International Justice Monitor

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Former AFRC Combat Commander Describes Anatomy of the January 1999 Freetown Invasion

The Hague

April 22, 2008

On his fifth day of testimony, prosecution witness Alimamy Bobson Sesay, a former combat commander with the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), testified only about events in late 1998 and January 1999. Specifically, he gave evidence about attacks leading up to the January 6, 1999 rebel invasion of Freetown, and about the Freetown invasion itself. Prosecutor Shyamala Alagendra elicited information on specific crimes and the forces involved, as well as communications about attacks and movements between local commanders and the leader of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), Sam Bockarie (“Mosquito”). The witness recounted numerous horrific atrocities committed by rebel forces, including himself. Alagendra seemed particularly interested in the involvement of a group of Liberian fighters in the crimes described by Sesay throughout his evidence today.

Liberian and other reinforcements

Alagendra asked Sesay about reinforcements received by the AFRC/RUF group under the command of AFRC commander Alex Tamba Brima (“Gullit”) outside of Freetown in late 1998. Sesay testified that well-armed reinforcements had been sent by RUF leader Sam Bockarie and consisted of various components: additional AFRC fighters, about 30 RUF fighters, and about 50 Liberians. He said that among the Liberians were about 30 of the Special Task Force (STF), a group of Liberians in the Sierra Leone army from 1992-1994, and an additional 20 who were former fighters in Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) who had gone on to join the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL). Many of the new arrivals, including all of the Liberians, were put into a new unit called the Red Lion Battalion.

The witness testified that the Red Lion Battalion intervened to end an internal dispute in the rebel camp headed by Gullit in November 1998, briefly detaining several top commanders. Sesay said that ahead of the expected arrival of SAJ Musa, two commanders had objected to Gullit’s contention that he was superior to Musa. Gullit then accused one of these commanders of witchcraft, whereupon this commander, Hassan Papa Bangura (“Bomb Blast”) accused Gullit and another commander of having buried two young girls alive as a sacrifice. When Gullit ordered his arrest, the Red Lion Battalion stepped in to restore unity.

According to Sesay, AFRC commander SAJ Musa arrived at the rebel camp in early December 1998 together with about 200-250 fighters composed mainly of RUF and AFRC, but also some STF combatants. SAJ Musa took control of the brigade upon his arrival and made Gullit his deputy. Musa also announced that the brigade was to enter the capital, Freetown.

Attacks in western Sierra Leone in late 1998

The witness discussed various rebel attacks in which he participated in late 1998, including:

  • An attack on the town of Kukuna in northeastern Sierra Leone in October-November 1998. The witness said that the forces, including the whole Red Lion Battalion, attacked Guinean soldiers in the town who were serving with the ECOMOG peacekeeping mission. Sesay said that the forces killed civilians, strewing their bodies in the streets, burned houses, and looted food and anything else of value. The witness said that Gullit, who was still commander of the group at this time, informed RUF leader Sam Bockarie of this operation.
  • An attack on Mange Bureh in Port Loko District following the Kukuna operation. Sesay testified that a mixed rebel team, including Liberians in the Red Lion Battalion, attacked Nigerian and Guinean ECOMOG forces, burned houses, and looted valuables before returning to the rebel camp at “Colonel Eddie Town”. The witness said that Gullit informed RUF leader Sam Bockarie of this operation.
  • After SAJ Musa’s arrival and a reorganization of the rebel forces based at the camp in Colonel Eddie Town, Sesay said that the entire brigade left in mid-December 1998, again attacking Mange Bureh, then proceeded to a village called Maraykula. He said that Santigie Borbor Kanu (“Five-Five”) and his men burned the houses in that village. From there, the brigade set up a base at Mamusa and attacked an ECOMOG base at the town of Lunsar.
  • Following the attack on Lunsar, the rebel force, including the witness, attacked the town of Masiaka at SAJ Musa’s command. Sesay said that they defeated Guinean ECOMOG soldiers there, captured ammunition, then burned civilians’ houses.
  • Sesay testified that after December 20, 1998, Saj Musa ordered an attack on Magbuntoso (“Mile 38”). It was captured, as was a military installation nearby. The witness said that following this, he heard Sam Bockarie on international radio citing their advance on Freetown, and saying that reinforcements for them were on the way. Sesay said that SAJ Musa became angry with his RUF radio man, Alfred Brown, for having told Bockarie about their movements because Musa – a career soldier – was disdainful of the untrained Bockarie.
  • Sesay testified that on December 23, 1998, the forces, including the Red Lion Battalion, advanced to the town of Waterloo and looted it. From Waterloo, the forces moved to Benguema and defeated ECOMOG forces there. Following an explosion, the witness saw the dead body of SAJ Musa, and was told he had died in an explosion. However, Sesay said he saw a bullet hole in Musa’s helmet. After this incident, Gullit assumed command of the force.
  • Sesay said that after Gullit took command, he reorganized the force of around 1,000, then called Bockarie in the witness’s presence. Sesay testified that Gullit told Bockarie the force was ready to advance on Freetown, but that they needed reinforcements. Bockarie replied that reinforcements were on their way – but that other AFRC/RUF groups were strategically attacking ECOMOG in other parts of the country, notably Kono and Daru, in order to prevent those ECOMOG troops from reinforcing their colleagues in defending Freetown. Sesay said he also heard Gullit call RUF commander Issa Sesay on the radio; Issa Sesay told Gullit that he had taken Kono and was moving with his forces to take Makeni.
  • According to Sesay, prior to the Freetown invasion, the rebel force based in the hills above Hastings, on the Freetown Peninsula. The rebels looted food from civilians in Waterloo, and on January 3, 1999, attacked ECOMOG forces at Hastings airfield, burning the buildings and some old aircraft there, and executing about three captured Nigerian ECOMOG soldiers.
  • From Hastings, the rebels took two nearby towns on January 4, 1999: Jui and Allen Town, where they stayed until January 5, 1999; they were now poised to strike Freetown.

