'Sankoh has taken our sons,' cry defiant victims

Sierra Leone: President Kabbah tells 7,000 residents of Freetown that they must never again trust the rebels as the city gathers to bury its dead
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The Independent Online

There are those who live in a democracy and those, like 21-year-old Mariama Gassama and 18 others like her, who die for it.

Freetown yesterday afternoon was deserted. Not because the butchers had come back with their machetes and people were hiding away. But because, as President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah told 7,000 people in Sierra Leone's national stadium, "one should never trust anyone called a rebel".

In a defiant speech at the funeral of 19 people killed in a peace demonstration on Monday, he said: "If they come to us again and say they genuinely and sincerely want to talk, we will say no, we made the mistake before to trust them."

Mariama Saccoh was Ms Gassama's friend among the country's civil rights campaigners. "She is a martyr, like all the people in those coffins," she said, as an articulated lorry towing 19 identical, simple wooden caskets rolled into Siaka Stevens Stadium.

So deafening was the human wailing that it drowned even the American-style sirens of the motorcade. At least half a dozen men and women fainted. Others flung their limbs about or got on their knees and pounded the football pitch with their fists, building incomprehensible sentences around one name, that of the rebel leader, Foday Sankoh. Strangers grabbed them and hugged them hard as if to restrain their explosions of delirium.

"Foday Sankoh hates me. God hates me. Sankoh has taken both my sons," cried Mary Conteh. "He killed Peter on 6 January last year. He killed Abubakarr on 8 May. Sankoh is a beast," she screamed.

Abubakarr Conteh, 16, and Ms Gassama were among peace demonstrators who marched last Monday to Colonel Sankoh's house in Freetown, demanding an end to the nine-year civil war in Sierra Leone, which has killed at least 10,000 people and left as many with stumps where they used to have limbs.

Col Sankoh, a signatory to a peace agreement last July, had shown no intention of abiding by it, even though it put him in government.

Now he has disappeared - some say back into the bush. Others, more optimistic, believe the Sierra Leone government army is secretly holding Col Sankoh in the belief that isolating him will demoralise his Revolutionary United Front men.

Mrs Saccoh said: "We are traumatised. We do not know what to do. I have been on most of the demonstrations. But it is so, so hard to preach everlasting peace, and something called democracy, when these evil men are killing, burning and destroying everything. The gun is much stronger than freedom."

Many in the queue of mourners, thousands long, waiting to file past photographs of the dead - including three Sierra Leone Army soldiers, a journalist, a street trader and three unidentified victims - pledged to fight on. Thomas Beah, a student of agriculture, said: "We will be with these (dead) people until there is permanent peace in our country."

Sierra Leone's parliamentary leader, Ahmed Ramadan Dumbuya, said: "Democracy can be sustained only if people are prepared to fight for it, or even to die."

He believed the funeral was an expression of anger at Col Sankoh. "We are much more defiant, much more resolute than we have ever been. The people were are burying today were aged between 16 and 60. This shows that democracy as a value is imbued in the people. They will sustain their pressure for democracy and an end to terror."

Nevertheless, Mr Dumbuya believed it was right in last July's peace agreement to have given Col Sankoh a government seat and a war crimes amnesty. "Democracy and stability are premised on the participation of all parties. If we had left out the RUF there would have been no reason to sustain the drive to inclusive government. Now he has proved that he just used the agreement to buy time to rearm."