Bound to violence: young lives in Freetown

Civil war ended a decade ago, but the huge population of young people in the West African state of Sierra Leone must still learn to turn on the tap of aggression if they wish to survive and prosper.
Elisa Dari
10 October 2011

The civil war in Sierra Leone lasted 10 years, and became infamous for the atrocities committed and for the involvement of large numbers of child soldiers. A decade has now passed since the fighting parties in this West African nation reached a peace agreement. But violence has not left Sierra Leone and today, especially in the overcrowded capital Freetown, levels of violence remain disturbingly high, with murders, armed robberies, muggings, rapes and domestic violence common events.

During its decade of war, from 1991 to 2002, Sierra Leoneans learned to live side-by-side with extreme violence. Once the fighting ceased, the effects of war did not disappear overnight. The violence that is still present in the streets, schools and houses in Sierra Leone is rooted in the way the war shaped people’s lives and society. Violence has become embedded in the norms that regulate the functioning of society, and reinforces those parts of traditional Sierra Leonean society that fostered aggressive behaviour long before the war began. And violence is reproduced by being passed down to new generations, to the young, who make up 65 percent of a population of six million.

In Freetown, home to at least one million people, young people are visible on every street corner, at every market and crossroads. They are not working, and they are not in school. Sierra Leone is the second poorest country in the world according to UN statistics, translating into chronic unemployment, illiteracy and destitution. With no opportunities for employment or education, young people have little to hope for while they struggle to survive. They are frustrated and depressed, they feel powerless and hopeless.

Broken families and back alleys

I was accompanied to the back alleys behind the city stadium in Freetown where the Black Street Family (the BSF, a renowned youth group and street gang) ‘hangs out’. I was there to interview them, to ask them about their lives. Among them were several former child soldiers, a convict (recently escaped) wanted for murder, and some drug dealers. But they are a family, and together they survive the difficulties of life on the capital’s streets.

Their lives, like those of many Sierra Leoneans, are a mix of uncertainties, marginalisation and survival, and violence is a constituent part of their strategy. A young member of the BSF explained it to me in a very practical way: “The car wash is all we do and we do it with no good equipment, not even running water, we are paid pittance and the police come every day to try and kick us out of here. There is nothing for us, this is what we will do until we die.”

In this struggle for survival, pick pocketing, selling stolen goods and mugging are acceptable means to put food on the table. However, it would be misleading to say that poverty per se or even criminal opportunity can explain such high levels of violence. Instead, the transmission of violence starts at the family level. The trauma of the war has insinuated into the relationships between parents, and between parents and their children. The household is often a very violent environment, where beatings as well as abusive language and behaviour are common. Domestic violence is under-reported despite the establishment, with the help of British development aid, of dedicated Family Support Units in police stations. Whereas, before the war, entire communities took care of children, assuming responsibility for their education and upbringing, now only nuclear families are left. However, most households cannot provide for their children, and with no stable home, no food and nobody to look after them, children are forced onto the streets where the laws of survival prevail.

Earning one’s stripes

On the street, violence pays. The youth group in Aberdeen, a neighbourhood of Freetown, responded to this state of affairs by putting together a home-made body-building centre in a shack overlooking the sea. They exercise everyday “to be big”, because “if I want to be respected I have to be big, to be strong, to be able to pick up a fight any moment”.

Young boys and girls are vulnerable when they are on the streets. Issa, a young entrepreneur in the downtown area, described how “every night there are many sleeping just here [pointing at the narrow concrete corridor running between the street and the entrance of his roofless shop], they have no place to go, they sleep on the street, can you imagine?” Even with education and training it is likely that most young people would still be unemployed, while on the street they can make a living, and achieve what even a university degree might not be able to guarantee. “They are down the street where they learn that they can be somebody through bad behaviours learning from older youth,” said the head of paediatrics in a hospital called EMERGENCY. “They get to believe that violence is the way to succeed and be somebody.”

