International Justice Monitor

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Former AFRC Combat Commander Describes Atrocities that Accompanied 1999 Rebel Withdrawal from Freetown

The Hague

April 23, 2008

Prosecutor Shyamala Alagendra continued to question witness Alimamy Bobson Sesay for a sixth day today, with testimony covering a period from January to May 1999. The former combat commander for the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) described movements and communications of the rebel forces, atrocities they committed, and divisive politics within the various rebel organizations. Sesay continued to testify about the involvement of Liberians, as well as some AFRC fighters whom he said had been reorganized, armed and deployed by the order of Charles Taylor.

Clarifications

Alagendra began the day by clarifying various issues that emerged in Sesay’s testimony yesterday. Among the clarifications were:

  • Sesay said he knew that Alex Tamba Brima (“Gullit”) had reported on the outcome of a rebel operation in Kukuna to RUF leader Sam Bockarie (“Mosquito”) because he had personally listened to the call.
  • Sesay said the rebel plan to attack ECOMOG troops in various parts of the country to enable the capture of Freetown and prevent ECOMOG reinforcements from being sent to Freetown has been relayed from Sam Bockarie in Kailahun. Sesay said he had to read the communications to Operations Commander Hassan Papa Bangura (“Bomb Blast”) because Bangura was illiterate.
  • Sesay said that the group of rebels of which he was a part, consisting of Revolutionary United Front (RUF), AFRC, Special Task Force (STF) and Liberian fighters monitored radio communications from March 1998 until his arrest in 2000, regularly listening to communications about rebel movements across the country.
  • Among the communications they monitored, Sesay said, were ECOMOG communications. He said that AFRC members had trained alongside Nigerian and other ECOMOG colleagues prior to the 1997 coup, and thus knew ECOMOG codes. He said that this knowledge helped the rebel forces learn of ECOMOG movements. He also said that warnings came from RUF headquarters in Kailahun when ECOMOG jets were in the air from bases in Liberia to attack rebel positions in the west.
  • Sesay testified that of the prisoners the rebels released from Pademba Road Prison, the politicians among theme were sent to Makeni, then on to Kailahun.
  • Sesay said that the Liberians in the Red Lion Brigade were the most feared and fierce fighters in the mixed rebel group that invaded Freetown in January 1999. He said they had no family connections in the city, so lacked all restraint in targeting civilians.
  • Later in the day, Sesay clarified widespread confusion in the court about fighters with the nickname “Rambo”, explaining that there were three: “RUF Rambo” (a Liberian; last week Sesay said he didn’t know his real name), and two different fighters called “SLA Rambo” (Idrissa Kamara, who also used a radio call sign “Red Goat”, so that he was sometimes also referred to as “Rambo Red Goat”, and one named Moses Kabia). Of these Rambos, “RUF Rambo” and Idrissa Kamara had roles in the Freetown invasion and its aftermath, while Sesay said that Moses Kabia was with Johnny Paul Koroma as his in Kono during this period. Sesay further explained that there was also an Idrissa Kamara apart from “Rambo Red Goat”, whose nickname was “Leatherboot”.

Withdrawing from Freetown

Sesay testified that in the third week of January 1999, rebel positions came under more intense pressure from ECOMOG forces, and the rebel troops withdrew from State House (the president’s residence in the capital) to eastern Freetown. At the time, the government was asking for a cease-fire, but Sesay said they were able to capture two government ministers, who were executed by order of AFRC commander Alex Tamba Brima (“Gullit”). Their bodies were displayed at a road junction.

The withdrawing forces was reinforced by “Rambo Red Goat” and about 50 RUF and AFRC fighters, and was able to briefly recapture State House. The witness testified that at State House, he heard Sam Bockarie on a BBC broadcast saying that he was not ready for a cease-fire, and instead was ordering Gullit to burn strategic areas of the capital and capture civilians. Sesay said that Bockarie then called Gullit on the radio in the presence of all the commanders, including himself, and ordered Gullit to commence the burning of buildings and the capture of civilians “so that there was nobody for the government to rule”. Sesay testified that Gullit ordered petrol distributed to commanders, and the mixed rebel forces began to burn many buildings as they again withdrew from State House to the east.

