he escaped through a window with some others. As they ran shots rang out around them. His neighbour fell.

These were the stories we heard over and over, but only if you asked. No one ever volunteered to give their tale.

Morlai's greatest concern was that I help his eldest son resit his O-levels, which had been cancelled because of the fighting. A whole generation has missed out on vital years of schooling. Morlai has a blackboard in the yard outside his little hut and gives his children extra lessons. Perhaps he realises that it is only a handful of qualifications that lie between his teenage son and the unemployed, fatalistic fighters who kill for thrills, covet Tupac Shakur T-shirts and don't expect to live to see their 25th birthdays.

I remember that in 1991 the fear in Freetown was that the civil war in neighbouring Liberia would ignite Sierra Leone. Although pockets of fighting had already begun around Sierra Leone's diamond region, people refused to believe it. We are not like Liberians, people asserted. We are a different people with a different culture and values. I have now learnt how opportunists and killers exist in every society. Back then, lying on the beach on a lazy day at the Cotton Club, I was persuaded to take an escorted hike and canoe-trip to some nearby waterfalls by Jacob, a young man with a budding tour business. The day, when it came, was enjoyable enough, though it was marred by the drunken and uncouth manner of Jacob's friend and partner Eric.

A few days later I encountered Eric again and this time he hassled me for money. Privately we let Jacob know that if he wanted his business venture to succeed he'd have to drop Eric. On my trip this March I was walking by Government Wharf in Freetown when I heard my name called. It was Jacob. We exchanged news. He was now a cook working at the UN Headquarters. "And Eric?" I asked. "Oh," replied Jacob. "When the war started he went to join the fighting."

Britain has now provided military expertise to train the Sierra Leonian army and create a disciplined defence force for the country. But at the height of the fighting in early 1999, the army behaved no better than the rebels, looting and destroying with just as much vigour. Civilians coined the term "sobels" - soldier/rebels. You could never tell which side they were on. My cousin Ahmed, for instance, an ex-government soldier who was newly discharged from the disarmament and rehabilitation programme in Lunghi, came to the house soon after I arrived. Being around him was discomfiting. He had a jumpy manner and a weird, high-pitched laugh like a hyena. His brother Chernor, formerly a teacher, now works for an aid agency - just about the only work available for those with qualifications.

Ahmed's mother, my 60-year-old aunt, has barely survived the fighting. Late last year she fled from Magburka and spent months living in the bush, foraging for food. She walked 91 miles to Freetown. When she arrived she was less than half her original weight and was placed on an emergency feeding programme. She accompanied her sons to our house during my visit. A true victim of the war, there she sat quietly next to Ahmed in his brand-new denim jeans and jacket. One of the thousand ironies of the war.

From Freetown I travelled back to Magburka, from where my aunt had fled, as a passenger in a UN convoy. The journey was impossible to contemplate alone, and was dangerous enough - as we now know - even with a UN escort. This is rebel-held territory, where the roadblocks are manned by child soldiers. To see children wielding power over adults was extraordinary, particularly in a country where age has always bestowed authority. And it was quite clear that the UN peace-keeping troops were in trouble - there was no sign of regular patrols and we were told that the UN soldiers never seemed to leave their camp.

The child soldiers we saw had been forced to join the RUF and now had no place to go. People told me how, to prevent them being kidnapped and brainwashed, they hid their children anywhere: in latrines, in the roofs, in the trees behind the houses. In my family's street, a neighbour's child appeared unexpectedly after being taken two years before at the age of 12. His parents took him back. No one knows what horrors that child has witnessed or how he got away. He himself has never spoken of it.

My Uncle Momodu, on the other side of town, heard that I was in town after I stopped in the square to ask directions through streets which had become unfamiliar. By the time I reached his house a short distance away he was already home and waiting. He and his sons were alone, unlike years ago when these houses teemed with my huge extended family. Our old house had been partially destroyed, everything looted.

Soon after that visit I had to leave the area. The local RUF commander had discovered that among the UN team were a journalist and a photographer. It was no longer safe for my husband and I to be around.

Driving through Freetown some days later I stopped to pick up some provisions. Among the sellers in their booths someone recognised me as the daughter of the late Dr Forna. People came over to say hello. One, a tall, smartly turned-out woman in her fifties, began to cry as she told me how she remembered my father. This happened to me a lot: people would break down in private and in public. People who had suffered so much cried for me and for themselves, for what might have been. For a future lost.

Donations can be made to One Love, a charity for the people of Sierra Leone which is run by Aminatta Forna, via Gift Aid, 0845 075 2000

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