Mariatu was 12 when the rebels thrust a gun in her hands and told her to kill her father. Her only other choice, they said, was to join them as a sex slave. She chose the latter. Then they shot her father anyway.
Dragged to a jungle camp, she was forced to become a “wife” to one of her captors, with whom she lived for three years. Force-fed cocaine, jamba (marijuana) and alcohol, she was used as a scout who would map villages before the rebels attacked.
“They wanted me to use a gun myself, but I was too young and small. So because I was a young child they would send me to find out about the villages and report what I found.”
On her information, militia from the Revolutionary United Front would embark on brutal raids, beating, raping and killing villagers with AK-47s and machetes.
“At that time, I was crazy with the drugs, all this heat in my head. Our aim was to do bad. Our aim was to see blood.”
Like many girls in Sierra Leone, Mariatu, now 21, witnessed horrors that she can never forget. Mass amputations, mutilation and rape was a mainstay of the ten-year terror campaign waged by the militia group against their own people, with their abuses becoming increasingly wanton as defeat loomed.
In 1999, when the Liberian-backed rebel group stormed the capital, Freetown, it amputated the arms of an estimated 5,000 people, including young babies, as part of Operation No Living Thing.
Zeinab, 19, tells how victims pleaded with their tormentors for death, but their cries were ignored.
“They would ask, ‘Which do you want, short sleeves or long sleeves?’ Then they would cut off your arms, either here, or here,” says Zainab, gesturing to her wrist and her upper arm above the elbow.
“When they cut off hands the people would often say, ‘Kill me’, but the rebels would say, ‘I will not kill you, this is they way I want you to be’.”
Fadimata Alainchar, country director for Plan International, a NGO which sponsors the rehabilitation of child combatants and sex slaves, says that without everyday support the young women would have no hope of a future. Shunned by their families and communities as rebels, they have no way of coping with their memories or supporting themselves and the children of their rapists.
“We work to get them back into school or into professions such as tailoring, building and welding. They need help and counselling, some every day if they were gang-raped.
“All they want is to forget about the war and move on. But it is not easy to do.”