|"Former street children at a HANCi centre in Makeni." (Simon Akam)|
By Simon Akam
The Independent, December 9, 2010
"Saidata Forna is not sure of her exact age. But she was less than 15 when she was captured by rebel soldiers during Sierra Leone's civil war in the dusty town of Makeni in the centre of the country -- and turned into a sex slave. Her captors were members of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), whose trademark was the amputation of the hands of innocent civilians. They took the teenager out into the bush to the village of Yelisande, and held her in bondage. 'I was raped,' she recalled. 'And I was beaten when I refused to conform to some of their demands. I was raped almost everyday.' After a year in captivity Saidata fell pregnant and was able to escape. However, she and other girls abducted by the RUF were not made welcome on their return to their home town of Makeni. 'We were stigmatised, we were called all sorts of names,' she explained. 'They said "junta wife," "military junta".' But eight years after the end of hostilities, Saidata, now 23, has made a remarkable recovery. Aided by an organisation called Help a Needy Child in Sierra Leone (HANCi) -- which is funded by ChildHope, one of the three charities in this year's Independent Christmas Appeal -- she was reconciled with her parents and continued her education. 'I have just completed college [at the] northern polytechnic in Makeni,' said the young woman, wearing a neat purple dress trimmed with pale ribbon. 'I got my teacher's certificate. I am now looking for a job.' Sierra Leone's civil war lasted for more than a decade, from 1991 to 2002, and left some 50,000 dead. Fuelled by the west African country's fabulous diamond reserves, the conflict was characterised by extreme brutality. Conscription of children was widespread on all sides. Yet, while images of wide-eyed boy soldiers with Kalashnikovs became the international face of the war, the fate of the young women who were abducted by the rebels is less well known. When the RUF attacked villages they would customarily take girls -- sometimes aged 12 or even younger -- with them as booty. While some took up weapons, most 'bush wives' carried water and cooked for the men. They were also repeatedly raped. [...]"