Being in school is no escape from violence. The groups and cliques that are formed on the streets and in the suburbs are brought into school by the pupils. Classes are overcrowded and teachers are underpaid. Even in school, one has to be aggressive to be respected. Violence determines the relationships between different groups, as well as deciding leadership inside the group. Within the gang, hierarchy is identified through military ranks, a clear leftover from war time. A member can gain stars by committing violent acts, like harassing, stealing or beating a rival gang member. But to become a general, one needs to demonstrate that one is capable of extreme acts of violence, including murder.

These dynamics all reinforce the idea that violence brings success and status. The name of the gangs, school cliques and ‘social groups’ are written on every wall of Freetown, and their names are clearly inspired by Western hip-hop and gang culture, by movies as well as by the experience of civil war. Names like ‘Prison thug’, ‘Skull gang’, ‘Freetown gangstas’, ‘Thug money’, ‘Evil squad’, ‘Rambo’ and ‘Devil sons’ aim to inspire fear and respect. Even school sports events have become increasingly violent in the last few years. A government official told me of youth and children instigating violence against pupils from other schools or teams by threatening one another with knives, broken bottles, and sometimes fake rifles and guns.

Political thuggery

This tendency of seeing competition with other groups in violent terms has roots in the traditions and history of the secret societies that still characterise the social fabric of Sierra Leone today. But maybe the greatest source of legitimation for these attitudes and behaviour is the political arena. The two political parties, the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) and the All People’s Congress (APC), date back from the colonial period, and so does their rivalry. The rhetoric they use against each other has fuelled reciprocal attacks against the other party and its supporters several times since the end of the war, especially around election time.

Politicians of both parties understand that young people represent the largest voting pool in the country. During election campaigns, each party makes its promises to the marginalised, unemployed and under-educated youth in Sierra Leone, only to forget about them quickly as soon as they reach office. This sense of abandonment is expressed by most young people on the streets of Freetown, as well as in the university campus.

But youth are not just voters. They are also an easily manipulated reserve of thugs and loyalist combatants for the parties. A young man in a slum of Freetown told me candidly that before elections, politicians or their cronies start to appear in the neighbourhood with pick-ups loaded with alcohol. They distribute drink, money, sometimes drugs. In return the youth do whatever they are asked to do - intimidate, attack, beat or burn. Various sources confirmed that for the attacks on the opposition SLPP headquarters in 2009, cronies of the president paid young people one dollar each to be their thugs. The use of paid-up agitators to intimidate opponents and influence elections outcomes is a practise tried and tested in the country’s political life, and particularly common during the 1970s and 1980s.

But this is not the only way in which political leaders and the political system legitimise violence as an acceptable practice. The message was sent out loud and clear when former combatants and child soldiers were integrated into the security forces in important positions, such as the prestigious presidential guard. It is well known across Sierra Leone which atrocities these former commanders were guilty of, but to young people and children they are idols now, ‘cool’ role models to follow. In a country where no university degree guarantees employment, the message is clear: violence pays.

White and black: a dangerous breeding ground

The current political elites are making sure that the country’s future elites will be just like them. The affiliation of the two main university fraternities, the White and the Blacks, with the two national parties are common knowledge even if officially dismissed by the fraternity bosses. Political leaders are present at the initiation ceremonies that take place every year and involve rites of violence and humiliation. The fraternities also receive funding from political parties and have, within their complex structure of subgroups and sub-societies, a political wing which has even more extreme initiation rites, to the extent that every year one or two prospective members die during the rituals.

It is these political wings that breed the country’s future leaders. As a consequence of these links, university politics have become as polarised as national politics, and in the same way as APC and SLPP use thugs and violence, the White and the Blacks have their own armed wings that can mobilise young people outside the university (drop-outs, unemployed and street youth alike) with a simple phone call to create mayhem and riots. University politics mimics the confrontational rhetoric and violent practices of national politics, and youth has become part and parcel of the political game.

Escaping from this network of forces that stimulates violent behaviour is extremely difficult. On the street, at home, in school, in the public sphere, violence is accepted and considered a normal part of the theatre of life. Young people are exposed to these forces in all aspects of their lives, and they learn to survive by playing by the rules. The war has created a distorted space in which violence is not simply accepted but respected, expected, encouraged and even glorified.

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