Harvest of Hate — Mary's Saga

"Harvest of Hate: Stories and Essays 'Fuel for the Soul'" (PublishAmerica, 2006) by Roland Bankole Marke.

My name is Mary Bangura, although I was born and baptized Mary Talabi James, at Saint John's Maroon Church in Freetown, Sierra Leone: to a middle class Creole family of Liberated African roots, forty-seven years ago. This was the period when Sierra Leone was at the crossroads of British imperialism and a self-determination struggle for emancipation. I emerged from a warm, enchanted culture, where men desired tailcoats and top hats, and women gracefully wore long, flowing, decked kabaslot and kotoku, a unique hybrid of Western and African cultures. I'm a diamond in the rough; who had no college education, but only a sound secondary education.

Growing up in post independence Sierra Leone, life seemed rosy. Exchange rate of our currency, the Leone was 85 cents to the dollar. We chose which supermarket the family could shop in for our weekly grocery. There was Choithram, Challeram, Chanrai, and many more. Ah! But this was virtually short lived: A one party democracy that degenerated into dictatorial regimes followed this era of prosperity. The middle class status that I once enjoyed diminished entirely over the years. As a single mother, my upbringing had prepared me for the difficult challenges that were to come. But, in 1998, as most middle class families, my three children and I were further reduced into destitution by poor leadership under a military leader turned politician.

On Jan. 6, 1999, I was taken by storm. Feared Revolutionary United Front (R.U.F.) rebels had invaded most of Sierra Leone and were approaching Freetown maliciously. But our government discounted the validity of any imminent threat, and called them rabble-rousers. Warnings, fused anxiety, vicariously climaxed my despair, as denial, panic, and tardiness emboldened them to accessible intrusion, to which my beloved country would fall. Originally, my country was very peaceful, especially as we sailed through a bloodless transition from colonial rule to independence. Its reputation as the home of higher learning in West Africa had earned the accolade, "The Athens of West Africa." I recall those good memories of my secondary school teacher, a demagogue, who would brag as he tapped the desk with a rattan. He was proud of the high reputation Fourah Bay College had built in the world of academia. "Sierra Leone's premier college is the Athens of West Africa and a citadel of learning." He spoke proudly of its educational acclamation and continued a disdainful discussion on Sierra Leone being discovered by a Portuguese explorer called Pedro Da Cintra in 1462, who is believed to have named it Sierra Lyoa (Lion Mountain). He would argue vehemently, "But others were here before him and how could he have discovered our country?" And this would amuse me then. I knew that my ancestors were not indigenous inhabitants, but freed slaves who once settled in Freetown.

On this chilling, somber, awful dawn, the rebels reached Freetown at last, an episode in which Sierra Leone would witness its freedom, pride, and dignity usurped by ruthless, ragtag boys. Its central and eastern perimeters were doomed, besieged, and shredded. R.U.F. attacks hushed the city with terror, violent rage, and weird brutality. Innocent and helpless civilians like me were spectators, watching our lives ruined and property looted or destroyed. Dangerous-boys branded child-soldiers and under the influence of cocaine, LSD, and marijuana saturated the city. They launched the notorious Operation No Mercy; attacking unarmed and poverty-stricken civilians. Normally, wars are between soldiers of opposing sides, but this one was unique. We succumbed coldly to brutal stings and the horror of heartless and insane youths. Violent looting and plunder briskly germinated, adorned in carved arsons, carnages, rapes, and cruel amputations. Harmless as we were, we yielded to bizarre ragging rebels or gasoline fury flames.

Bandits were thrilled and entertained, while I was only meat ready to roast like an Easter pig or Ramadan sacrifice. The massacre seemed organized to its minute detail, while the boys went uninterrupted from house to house, in a reign of amputating, raping, and roasting the helpless with detestation. Anarchy's reign began to blossom. Our legally elected government took to flight as a hunted chicken for its precarious safety, planting a dire state of pandemonium. Forcefully, they recruited and dragged me into the massacre of my homeland and my own people. I developed disdain, my house at 55 Cassell Farm at Kissy, became a rebel sanctuary. Vitriolic-infested hooligans who adopted lethal intimidation confiscated the entire merchandise of the petty trading I did to sustain my kids and myself. My personal belongings, including my watch, chain, earrings, easily switched ownership at the dawn of this nightmare. They brutally seized my only cash and even my Holy Bible. This was a traumatic experience that remains rooted in my active memory. "Jesus! Oh! Jesus," I screamed with married might and breath. The animation of viewing a thriller movie at the renowned Globe crossed my mind. It was amid the chaos that I sneaked away to a neighbor's house, to dissolve my state of panic. The interval dispelled my traumatic experience married to dementia.

