Satta Joe (Sierra Leone)

“As I took his hand I was sobbing - not out of despair but a sense of relief that perhaps now we could move on.”

Photograph by Kalilu Totangi

Satta Joe was a victim of the Sierra Leone Civil War (1991-2002). She lives in the Kono District – an area with rich diamond reserves which experienced devastation during the war when looting and constant fighting took place between the RUF (Revolutionary United Front) rebels and Government forces. The war left more than 50,000 people dead and over two million people displaced in neighbouring countries. The organisation Fambul Tok, (Family Talk, http://www.fambultok.org/), emerged as a unique approach to community reconciliation in post-conflict Sierra Leone and has helped rebuild many lives, including that of Satta Joe.

I was in my third trimester of pregnancy when we started hearing news that the rebels were advancing towards our village. By the time they finally captured it, I had just given birth. Most of my family members escaped and hid in the surrounding bush but I couldn’t run so my husband stayed behind to be by my side.

When the rebels entered my village, there was one person I recognised among them and that was my own blood relative – Nyuma Saffa. He was now the leader of this particular band of rebels and was the first to enter my house. I was shocked when I saw him and screamed out of fear because he had previously tried to force me into loving him. When he saw me, he looked at me and said “I failed to convince you to fall in love with me before, so now that I’ve caught up with you and you’re at my mercy, I’m going to do with you as I please.” Then he announced that he was going to rape me. I pleaded with him not to do this as I was a feeding mother, but he took no notice and went on to rape me several times. Afterwards some more rebels came and they all took turns to rape me. When my husband saw this, he panicked and, fearing for his own life, ran away leaving me behind. Unfortunately for him, on his way out of the village, he met another band of rebels, who killed him on the spot.

I had my son aged seven years old with me and the poor boy witnessed everything that happened to me. When the other rebels, who had gang-raped me, saw him they killed him too – right there in front of my eyes. Then they left me for dead with my newborn child and ran off. It is impossible to describe the agony of watching your own child slaughtered in front of you. I was only able to keep living for my baby’s sake but I was not able to do anything for myself for the remaining years of the war. I relied on help from the other villagers who had stayed behind and also survived.

After the end of the war Nyuma Saffa came back to live in the village. This was very hard for me but what could I do? Then, one day some people came from the community led reconciliation programme, Fambul Tok. They asked whether there was anyone in the village who had suffered a painful experience during the war. I came forward and explained what had happened to me. Then they asked Nyuma Saffa to come forward and explain what had happened.

Finally he came forward and confessed to what he had done. The Fambul Tok committee then asked us to dance as part of a forgiveness ritual. At first I refused. I couldn’t bear to hold his hand. But in the end, after much encouragement I decided that I would dance with Nyuma Saffa. As I took his hand I was sobbing – not out of despair but a sense relief that perhaps now we could move on from this terrible pain in our past. I didn’t expect it but they succeeded in making peace between us. There is really no problem between us anymore.