The Freetown invasion – January 6, 1999

Alimamy Bobson Sesay testified that at around 1:00 in the morning on January 6, 1999, Gullit called all of the battalion commanders and military supervisors to tell them that that the brigade was going to enter Freetown. He ordered that all police stations should be burned, prisoners in Freetown’s Pademba Road Prison should be released – especially RUF leader Foday Sankoh, that the rebels should loot from civilians, and use them as shields. Sesay said that their group, numbering over 1,000, was well armed. He described various kinds of weaponry it had.

Sesay said that the group divided up and advanced by foot towards the capital in a two-pronged attack. He described the progress of both groups in detail and said that they were able to track each other’s movements through tracer fire. On their way into the city, he testified that they burned down a police barracks, burned 50 abandoned civilian vehicles in order to create an obstacle for ECOMOG forces, and drove ECOMOG away from a strategic junction. By the time the two groups converged at the Eastern Police Station, it was around 6:00 in the morning. Sesay testified that the police station was burned, and that a commander called Junior Lion executed two captured police officers. The groups then continued to advance, and captured State House, the presidential residence in Freetown.

The leadership of the rebel invasion force established a headquarters at State House. Sesay said that the first thing Gullit did was to set up the radio and tell Sam Bockarie that they were there and needed reinforcements. The witness said Gullit also called RUF commanders Issa Sesay and Dennis Mingo (“Superman”), and that he had heard all three conversations. From State House, the witness proceeded with a group that included Liberian members of the Red Lion Battalion towards Pademba Road Prison, burning down the headquarters of the police Criminal Investigations Division on the way. He said that they released around 3,500 inmates from the prison, including RUF members, but that Foday Sankoh had been removed and transported away by the government earlier in the day.

Back at State House that same day, the witness said he heard Sam Bockarie on the international radio, saying that the RUF/AFRC had taken Freetown and overthrown the government.

Sesay testified about numerous atrocities committed by the invasion force on January 6, 1999 and over the following weeks:

  • Troops brought young girls and women, most of them around 14-16 years old, to State House for themselves and the commanders to rape. Sesay said that the rebel child soldiers raped girls as young as 8-9 years old.
  • The rebels shot civilians.
  • There was rampant looting of property from civilians.
  • Two more police stations, including the Central Police Station, were burned down.
  • In the second week of the occupation, Gullit sent a force to the Kingtom area of Freetown after learning that ECOMOG forces were there. The witness went as part of that force, and said that there were Liberians among their group wearing red “NPFL” headbands. At Kingtome, the rebels forced ECOMOG to retreat, then shot civilians and burned their houses. Where civilians had locked themselves in their houses, they were burned alive, with the rebels stationed outside to prevent their escape.
  • Sesay testified that following the Kingtom massacre, Gullit declared a swathe of Freetown from King Tom to State House to Tower Hill to be a “death zone”, meaning that anyone found in that area must die. After this order, AFRC commander Junior Lion told the witness and others that his group conducted “heavy killings” at Tower Hill.
  • Sesay said that his own family’s house had been burned down in another part of Freetown. Sesay then watched as “Captain Blood”, who was responsible for the burnings, decapitated seven men he accused of collaboration.

Sesay stated that in the second week of January, he heard Gullit place additional calls to RUF commanders to request reinforcements because the rebel forces in Freetown were feeling pressure from ECOMOG.

At this point Court adjourned and proceedings will continue at 9:30 a.m. tomorrow.