On return, they reprimanded me never to leave for any reason. Brutally hard, I followed orders to safeguard my precious doomed-life. Before the advent of the rebels, fourteen people occupied my inherited home that the rebels had now possessed. We were led like sheep to the slaughter, under gunpoint. Viciously, they dragged me upstairs, while they sprayed the structure with gasoline. I shouted profusely in protest. "Lord have mercy oh, Lord save me, Jesus help me." But this only infuriated them. But, as a long, firm believer of Christ, my faith was fused with hope. Before the doors were shut and torched, a swift transformation evolved. My fate was at stake. Believing any rescue was realistic sounded irrational. I clung to hope as my last straw, while the incredible dawned.

My hope rejuvenated when an ex-soldier named Sorie appeared, who just got out of prison when a band of rebels broke into the central prisons. His presence altered the trend of events. He heard so many desperate, distressed screams for rescue. It was so severe that even someone without feelings would have offered swift help. Otherwise, I would have perished in the blaze. Mine was a scary homecoming. Sorie and his men saved my life. The other ten, were not so lucky. They perished in the ignited fire. After this daring rescue, through instinct, I was suddenly hooked to him eyeball to eyeball.

Sorie emerged as a lion that had killed an elephant, and was awaiting coronation. He is my hero, for saving my life, but he would become more than a hero to me. He was now practically my husband. I had no choice caught up in this limbo of disdain, from the brutal actions of the rebels and a determination to stay alive. And between a rock and a hard place, I gave in to become his wife without any proposal. Subsequently, I got protection from two of his guards. I had nothing to repay him in this building, since I was indebted for his kindness, except my womanhood and loyalty to his cause. I began to follow orders or face the trauma of amputation or death. I had no choice, for life did not guarantee me a duplicate copy.

Later, they moved me to St. Patrick's Hill at Kissy, opposite the mental hospital, where I spent five days in a confiscated and looted house. I had no food for two days. Evidently, they were not fully equipped with food supply, when they attacked the city. And I saw routine and ruthless plunders on civilians, practically every tangible along with civilians' food using threat or lethal force. It was now obvious that I needed the strong connection I had established with Sorie, if I should survive the ongoing carnage. My religion taught me "Thou shalt not steal." But I was forced to violate this strong religious belief, by aiding and accepting stolen goods, especially food.

In captivity, the rule of thumb became the law of the jungle, and serving as an accomplice was a means to survival. My conscience was at war with itself. Life in the jungle was utter destitution; change of clothes was the least basic human need that I was concerned about. All I could say then, "I'm lucky to be alive." But my gloom and human weaknesses were hardly concealed or embedded.

From Kissy, a suburb of Freetown, we hiked for two days in disguised darkness and dense forest to outwit our enemies. We dashed under brushes and laid flat behind trunks of huge trees at every sound or suspicion. Fear had us rushing into the bush away from baboons, cobras, and monkeys. It was then I began to learn the guerilla warfare in order to be safe. But the desecration of folks for noncompliance or ignorance was no big deal. It was a trivial issue to accept and then move on.

It was disturbing to watch the horrible manner young girls were killed for their body parts, to aid rituals. The rebels believed that their body parts, especially their genitals made the best charm that provided supernatural power for the exploit. Girls' genitals were removed, while they were still alive. And my heart pounded in disgust, as these demon-style executions were carried out in the most atrocious way. They struggled for their lives in such a pathetic way that I had not seen during my tenure with the rebels, as they gruesomely gave up the ghost. Surely, these events hardened my heart throughout the ordeal. Often, I witnessed these occurrences, because there was a high demand for girls' genitalia for the preparation of potent diabolical voodoo-charms. Nevertheless, my passionate, motherly instinct would hunt me painfully, and made me sob in solitude amid the heartbreaking persecutions.

