As the world continued to grapple with the economic impacts of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, in August 2022, Sierra Leone erupted into violent events, leaving some cities in the country, including the capital Freetown, in turmoil. The escalation of violence has been attributed to several factors, including political dissatisfaction with government policies and economic hardship.
The government’s decision to increase the price of fuel by more than 20% was one of the catalysts of the wave of protests on August 10. The authorities’ response to the demonstrations was to impose a national curfew, with the deployment of the military on the streets. They were multiple allegations of excessive use of force against protesters.
Some protests escalated into violence, with looting shops, and burning down buildings in a few cities. The situation quickly spiraled out of control, with reports of police officers being killed and using excessive force. As a result, six police officers and more than 20 protesters and bystanders were killed in Freetown, Makeni and Kamakwie.
The protesters and bystanders
Despite the country’s vast natural resources, Sierra Leone is one of the poorest countries in the world. According to its Human Development Index, it is ranked 181 over a total of 191 countries. It is also one of the countries with the lowest levels of investment in social protection, allocating just a 0.7% of GDP to social protection expenditures (excluding healthcare).
In the days following the protests, the authorities held a meeting with the bereaved families during which they informed them that the government would take care of the burial for security reasons. The bodies of the victims were withheld from their families for at least two months before a mass burial was held.
I am Joseph, the father of Fatmata Lam Conteh who was tragically shot and killed at Dove Cut market in Freetown. Fatmata was the eldest of my seven children. She was a hardworker. On 10 August, Fatmata went to sell vegetable leaves as she normally did. She arrived at the market around 6:30 am to begin her workday. She didn’t take part in the protests that took place at and around the market, but unfortunately, she was shot and rushed to Connaught Hospital where she passed away later that day.
We were devastated upon learning of her death. When I attempted to see her remains at the mortuary the hospital administration denied my request due to the growing tense political situation following the protests. It took over a week before I was finally granted access to see my daughter’s body during the post-mortem examination. The coroner concluded that she was shot in her leg and in her back around the lower spinal cord.
The government granted a compensation package of twenty million Leones ($1,016) to each bereaved family member. However, some families did not accept it, believing that the government was provoking them. The Minister of Internal Affairs, Mr. David Maurice Panda-Noah, refused our request to take the bodies of our loved ones to bury them, citing security reasons. The government took responsibility for the burial, which took place on 10 October 2022 at Bolima Cemetery which is where people who died from Ebola are buried.
During the burial, confusion ensued between security personnel and some members of the bereaved families as they were not allowed to bid final farewell to their loved ones. But later in the evening, I was informed that I could go and see my daughter final resting place. I was given her grave number which is 04. There were 26 other graves next to hers.
The authorities claimed it was a crossfire, but the evidence is telling a different story. He was shot at the back of his leg while he was fleeing.Samson's brother
I am originally from Makeni, but I am now living and working in Freetown. On 14 August, I received a call from one of our tenants in Makeni who informed me that my brother, Samson, had been killed. I was shocked and confused by the news. She explained that he was killed in Makeni and sent me photos. I immediately called my mom to confirm the news, but no one was clear about the details. All they knew for sure was that he was taken to Freetown.
I spent the whole night trying to find out where his corpse was but to no avail. The next morning, I went to different places in the hope to find him. Late that evening, I received a call confirming that Samson’s body was brought at Connaught Mortuary.
On 16 August, I went to Connaught Mortuary. They confirmed that they had received a body from Makeni, but the name of the person was unknown. I showed them a photo of Samson, and they confirmed that it was him. I informed our family in Makeni. When I asked if I could take the body for burial, they said that they didn’t have the mandate to allow me to do so and referred me to the Ministry of Internal Affairs. But the ministry made us wait a whole month without answers while a lawyer, who accepted to represent us for free, tried in vain to secure a meeting.
On 24 September, we finally were called in for the post-mortem examination. The pathologist walked us through the process and concluded that although Samson had no visible head injuries, he had been shot in the back and the bullet that had hit his thigh bone, had caused it to shatter. Samson died from the blood loss.
We were not able to claim Samson’s body. He was buried with the 26 other bodies during a mass burial that was a unilateral decision from the government. During the burial, we were prevented from being in proximity to the graves and had to remain at least five meters away from them.
Samson was a 36-year-old loving father and husband. He had a son who is less than two years old. He was killed on 14 August, after the events of 10 August because he was targeted for his political affiliations. The authorities claimed it was a crossfire, but the evidence is telling a different story. He was shot at the back of his leg while he was fleeing. There is no evidence that people that were with him were armed. He was our family’s pillar and was particularly close to our mom. She’s still traumatized by his death and the way things were handled afterwards.
