Theresa’s Story: Civil War in Sierra Leone

By Augustine Kanjia

There is a saying that goes, “not all that glitters is gold.” The truth of this saying can be felt in the story of a female refugee from the heart of her country’s bloody civil war in Sierra Leone, West Africa…

Theresa Johnson
Theresa Johnson

Meet Theresa A. Johnson, who survived the war but lost four of her brothers and whose house was burnt down by rebels. Today she finds herself in Worcester diagnosed with two weak valves in her heart.

The New Worcester Spy first asked Theresa what brought about the war.

Theresa: The war came about because of greed, corruption, nepotism and many degrading factors. The then President, Siaka P. Stephens Foday Sankoh, was jailed for his participation in a coup against the government. He claimed he was not among [the collaborators in the coup]. He came out and joined forces with Charles Taylor of Liberia and launched his war against the government and claimed the country was not developing and it was riddled with corruption.

NWS:  Where were you during the heat of the war?

Theresa: I lived in my hometown of Waterloo, just 19 miles from the capital of Sierra Leone known as Freetown. The war started on March 21, 1991 in the extreme East and we live in the West. I was a teacher preparing to go to the university, and I worked assiduously to raise my own funds. We had everything it took that would make a family happy.

NWS:  Did you and your family think of the war coming to your part of the country?

Theresa: Never! Never! Never! We were all feeling comfortable without thinking of the war coming to our area. The distance is quite far, the farthest in the whole country. Life was normal in our areas; things went on well. We had parties, and thought rebels had tails, even. But the news from up country was not pleasant.

NWS: Tell me about the rebels that came to your home and beyond:

Theresa:  The rebels had bypassed the military at Mile 38, and they managed to come 19 miles to the capital. It was a pity seeing my town in an absolute turmoil. There was no place to hide because the place was an open town. Some of them were extremely thin, child soldiers that carried heavy guns, but these were terrible rebels.

NWS:  Were you affected?

Theresa: I was near death when two small boys carrying heavy machine guns, looking apparently malnourished [came]. I managed to be quiet when they approached me; [I was] trying to hide close to my elder brother whose body laid in front of our house. I wanted to pretend [I was] dead before they saw me, because there was no place to hide. The child soldier came and asked me if I wanted to die in our local Creole language. My heart was in my throat each time they asked me a question. They had seen a group of people passing looking for a hiding place. I was in tears for my brother but it was their law that [there be] no cries or else you [would] die too.

They soon chased a group that was passing. I saw the two boys shot with their heavy guns. I was confused [and] never knew who killed them. I returned inside the house to see my mom and sister and some of our neighbors’ children. It became difficult for us with many children as we could not move easily with them. We had our children, three of them: Alfred, Patrick and Ishmael. We had already lost two of our brothers, one of whom had come to help us escape but was shot dead as he was entering the door. We were all panicked but we cried in our stomach. It was evening and we ran to our Catholic Church where we belonged since our grandfather’s time.  

NWS:  How Did you get out of the situation?

Theresa: My mother and sister were with me [along with] twelve children. But we eventually scaled down as some were shot at. We were left with no option but to run, and fast. [On] the road to Freetown [there] was no vehicle. We slept in the church but it was not good to sleep there as we met other bodies spread in corners killed by the rebels.

We left in the dark and went to Mile Siaka, a town away from Waterloo. It was at night so we walked with less problems. We took transportation to Kambia; it was far. We stayed there for some time and there was intervention by ECOMOG, the regional body of West Africa that helped with the war. The Economic Community of West Africa (ECOMOG) were mainly from Nigeria, and they were bloody. They calmed the place and we were asked to return home. We came back to clean the place and bury the dead, but that was short lived.

NWS:  Why was the peace short lived?

Theresa: We were in trouble again, this time my sister and mother including our three children. We left and ran with others going to the city before they struck. The situation was unclear; it was close to January when the mayhem took place. Our house was burnt down. Many soldiers defending us joined forces with the rebels, and their name was changed to “Sobel” — [a] soldier changing to [a] rebel. It shattered our peace, [causing] us all run to Freetown in fear.

NWS: How did you fare in Freetown?

Theresa: It was very difficult in Freetown. We were all crowded in a single room. It was in January 1999. My brother Emmanuel returned to Waterloo to get our brother Humphrey. The government made a fake claim that the rebels were already beaten. Emmanuel left to bring Humphrey and his school materials since he was a student. He returned with the boy, and between Freetown and Waterloo, in a town called Hastings, the ECOMOG group, who were [being] killed by the rebels, had a reinforcement. They approached these military [men]; a group of “Waterlooeans” came and were stopped by these soldiers. Emmanuel, Humphrey and many important others were killed, bringing the total of my brothers killed to four. Thomas, Ogulade, Emmanuel and Humphrey were killed.

NWS: What came next after such a blow to your family?

Theresa: There was a flight waiting for the first few that could get on board. The war seems to have only [officially] started on January 6, 1999. They were cutting limbs, legs and burning people. But we escaped and got into the plane that took people to Gambia–my mom and sister, including the three children with me. We found a place and we registered as refugees with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

NWS:  Did you get any assistance over there?

Theresa: My son had a valve transplant in the UK, and we later got asylum in the United States and eventually [came] to Worcester. This was helpful. But the town itself was somehow hostile to foreigners. We paid very high rent for three rooms because we were refugees. We had to pay for a permit to live in the country. It was difficult, and we thought we should just vanish and go elsewhere. My sister was in the UK; she was our major support. She was very supportive. She understood how much we were suffering to survive.

NWS: Are you particularly thankful to anyone in Gambia or the United States?

Theresa: Yes! Pap Saine, my Gambian dad, Mary Thomas my friend, Yadi Con and many others for helping us. In the US, especially in Worcester, I am glad to thank my church members at the Saint Paul’s Catholic Cathedral for their friendship. I thank the government, too. I have two weak valves in my heart which makes me become very weak as I walk. My son had it, and he was cured, and now it is my turn. It is very difficult. I am waiting for an operation to change the valves. I want to go to college and study social work and work with children and families when I am done. But it will only come after my operation, when I feel well.

NWS: Well, thank you for your time.

Theresa: Thank you too, you are too kind.

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