He said Gullit ordered a group of fighters to attack the Fourah Bay section of Freetown because an AFRC soldier had been killed there. The witness took part in the operation, which involved top commanders and members of the RUF, AFRC, and the Red Lion Brigade (a group that included Liberian former fighters of Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia – NPFL). This group forced civilians from their homes and killed them, then burned their houses. Some civilians were locked in their houses while they were burned. Sesay said that he and the force could hear screaming from the houses, and that they made sure no one escaped. He could not say how many civilians were killed in Fourah Bay.

After this operation, Sesay said the rebels faced continued attacks from ECOMOG and withdrew further. He said that at Upgun, Santigie Borbor Kanu (“Five-Five”) said the troops should start amputating the arms and hands of civilians. He demonstrated by amputating three captured civilians with a machete: one “short sleeve” (amputation at the wrist) and two “long sleeve” (amputation at the elbow). Other commanders followed suit, telling their victims to go to President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah for new hands.

Retreating further from the city, Sesay testified that the advance force he was with burned many houses, some in which civilians were burned to death, and captured many civilians. Meanwhile, amputations continued. Sesay said that by the time they arrived at the Kissy Mental Home (also called Crazy Yard), they had a very large group of civilian, including women, girls, men and boys. Women and girls were raped, and both men and women were forced to carry goods looted in Freetown. Sesay digressed under questioning from Alagendra to describe the looting in Freetown. He said that he personally shot civilians who were slow to hand over their property to him, and that other rebels had shot or hacked civilians to death for showing reluctance.

Sesay testified that while the group of around 3,000 rebels was based at Kissy Mental Home, Gullit ordered further attacks on civilians because he said these had betrayed them by welcoming ECOMOG soldiers. Sesay said he went with one group to Ferry Junction, where they shot everyone in a market, pulled people from their homes to kill them with guns and machetes, and burned others alive together with their houses. Another group was sent to an area called Low Cost Housing, where it killed and amputated civilians and burned houses.

The following day, Gullit said he had heard that people at a nearby mosque were sheltering ECOMOG forces who were out of uniform. He ordered a force led by Five-Five, and including the witness, to kill everyone in the mosque. Sesay said that a group of more than 100 fighters attacked the mosque, which was large and very full. Some civilians escaped, but most were killed. The victims included girls, boys, men and women of all ages. Sesay said he later learned from his uncle that two of his own cousins were killed in the mosque. He said he told his uncle he hadn’t been there, “but in my conscience, I knew it was true”.

Sesay testified that the rebel group came under heavier ECOMOG fire, and that Gullit then ordered the execution of four nuns who had been captured in eastern Freetown. Sesay said he didn’t know their nationality, but that they were white. The nuns were shot to death and their bodies left near the Kissy Mental Home, while the force moved towards Allen Town. Along the way, Sesay said they burned more houses and executed civilians. From Allen Town, Gullit sent a force, again including Sesay and many top commanders, to the Calaba Town section of Freetown to kill more civilians and burn more houses. Meanwhile Gullit and the brigade moved further away from the city, taking with them the large group of captured civilians – code named “family members”.

Sesay said that in all of these attacks, the mixed rebel force’s “small boy units” (SBU’s) took part. Boys as young as eight to ten wielded AK-47 rifles and machetes and fully participated in the killing, amputating and burning. In the camp, the SBU’s also raped girls as young as eight.

Rifts among rebel commanders

The advance force that Sesay was part of left Allen Town, first burning the houses there, and retreated towards Benguema. The witness testified that RUF reinforcements led by senior RUF leader Issa Sesay who arrived too late to assist in the Freetown invasion were camped at Waterloo following the withdrawal. They were confiscating looted goods from the withdrawing rebels because they hadn’t had a chance to participate themselves in the lucrative looting of the capital. Alimamy Bobson Sesay said that on the withdrawal of the advance combat unit from Allen Town, Gullit sent a message from Benguema warning of this. The group the witness was with avoided Waterloo and proceeded straight to Benguema.