Surprisingly, I saw a dove peeping down on us from its position, perching on a tree. Since I was a Christian, I translated this to mean that God witnessed the act of committing atrocities. And certainly, He saw us conducting endless monstrous crimes. Indeed this was not welcomed, but an intrusive song that ruined the serenity of the ritual. But we also trespassed on the silence, as we sang a monotonous ritual chant and dirge overshadowing the dove's song, so soothing to me. My spirit climaxed its mysticism as I looked above to glance at the impressive soloist. Unconsciously, tears streamed down my face. My conscience was undergoing purgatory. The bitter truth had hit my mental radar.

Arriving at Grafton, I was weak and exhausted. I moaned, shedding bloody tears. At this point, I demanded that they take me to Kissy. They told me it is either death or "do what they told me." If I had no kids, I would have given up. The thought of dying and leaving my three helpless kids, goaded me to cleave on to life.

Despite my predicament, I became enchanted with nature in the countryside that I was now being exposed to, for the first time. We had just arrived at the bank of a crystalline stream and drinkable mountain ground water for the first time, since my ordeal. The water galloped over rocky boulders, formed a miniature-waterfall, and produced a melodious sound. The branches of trees and other impurities bubbled and dived, and later seen down stream was a soul enhancing experience. The stream flowed as vibrant ripples of hope. It was flanked by dense wild nature and the charming beauty of the Creator's exquisite artistry. A sudden chill ran down my spine and the hair on my body stood briskly on end. Fear of the extraterrestrial overwhelmed me, as I gazed at the beautiful rock formation, and carefully formed rows of forest trees, whose roots were deeply entrenched on granite, beside the stream.

Everyone else scrambled around me for a gulp of water. Some squirted, stretched their arms out toward the stream with watertight leaves. These were made into makeshift funnels to gulp water down our throats, as if this was our maiden drink of water. Indeed, it was about time. We were all dead thirsty. I took a bath after my refreshing drink of water, but without a change of my clothes.

We began our second leg of the journey from Waterloo to Masiaka, a distance of about forty-seven miles from Freetown. We could not travel on a straight route, paved road, or street. My captors had perfect knowledge of the jungle. They knew that Guinean-led foreign peacekeeping troops (ECOMOG) controlled the area. Our jungle experts pioneered the safest route away from detection. At Masiaka, homes were vandalized, plundered, or ruined. Practically, we plundered every village we traveled through. It amazed me that eminent folks were in the jungle with us too. Rebel sympathizers included top gun politicians and businessmen. I almost had a cardiac arrest, when I saw former ministers and powerful government officials visiting us in the bush. Some took part in the rituals to help them regain power or recognition. But their identities were preserved with the utmost secrecy.

Spinning cowries and magical talisman emboldened the tycoons and boosted the rebels' notoriety. Visitors came with a wish list. A preview of mysticism was demonstrated by spinning an odd number of cowries; if they exhibited more heads than tails, it meant that a desired wish would come to fruition. New converts like us, who were first-time witnesses of these supernatural powers, were shocked in admiration. These included dominant people for power, wealth, fear, or respect. Our rebellion had answers to their endless demands. But I never stopped wondering; why would folks with such mystic prowess be in the bush, living in futility and wretchedness? It only harped the good old saying, "One can take a man from the bush, but not the bush from the man." I watched the blind dragging folks down damnation's hopeless lagoon. Lust for power was absolutely venomous and deadly amongst the rank-and-file. Yet, we pursued many selfish or violent agenda at the expense of others.

My life with the rebels was complex, but the survival concept was simple; they had a passion for power, and I had a passion for survival no matter what the proximate cost. The craving for both power and survival for us became insatiable. "Could knowledge alter any heinous persona?" I thought. But it did not reform dubious lives, for we had become dangerous, ruthless, brutal, and vicious people. On board were foreign officials from Russia, Burkina Faso, and powerful men who seemed to be sponsors. We captured an official from World Vision, but released him after consultation with R.U.F. leadership. Periodically, we received correspondence from abroad, and I followed through with them. Mails were picked up or delivered by helicopter or stolen fishermen's canoes.

