Sierra Leone Blood Spills as Iron Boom Stirs War’s Ghosts
A boomtown is rising in the jungle- covered mountains of Sierra Leone. Bumbuna, estimated population 12,000, just got a new bank. A growing Sunday congregation spills out from underneath blue tarps that serve as a makeshift church. In hills where armed men once abducted children, school kids now get coloring books featuring a smiling bulldozer ridden by the cartoon character Bob the Builder. Outside of town, the mining company handing them out is loading bright yellow Caterpillar (CAT) trucks as it unearths iron ore, giving Sierra Leone the fastest-growing economy in the world.
The country that put “child soldier” and “blood diamonds” into the global lexicon is expected to see its economy grow more than 21 percent this year as it celebrates the 10th anniversary of peace. Production of iron ore -- used to make steel -- is leading a natural resources boom. Even with a series of recent setbacks, a mine six miles outside of Bumbuna, majority owned by the London-listed company African Minerals Ltd. (AMI), will by itself account for most of this year’s growth.
Yet for workers and townspeople, survivors of one of the most barbaric African wars in the last half-century, the mine is awakening the very ghosts of war that growth is meant to lay to rest. In April, workers were met with police violence after demanding the right to form their own union and get better pay for helping tap the national wealth buried in the hills around Bumbuna. Hundreds of government security forces, armed with assault weapons, descended on the town. They went on a two-day rampage, beating and arbitrarily arresting residents, threatening women with sexual violence, firing on civilians without warning or cause, and spilling blood on the town’s dirt streets.
It is the latest in a string of incidents in which the demands of citizens, challenging the foreign companies that are extracting Sierra Leone’s natural resources, have triggered government violence. These are not academic concerns in a land still recovering from a war waged over resentments about the inequitable division of the country’s mineral wealth. With the boom expected to expand in the coming years, the country faces a real and deadly challenge that national and international officials have long warned about: maximizing the benefits from Sierra Leone’s natural resources without reigniting the forces that engulfed the country.
Many of the more than 30 people interviewed in and around Bumbuna say they relived the civil war during the assault in April. “The whole town was in a panic,” says Joseph Caesar M’bayo, a health worker who treated the wounded. “We have experienced this once before. We are afraid.” No one has been held to account for the violence. Human rights leaders and mineworkers fear it could happen again. Townspeople remain haunted by those two days.
On the morning of April 17, Kadie Kobo was busy peddling T- shirts for toddlers and other second-hand clothes heaped high on pallets along the edge of Bumbuna’s market. Women pick over threadbare bras as men roll up on motorbikes, reaching down and mining Kadie’s pile of worn shoes. Her fellow vendors -- almost all women -- sell everything from chicken feet to hair extensions, keeping children in hand or swaddled across their backs in slings. They shout prices over pop stars pounding from speakers at an outdoor bar across the dirt road. The market is the center of Bumbuna’s daily life, standing at the foot of the Numbara Mountains, which wrap the town. Kadie, a 45-year-old grandmother, has been selling in their shadows continuously for two decades, except when she fled rebel attacks during Sierra Leone’s civil war.
An estimated 50,000 people were killed in the conflict, which uprooted millions more. Even with 10 years of hindsight, the war defies simple explanations. Foreign powers, ethnic tensions and, famously, diamonds, played parts. Yet motives and alliances shifted across more than a decade of fighting, as even some of the country’s defenders became its plunderers. Academics still argue about whether the initial revolt was driven more by greed or grievances.
On March 23, 1991, rebels invaded from their base in neighboring Liberia and found fertile ground for upheaval where poverty festered amid natural-resource riches and corruption fed extreme inequality. The rebels tried to exploit these divides in their march toward the country’s diamond mines. They were no Robin Hoods. Lacking numbers, they employed terror. Serial amputation of limbs became their trademark, sexual violence another. They abducted and drugged children, forcing them to rape and kill as child soldiers. Word of rebel advances emptied towns.
That’s what happened in Bumbuna. In November 1994, a lone driver spotted rebels on a road nearby and sped back with a warning, elders say. Rebels razed empty homes as townspeople scattered. Market seller Kadie Kobo was one of them. Then 27, she made her way through the hills to family in a nearby village. The rebels made it there, too, burning people alive inside locked homes, according to Kadie and a 1995 Amnesty International report. She survived, but her sister was killed. Kadie returned to Bumbuna after the war, sleeping under corrugated sheeting. She also returned to the market. Earlier this year, she had to flee again.
As the midday rush began April 17, a truck thundered by Kadie’s side of the market carrying police armed with assault rifles. “They were going full speed,” she recalls, pointing up the road toward the town’s courthouse, an outdoor forum. Saluh Conteh, a mine electrician and former soldier, was there with a few dozen other workers. They had given company and government officials a strike notice they titled, “PROTEST ABOUT DEPLORABLE WORKING CONDITIONS OF THE GENERAL WORKFORCE.” It cited 13 longstanding grievances, including low pay, a ban on their chosen union, and arbitrary firings, even of miners hospitalized due to work accidents. Officials were to meet them around lunchtime.
Instead, the miners were greeted by police, who fired teargas at strikers blocking a nearby road. Witnesses say mine trucks were lined up and ready to roll back to work once police cleared the path in front of a fuel depot. Officers then emptied adjacent streets with rifle reports, witnesses say. “As soon as they dislodged us from the court,” Conteh says, the police marched down the road, “straight to the market.”