They offered to give us 20 million Leones ($1,016) as compensation following his death but we refused to take them. We only seek justice for him.
The police officers
Three police officers died in Freetown on 10 August. One other who was injured that day, later died from his injuries. One died in Makeni and two in Kamakwye. In total, seven died in relation to policing the 10 August events.
According to William Fayia Sellu Inspector General of Police, the first police officer who died was killed around 11:00 am. In response, police started using tear gas on protesters and at that time there were no death of protesters to report.
Around 11:30 am, Abu Bakarr Turay who a police officer for more than 12 years was brutally murdered in Makeni. He was coming to duty on a motorbike. He was late because he just finished a night shift few hours ago. He met an angry crowd. He was alone and was attacked with sticks and stones.
At 12pm, another police officer was attacked in Brima Lane in Freetown. In Kissy Road, two other officers were shot: one in the neck and the other in the back.
On the Easter part of Freetown, two police officers were violently beaten and were rescued by security forces. One died a few months later while the other is still hospitalised.
A state funeral was held thirteen days after the 10 August events with the presence of the President Julius Maada Bio who expressed his solidarity and his commitment to justice for the families of the police officers who died while protecting their nation.
The ceremony was live streamed on social media and TV channels. Many officials were present at the Hastings Police Training School in Freetown where they honoured the fallen. The Sierra Leonean flag was put on their coffins. Officials lay flowers for them, and speeches were made to express anger, solicitude, and determination towards justice for the families. Each of the bereaved family of the police officers received 100 million Leones ($5081).
The six police officers were named Superintendent Osman Fofanah, Sergeant Tommy Munda, Constable Abu Bakarr Turay, Sergeant Desmond Hanciles, Constable Charles E.K. Smart and Sergeant Ibrahim Jalloh.
515 people were arrested in total. Some of them were arrested later because there was evidence against them.William Fayia Sellu, Inspector General of Police
MASS ARRESTS AND AN UNKNOWN NUMBER OF PEOPLE STILL IN DETENTION
A total of 515 people were arrested in connection to the 10 August protests, with around 200 of them arrested for violating the curfew. Some people were arrested later based on evidence against them. Charges against protesters ranged from malicious damage, arson, unlawful procession, riotous conduct, seditious behaviour to murder.
Arrests were also made for the killing of police officers in the days following the events. However, no investigation has been initiated into the killings of protesters. The authorities launched a Special Investigation Committee the day following the burial of the six police officers who died on 10 August.
That committee concluded on 24 April 2023 that it could not ascertain the veracity of allegations of unlawful killings. No arrests were made in relation to killings of protesters and no investigation is ongoing on any of the more than 20 deaths.
UNLAWFULLY DETAINED FOR MORE THAN 55 DAYS FOR PROTESTING
On 10 August, we went on the streets to protest and tell the world about the economic hardship we were facing. I was in Makeni around Kabala highway by the cemetery. The Security forces started using tear gas on us and as the crowds increased, they started using live bullets. I was very closed when one of the protesters received a bullet in the chest. He was shot from about 15 feet (four to five metres).
I was arrested by soldiers and handed over to the police. The soldiers used the butts of their guns, belts, and protective helmets to hit me all over my body. They then put me inside a police Land Cruiser. From inside the vehicle, I saw both police and military shooting at people. There were eight protesters, including me, in the vehicle. We were all male. We were then taken to Rogbaneh police station and put in a cell with others. Whilst there, they brought about 70 other people. I saw many women among them. The group also included juveniles. We spent a day in the cell, and the next day, we were beaten and transported to Freetown.
We were taken to Jui police station and stayed there until the next morning. On Friday 12 August, we were taken to CID headquarters. There were 17 men, and they were taunting us saying: “who sent you to demonstrate? You should pray, only God can save you.”. They told us that anyone who spoke about this to anyone would be killed. They threatened us. We were then taken to the special court building for safekeeping. We were transferred to the prison inside the special court, and there were 43 people in my cell, with about 30 of them being protesters. The cell was small, and there was not enough room. The mattresses were light foam mattresses. We could all lie down to sleep, but it was very congested. The toilet was in the cell and was open, so you could see people using it. It was one toilet for 43 men but at least it had working water. They were giving us food too, but it was not hygienic. We had food every day. Our movements were restricted, and we were released every day for only 10 minutes to walk outside the cells, except on Sundays.
I was in prison for a month and 25 days without being interrogated. When we were arrested, they told us we were arrested for protesting, for killing an officer, for destroying shops, burning cars. They read the charges to us only after a month and weeks had passed.
We were sent to court and 27 of us were condemned and sent to Pademba Road Prison. We were 43 to be sent back to CID headquarters. We spent a day there and then we were released. The experience was traumatic and one I hope never to repeat.