Finally, I was appointed the head woman, with a titular position, "Mammy Queen." My letter of appointment was prepared abroad. A picture identity card had been prepared for me earlier for this purpose. I presided over all women, and resolved petty disputes, ranging from jealousy to infidelity. I executed my duties with shrewd expertise.

My new status gave me the privilege to change my clothes. In fact, I had the preference to help myself to a consignment of cargo that had been shipped to us. Nights were infectiously romantic. Tropical breeze trickled through the shady monkey-bread trees. One night, a child-soldier sneaked up on me. I heard his footsteps from rattling leaves. I recognized people by instinct. "Who are you?" I asked. I shouted a few names. I had just finished taking a bath, and was reaching for my clothes when a 13-year-old child-soldier named Born Trouble intruded into my space, which was hardly private to me. He fumbled with my breast and buttocks. I lashed, "You pekin you mama nor train you?" And I gave him the spanking of his life. My screams woke up senior rebels with my piercing invective. I was about to be raped, which was a common practice of boys his age. These homegrown cubs were now exhibiting the traits of animals. Though I was old enough to be his mother, was not enough reason to deter him. But the ordeal came to a temporary closure when he was tied and executed without a tribunal. I was now left toiling with my conscience for causing his death.

Being the culprit for his death still weighs heavily on my conscience. He was a menace and a threat though, for his name depicted these traits. But while a child-soldier was killed for attempting to rape his commander's wife, I witnessed molestation, mutilation, and rape of teen girls by rebels with impunity. I could not even show sympathy or alarm, because my life could be jeopardized. They expected me to be comfortable with the routine of taking lives, though we were angels of death. Probably, that is what the people thought when we reached their towns and villages. I never became comfortable with this culture as they expected, but I was forced to participate. And I invented a bottled up strategy to every novel emotion.

Being a "Creole," the rebels, including my husband, could not pronounce my name. I corrected him several times, without success until he became angry and declared that my name is henceforth Mary Bangura. It signified an official declaration of our marriage. In the ranks, we also had spiritual leaders; imams and sorcerers who provided fetish prophesy and direction. In fact, they blessed our marriage. Sessions were held, demonic rites, cultural shows and dances also took place when a man declared a name change. Though my husband of convenience Sorie would caress, cuddle, and protect me. He is six feet tall, creative, a sensuous lover boy and a sex machine; intriguing, endearing prowess that kept me up all night. He loved to chew bitter kola, a natural stimulant that is deemed to enhance sexual performance. I was his passionate treasure. And I was referred to by all as his wife. But accepting him without qualms was a survival wit. The attempted rape incident had unnerved him and he even cautioned me about the insanity of child soldiers on a daily basis. His nature depicted his warm and enchanting spirit.

Drugs were in abundant supply, especially marijuana. However, I tried earnestly to avoid it. The very first time they passed a joint to me I coughed so hard, Sorie thought I was going to pass out, and conceded it was not for me. In the same way, I managed to stay away from cigarettes.

We traveled for two days on foot from Masiaka to Lunsar, with scarcely any time to rest. These dangerous journeys seemed almost like eternity. We trod, crossed the Bambray River at night. Luckily, the water level had gone down after the rains had ceased for a couple of days. But it was scary because it was neck deep at the deepest part, even for the tallest among us. And Sorie had to carry me on his back at this point. In fact, a drugged child-soldier drowned in the dark still water. We only found out after we crossed the river, and did a roll call. That was not a big deal, as we moved on and finally stormed Lunsar at last, despite the hurdle.

