Boy Soldier

27th October
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In March 1992, I was lucky enough to spend a couple of weeks in Sierra Leone, a country in West Africa that most people had never heard of at that time. It's situated

In March 1992, I was lucky enough to spend a couple of weeks in Sierra Leone, a country in West Africa that most people had never heard of at that time.

It's situated a couple of countries South of the Gambia, just before the big Western bulge of Africa starts to straighten out toward Ghana, and is between 5 and 9 degrees North of the equator. Then, it had a population of around 5 million, in a country about the size of Scotland. Amongst the many indigenous languages, some people speak English or Krio, a sort of Pidgin English. As a nation, it started to exist around the late 1780s when freed slaves from America and the UK bolstered the local population, and it became a Crown Colony on 1st January 1808. It was granted independence from Britain on 26th April 1961.

I don't know what I said or did, but six weeks after I left, there was a fairly popular revolution, which overthrew the Government of Major General Momoh, who had been the stable but corrupt leader of the party that had ruled for around 30 years!

My parents were living there during the revolution and were able to tell me of the benefits Captain Valentine Strasse had brought with him to power. He was the youngest leader of a nation in the world at that time, and the country was swept with a wave of hope and optimism. I had the chance of going back 6 months later and well, who wouldn't?

Upon arriving, it was evident that things had changed. Everywhere you looked, there was the new party's flag or a slogan. Work parties were clearing weeds from ditches and rusty wrecks were removed. Of course, what were most in evidence were soldiers.

Think of the Changing of the Guard or a Sandhurst parade. Well these soldiers were nothing like that. Some had uniforms, others had part uniforms and some had a pair of ragged shorts and T-shirt. A multitude of weapons would be carried between them, with differing degrees of familiarity. It ranged from machine guns and rifles, to a pistol thrust into the waistband of their trousers or a machete swung nonchalantly in the breeze. Checkpoints were located at strategic points, supplemented by roving patrols.

All in all, the troops appeared to be acting properly and didn't much bother westerners. The overnight curfew had been relaxed and you could now go out after dark without being shot dead!

My parents lived in a gated compound, shared with a number of diplomats and their staff. On Fridays, we would start with drinks at someone's house; Saturday would be the golf club and Sunday the beach. Arrangements were made well in advance, as there was no mobile phone coverage and little reliable landline availability.

Friday evening came and we realised that we wouldn't be able to go out that evening, as my kids were unwell. Rather than be able to ring up and offer apologies, I thought I would drive across town and let people know we wouldn't be there for the evening.

I borrowed my mother's Daihatsu Sport track, and set off across town. It was already loaded up with tomorrow's golf clubs, but as I was driving from one secure compound to another, that was no problem.

As I drove through the dark, up Spur Road toward Hastings, I saw a group of soldiers disgorging from some ramshackle vehicles at the side of the road. I paid this no attention, as military activity was so common.

I duly arrived, stopped for one Star beer and delivered my message. I waved a cheery goodbye to all and set off back down Spur Road toward home. By the time I got to the soldiers, there was now a small queue of vehicles at a checkpoint. A chain was across the road at windscreen height and white painted logs across the road, studded with metal bars to rip out the tyres and sumps of those who wouldn't stop.

Again, I wasn't overly concerned as such stuff was fairly commonplace. As I sat in the queue with the engine off, a young boy walked down the side of the waiting vehicles, looking inside at the occupants and contents. He was a ‘part uniform’ soldier and had a pistol thrust into the waistband of his ragged trousers. Upon reaching me, he became quite agitated and drew his gun. He didn't point it at me but began to shout either in Krio or such heavily accented English that I didn't have a clue what he was saying. It seemed that I was supposed to get out of the vehicle. I got out and stood there quite bemused, when I noticed that another soldier had now levelled a rocket propelled grenade at my chest. I can distinctly remember thinking, "If he pulls that trigger, we'll all be blown up."

Before I realised I should now fear for my mortal safety, a far more assured soldier sauntered up. He was the ‘full uniform’ type and carried an assault weapon. The boy soldier was shouting excitedly. Promotion for him no doubt, when I was found to be a mercenary or spy.

The professional soldier peered into the back of the jeep at the sophisticated weaponry I was carrying, turned to the boy with a clip of the ear type motion and said "Golf clubs. Golf clubs!"

Nothing more was said to me, but the assembled men turned and carried on down the line of cars behind me. I got back into the vehicle and when it was my turn, drove on down the hill and back home. I told my story and it was only in the telling that I realised I could have been arrested or shot! Star beer never tasted as good as the several I had later that night!

 

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