Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Remembrance Day Sierra Leone

In 2000, shortly after the rebel RUF fled the Sierra Leonean capital I was invited by the British Council to fly to Freetown. I wrote the following article for the Guardian

Remembrance  Day Sierra Leone - November 2000

'To our collective shame it is often forgotten that over 500,000 West African troops took part in World Wars 1 and 2.  In my role as a Member of the Governing Board of the British Council I attended the Remembrance Day service at the Freetown military cemetery by the sea About 250 of us stood among the haphazardly laid out gravestones in front of the memorial.  British and Sierra Leone military stood to attention in the front-rows.  We civilians stood behind them. Muslim veterans dressed in white and gold robes sat or stood beside the memorial to comrades in arms.   
British Military snipers guarded us from the top of nearby giant storage tanks. British soldiers in camouflage gear with guns at the ready surveyed the sea.  A Sierra Leone military band seated beneath the only shade-tree played Remembrance Day hymns. 

Freetown is in the same time zone as the UK, at that very moment at the Cenotaph in Whitehall and in churches and at war memorials across the United Kingdom people were choking back tears to just the same music. The helicopter-carrier HMS Ocean, anchored out in the bay, fired a gun to mark the two minutes' silence. 
When a handful of young kids paddled up in their canoes the soldiers became extra alert. They had reason to be cautious. The Revolutionary United Front rebels controlled  thousands of cocaine-addicted, scrambled-brained child soldiers. For seven years, the RUF tactic has been to raid a village and round up boys and girls aged 10 and upwards. 
The children were immediately injected in the temple with crack cocaine or skin scraped from leg or chest and the drug rubbed straight into the bloodstream. Soon after the kidnapping, drug-confused youngsters were forced to chop off a limb from one of their relatives before being taken away to be trained to fight and kill. But these local youngsters who sat quietly in their gently rocking canoes were no threat. They had simply come to listen to the singing. 

The next day, 500 troops in amphibian craft accompanied by helicopter gunship air - cover landed on the beaches of Aberdeen peninsula for a royal tournament display. I was conducting a workshop for Sierra Leone women Leaders in the British Council Hall on the top of  Tower Hill. We ducked in unison as a low-flying helicopter roared over the seminar room. Thousands of Sierra Leoneans on the beach below cheered and shouted: "God bless our mother country, God bless Britain." 

A couple of days later  in my role of Board Member of the British Council I attended a special session of the SL parliament. I sat behind the UK high commissioner, Alan Jones, and the commander of the British forces in Sierra Leone, Brigadier David Richards. The praise for Britain was so warm and effusive it was embarrassing. But at the same time it was deeply touching. 

A Muslim MP said: "The British are a special people ready to live and to die for what they believe in, rather than for short-term gain." He mentioned the British belief in fair play and justice and the spirit of King Arthur. 

At the end, and in keeping with the  Nineteenth Century character to life in this beautiful country, even perhaps recalling his own Colonial period education, an MP stood up and said, "I could see the great spectacle on the beach from my window.  When I saw the British forces landing - nothing could be more reassuring.  If I may quote Wellington, "I don't know what they do to the enemy, but by God they put the fear of God in ME."  
Members of parliament from all the political parties offered paeans of praise to Britain. They thanked Tony Blair. They thanked Robin Cook. They thanked Britain's UN ambassador, Jeremy Greenstock. They thanked the Department for International Development. They even praised the deputy prime minister, John Prescott. It must be one of the few rave reviews our minister for transport and wet and every other controversial thing had that year. '

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