The sorcerer strangled a red cock about 5:30 a.m. Its blood was quickly added to a concoction of herbs and palm oil, which our commanders drank for super power. All the women were commanded to urinate into containers, which the sorcerer brewed into a drink with nut oil, herbs, spices, and honey. This potent mixture was believed to boost our men's boldness. Among us were girls between 10 and 17 years old, who were full-fledged rebel wives. Their screams while being raped initially, were disturbing. I had lapses of intermittent nightmares when I recalled those heartbreaking memories. Many babies were born in the jungle from these relationships, and often thrown into the bush. There was little time or patience for crying babies, deemed a viable setback. Shrilling cries, images of ghosts, haunted us and entrenched our shallow minds. Those who were accused of violence against female officers, were tried, found guilty and executed in the most ruthless manner in broad daylight. Often, these killings were authorized from above, but the manner in which the messages were sent back and forth remained a lifetime secret. Unconsciously, I had perfected the genius of a professional flatterer; this went a great distance to massage the egos of rebel commandos.

We had heroes in our selfish and mundane world. At Lunsar, we organized ourselves into administrative strata. We had three jungle warfare offices: G5, MIB, and MP. As the "Mammy Queen" in charge of settling disputes, I managed the MP office. My duty stretched into dealing with civilian affairs, which included liaison between local chiefs and rebel commandos. I proved to be a woman of mettle, and was further promoted commando for women affairs. I attended meetings and became a prominent voice in decision-making. Our meetings were attended by officials from Freetown, including prominent chiefs. How they traveled to attend these meetings assaulted my imagination and disbelief.

We had little tolerance for ill health. The sick were a burden to us, and were left to die without much attention. It was against policy to authorize their freedom, due to ill health for fear they would give away our strategies and position.

Sometimes R.U.F. boys, now with us, would harass and taunt me. "Creole girl, we are now equal," one said. "Only rain made the sheep and goat to be sheltered in the same shed," I retorted to their jokes. "You can't even understand," I added. I could get away with these remarks, because of my rank. But the other girls dare not say such things or resist sexual advances. It was their job to offer sexual pleasure to the fighters. Sex, alcohol, and drugs were common rewards for gallantry. It was a crime to resist a sex hungry rebel fighter, once assigned to him. In such cases, the girls were shot through their genitals and slaughtered. These were traumatic occurrences, which left me with heartthrob pain. But I dare not show any emotion or sympathy. Nothing would erase these terrible nightmares because of what I witnessed, while with the R.U.F. It is so difficult to tolerate endless atrocities, brutality, and senseless destruction of life. Humanity's intrinsic value was reduced to rubble. Many lacked conscience, respect for life, or empathy. But their sanity had evaporated without conscious knowledge. Others were planning a more devious, intriguing attack on Freetown. Such agenda would inflict a catastrophic assault on life. The ingenious projection to eliminate any memory of Freetown formed a secret plan named, "Operation No Living Thing," which did not materialize. British paratroopers made a daring raid that bombarded our positions, when we held captive five unarmed British soldiers.

Efforts to secure their safety were frustrated. Armed with air power and superior ground logistics, a daring raid of endless bombardment, and a ground assault on our positions also launched. The Brits crushed and demoralized our fighters entirely. They also rescued the captives in a battle in which two British soldiers died in a friendly fire. In the wake of a well-organized assault, rebels were left to bleed in rage and thrown into disarray. There was no hiding place; Judgment Day had finally dawned on us.

The intervention of United Nations forces and British troops thwarted an intriguing scheme. They were instrumental in supervising peace talks between rebel factions and government troops. The outcome, the signing of an initial peace treaty, was negotiated and stamped, led to my freedom. After the treaty was signed, the U.N. dispatched buses from the provinces to transport captives and rebels to Freetown. Earlier, the disarmament contingent toured many rebel strongholds, disarming rebels in exchange for money. This incentive helped to get guns out of the hands of rebels in disarray, to prevent them from terrorizing civilians with AK-47's. Combatants received about $100 to $500 based on the availability of funds. This incentive helped us to restart life. And with the job training skills offered, we could invest on a new career and start a peaceful livelihood. This was our most rational choice. But those with a personal vendetta decided to keep their weapons, their only source of terror or defense. I just could not squander this chance to switch allegiance from the R.U.F. to the United Nations. I asked, "Is freedom a farce?" It was real. Even though the R.U.F. attempted to thwart the efforts of the peacekeepers, increased U.N. forces facilitated a road map to peace.