At Benguema, RUF commanders Issa Sesay, Morris Kallon, RUF Rambo, Superman and others came with a mixed AFRC/RUF force. According to Alimamy Bobson Sesay, at a meeting of commanders at which he was present, Issa Sesay said Bockarie had ordered him to arrest Superman and take him back to RUF headquarters in Kailahun. The other commanders present convinced Sesay to delay the arrest until there was no longer a threat from ECOMOG. The commanders concluded by deciding to re-invade Freetown.

Attempt to re-enter Freetown, and further retreat

In mid-February, the rebel group attempted another two-pronged attack on Freetown, for which Issa Sesay brought ammunition from Makeni, according to the witness. However, despite heavy bombardment of an important junction at Tombo village, ECOMOG forces there repelled the attack.

The rebel force the witness was with withdrew to Benguema, while Issa Sesay moved back to Waterloo and Brima “Bazzy” Kamara was in Hastings. Sesay said his group remained in Benguema for about a month from February to March 1999, and that the captured civilians were distributed among the three different rebel locations. Women and girls were raped and made to perform such tasks as preparing food and carrying loads. Civilian men were used as guards and to carry loads. Commanders trained small boys to become fighters and sent them on patrols.

After a month, the force received word that Nigerian and Malian ECOMOG forces were advancing. The three rebel concentrations met at Waterloo. Gullit led the brigade to Newton, and a defensive force, including the witness, followed. While at Newton, Sesay said that Commander KBC arrived with about eight men – the remainder of a larger force that had crossed into Sierra Leone from Liberia. Sesay said KBC told him he was one of the AFRC members who had fled to Guinea after the initial ECOMOG intervention in February 1998. Those AFRC members later went to Liberia, where KBC explained that they had been reorganized and re-armed by Charles Taylor. He said Taylor sent them to Sam Bockarie to support the invasion of Freetown, but that they had arrived late.

Sesay said that in Newton, they learned that RUF leader Foday Sankoh was engaged in peace negotiations with the government, but Sankoh called Gullit and told him that the rebel force should remain vigilant.

Fighting among rebels

Sesay said that shortly after talking with Sankoh, Gullit spoke with Dennis Mingo (“Superman”) over the radio. Superman told Gullit that they should join forces to attack Issa Sesay’s group in Makeni because Sesay still wanted to arrest him. Gullit left, and the joint force drove Issa Sesay from Makeni. Meanwhile, ECOMOG attacked Newton, where the witness remained, and Gullit called Bazzy, who was acting commander there, and ordered a retreat.

The force that included Alimamy Bobson Sesay retreated to Makolo. There, in April/May 1999, the witness said that Bazzy received a radio call from Sam Bockarie, who told him that he was now replacing Gullit as commander of the western area. According to Sesay, Bockarie said that Gullit and Superman had attacked Issa Sesay’s force in Makeni and killed RUF Rambo. The witness, who said he heard the radio call, testified that Bazzy requested ammunition from Bockarie in order to repel the ECOMOG advance.

Rebels under Bazzy’s command

After the conversation with Bockarie, Bazzy ordered a hole dug in the nearby highway to prevent the passage of any ECOMOG vehicles. Civilians with the force were made to do this. Bazzy also ordered a massacre of civilians at the village of Mamamah to make the junction there “fearful”. The witness did not go on this operation, but said that the whole force soon moved to Magbuntoso (also called Mile 38). When they passed through Mamamah, he said he saw the corpses of about 15 civilians strewn across the road.

Sesay said that shortly after the conversation between Bazzy and Bockarie, some RUF and AFRC men brought a delivery of ammunition to Gberibana, where the force under Bazzy had established “West Side Base”.

At the end of the day, Prosecutor Alagendra asked the witness to mark a map of Freetown with many of the routes and locations he has described over the past two days.

At 4.30 p.m. Court adjourned; proceedings will continue tomorrow at 9:30 a.m.