On Friday 13 March, Sister Philomena and Sister Greta set off by road from Conakry to Makeni. The purpose of their journey was to visit Sister Ann Stevens and Sister Kieran Flynn after their 17 day ordeal at the hands of Junta soldiers and rebels who had come up to go on a rampage through all up-country towns after having been ousted from Freetown by Ecomog (West African Peace Keeping Force). The sad story of the recent savage attacks by the retreating Junta army ( known as the ‘People’s Army’ since the coup of 1997) revealed itself on the journey. Having heard that the town of Lunsar had been particularly badly hit, they stopped there to see the damage and to offer sympathy to the few mission personnel still around. It was the Catholic Mission that was specially targeted, seemingly because two of the Bishops had spoken out against the Junta. The convent of the Clarissan Missionary sisters and their Girls’ Secondary Boarding school, the Josephite Fathers house and two schools, and the St. John of God Brothers Hospital and living quarters were all in a state of complete shambles. It was heartbreaking to see all papers and various items scattered across the floor, files emptied, and what equipment could not be carried just smashed to pieces. All these institutions had been very well equipped with up to date machines and instruments.
Continuing on their journey the sight of burned out houses was becoming all too familiar. Some of the houses in the villages had been made of mud blocks – the homes of the poor. Where were they now? What kind of madness had caused such senseless devastation?
Arriving at Makeni convent the 2 Sisters were eagerly waiting and gave the travellers a very warm and joyful welcome. They had filled the van with provisions and all that they thought would be needed. Over a tasty meal of rice and sauce the visitors then gave their whole attention to stories of the siege. The sisters had remained on in the convent for 3 days after the arrival of the rebels. Then Fr. Daniel Koroma, V.G. went over and advised them to join all the other missionary personnel in the Pastoral centre. There were about 50 priests, Sisters, Brothers and seminarians. Some of the seminarians had decided to walk to Port Loko (a 4 day walk) to get out of danger. They followed the bush paths and slept in the bush at nights. The Clarissan Sisters in Lunsar had to do the same – walk from Lunsar to Port Loko through the bush. One of the Sisters who was a diabetic had to be carried by the priests who were accompanying them.
Luckily the Pastoral Centre had two very good wells, so water was never in short supply. Mattresses were brought down to the hall where a makeshift dormitory was soon arranged. The shooting at night and the periodical visits by the rebels (some only young boys) who behaved very roughly with the older priests were the most frightening aspects of the 17 days. News came in that all mission houses, including the seminary and convents had been looted. The Missionaries of Charity had been held at gunpoint, Sister Rosemary gave them the keys and told them to take what they wanted. They carried away all the food and money. Then they told Sisters to pack a bag and go with them, but the Sisters remained steadfast in their refusal to obey that order. “You can shoot us if you like” they said “but we are not coming”. In the end they went off and the Sisters went to join the others at the Pastoral Centre.
During on of the military ‘visits’ to the Pastoral centre the soldiers helped themselves to all bags and their contents. So now everybody had only the clothes they were wearing! Bit by bit it was discovered that the convent was only partially looted, the work it is believed of a local youth!!! In fact it became a well known fact that 80% of the looting was done by civilians! The Hearing Impaired School was cleared of all its equipment – hearing aids (of what use to them??) audio testing machines, tape recorders, 25 sewing machines, typewriters, carpentry tools etc. When all was over the Sisters had visited Magburaka only to find the convent emptied of everything except the beds and heavy furniture!!! The Mission which had been visited 3 times was in the same state. The 2 priests had stayed in different villages until all was over. 19 houses were burned down in Magburaka.
The saddest scene of all was the burned out workshop of Brother Schneider, who for 28 years had been making shoes and callipers for the lepers and the handicapped. It was said to be the best of its kind in West Africa, and Brother Schneider was certainly one of the most committed Missionaries ever to have worked there.
We are waiting for further news.