Excited with bubbling emotions, reminiscences of home, I joined the line to get a seat in an old, cross-country bus. I had acquired a new education, while living in the bush. A novel education possessed me, called discipline. But it did not exist in the bush. I recall dad's strict discipline and nurture, as a child growing up. My education is now balanced: One at home, in school and most recently in the jungle. I had unconsciously updated my resume. After a long wait, I secured a seat in the bus next to a U.N. soldier. I felt human again. Major Kakata was an elegant, polite, respectable, disciplined soldier and role model. "What is your name?" he asked me." Mary Bangura," I answered. A friendly conversation cautiously ignited. I was concealing my real name. Too ashamed of myself, I was careful about the information I made public. I asked him about the fate of Freetown, my pending safety, and freedom. His reply was very diplomatic but honest. "Freetown is recovering from the ruins and aftermath of warfare. The disarmament process is earnestly in progress," he said. I did not ask him about my house or community. Specific or sensitive information could be hurtful; the truth might just break me down. It was a long and soul-searching ride. My body and soul seemed journeying to the grotesque and inevitable. I was not psychologically ready for this eventuality. But faith and love for freedom goaded me tenaciously.

I longed for my children Julia, Juliet, and Sony. Are they still alive? I had no guarantee my house would be still standing. I knew that most of Kissy had been destroyed and the wreckage demolished. Is my home also among them? No one offered me straight answers. I needed true answers. But I had no guarantee: reality hurts. Do I have to reinvent my life all over again? As the bus made stops, children were shouting, "We want peace!" My heart was bleeding, viewing angry, destitute kids demanding a future. I can't refute the truth with my life now in disarray. I'm a party to the demise. I developed courage and strength as my journey of faith climaxed a crescendo.

Despite regaining my freedom, I will never reinvent myself easily. My identity is completely lost, my self-image ruined. In due course, the tangible assets I have lost may be recovered. But my emotional, spiritual, and psychological facets have suffered a permanent decay. I express gratitude to God for his unchanging love, grace, and protection. "To Him be all glory." His strength, courage, and wisdom helped me to bear my abomination.

As I struggle to rebuild my life, pertinent questions incessantly permeate my mind. "Who am I, why me, will I regain my identity?" Indefinitely, I will be searching for answers. Why blame God when bad things happen to good people? Today, evil dominates the world. He's still omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent. It is now time for my people to embrace unity. Too long, we endured the absence of good leadership. We still need a rallying factor to merge and educate our vulnerable nation, seemingly fragmented into units of discord. We can't survive in times of crisis. The road towards tangible peace seems extremely fragile and superficial. The emblem of our national flag clearly reads, "Unity, Freedom and Justice." Why should we depend on the United Nations to solve our basic problems?

Frankly, a revolutionary thinking, is the ingredient my potentially gifted, naturally rich nation yearns for. War is no recipe for change, peace, and unity. I began to sing fearlessly, loudly, as in a transfiguration, a freedom chant:

"Oh … oh freedom, oh … oh freedom,
Oh … oh … freedom over me …
And before I become a slave, I'll be buried in my grave,
And go home to my Lord and be free …"

At the ungodly hour of 4:30 a.m., frogs were croaking, as a shrilling cock blasted "cokorioko … cokorioko …" Dogs barked with austere, mystic overture and gradually resurrected the child in me. I grew terribly frozen as phobia in emptiness. The melody in the freedom song grew so infectious; a drawn choir joined a wild-spirited jubilation. A frenzied, electrifying atmosphere seized my bleeding soul and spirit. My internal lacerated name of shame and pain developed a bleeding ulcer that grew nagging and tormenting. Where do I turn to for therapy? How could I be cured of my septic name and pain? Probably, my name has even changed forever. Over a decade, Sierra Leone had nurtured a fertile soil, where seeds of hate had been planted. These wild seeds had blossomed into scary thorns, out of proportion. The time was ripe to practically reap this Harvest of Hate.

From "Harvest of Hate: Stories and Essays 'Fuel for the Soul'" (PublishAmerica, 2006) by Roland Bankole Marke.

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