Kadie, who had spent the morning juggling sales and her 7- month-old grandson, heard the gunfire. Armed officers pushed toward the covered food market behind her. Women say police advanced from all sides, cursing them, overturning tables, destroying merchandise and firing their guns -- accounts later corroborated by the Sierra Leone Human Rights Commission. Bullets and teargas canisters flew past children. Air normally scented with smoked seafood filled with a choking fog. “I left the fish and run to save my life,” recalls Maseray Shema, a 28- year-old vendor. “All the women cry and run for their life.”
Kadie pressed her grandson into her chest, covering his head as she dashed for home through the warren of streets behind the market. “For us,” she recalls, “it was like the rebels were attacking again.”
No raw material is more basic than iron ore, and in recent years China has been importing more of it than the rest of the world combined. Its price is a sort of barometer for the Chinese economy, in turn lifting or sinking the appetite for the raw materials that drive the fortunes of Sierra Leone and other poor countries. Rising demand for steel to build China’s skyscrapers and lay the rebar running beneath its highways spawned plans for iron-ore projects across West Africa. This includes another mine in Sierra Leone, operated by London Mining Plc (LOND), and projects in neighboring Liberia and Guinea.
The three countries’ borders once were crossed by combatants and refugees in linked conflicts that lasted from 1989 to 2003 and together took 300,000 lives. Now JPMorgan Chase & Co. estimates that a geological beltway crossing them could account for almost 40 percent of global iron-ore exports within a decade. African Minerals’ mine near Bumbuna, called Tonkolili, is the region’s largest thus far.
Opening mines in Sierra Leone hasn’t been easy. Eleven years of war brought down power lines, destroyed water pipes, roads and other transport networks. The World Bank this year ranked Sierra Leone 150th out of 155 countries in its “logistics performance index” for trade infrastructure.
To get ore to market, African Minerals refurbished a 124- mile rail line and imported the first locomotives in 30 years to chug down any track in the country. They haul ore to a port near Freetown, the capital city founded at the end of the 18th Century as a refuge for freed American slaves.
The trains, though, have been running far less than anticipated. African Minerals (AMI) had trouble keeping its ore dry enough to meet standards. It had to suspend shipments in late August before resuming in October, and twice cut production estimates for this year. The company’s value has fallen almost 56 percent from its February high in trading this year on the London Stock Exchange Plc’s Alternative Investment Market.
The International Monetary Fund also has reduced Sierra Leone’s total growth projections, cutting them from an initial estimate of more than 50 percent down to 35 percent --and finally down to an estimated 21.3 percent, demonstrating how tightly bound the nation’s hopes are to iron ore. Still, if longer-term projections by African Minerals and London Mining hold up, the two operations alone could account for a tenfold increase in national exports by 2015, the World Bank says.
It’s unclear how much Sierra Leone will earn from the extraction of its natural resources, given the structure of mining-tax regimes and the volatility of prices in the global iron-ore market. The big miners have individual tax deals. African Minerals’ corporate rate, set by parliament in 2010 just before it passed a new mining law, will be 25 percent for a quarter-century, compared with the national rate of 37.5 percent, according to a study of the mining deals published last year by a consortium of non-governmental organizations and confirmed by a company official.
African Minerals has yet to declare a profit, and the agreement exempts the company from a minimum tax rate of 3.5 percent on gross revenues. That tax was designed to ensure at least some treasury receipts even if companies claim losses or transfer revenues overseas through corporate vehicles. The mine also is supposed to pay a 3 percent royalty on ore sales. African Minerals, listed in London but based in Bermuda, owns 75 percent of the mine. The rest belongs to China’s Shandong Iron and Steel Group.
Benefits from the project seem clear in Bumbuna, at least on the surface, as new businesses rise across town. Workers in October were putting the finishing touches on a new bank, a branch of Nigeria’s Guaranty Trust Bank Plc. Yet local leaders are growing leery of the tradeoffs, their concerns fueled by what happened just a few feet from the bank, which is opening across from Kadie Kobo’s stall at the market.
After the teargas cleared from the market on April 17, a 38-year-old evangelical minister scanned the red dirt around its stalls for the glint of shell casings ejected by police rifles. Daniel T. Bangura and townspeople collected shells from six makes of police weapons, including the M-16 assault rifle and the M-4 carbine, a ballistics expert later determined.
That night, Bangura ascended a dirt road cut in the hill overlooking the market on the west side of town. A single-story concrete building sits halfway up. “Welcome to FM 102.5 Radio Numbara” is stenciled above its rust-colored doors. Radio is the top news source for Sierra Leoneans, few of whom have electricity beyond batteries. Bangura hosts a Saturday-night call-in show, with a 1,000-watt transmitter projecting his voice as far as 10 miles from the red-and-white antenna rising on the hillside. On April 17 he came to spread calm, he says, as armed police patrolled below, their numbers boosted by rumors that striking workers were planning attacks on the mine’s fuel depot, reports the strikers denied. More than 200 police were trucked into Bumbuna, officials later determined.
At 11 p.m. Bangura walked into the studio and sat on a wooden chair, leaning into a microphone with a torn cover and delivering something akin to a sermon. Townspeople, miners and policemen “are all members of the same family,” he recalls saying. It was time to come together. But he had another message, too. Stand up for your rights.
Calls poured in. The show became a sort of public hearing. “The radio was our only hope,” says Edward K. Turay, 36, who like many kept his on all night. Listeners detailed police abuses, or what they saw as exploitation by the mine. Bangura also discussed the shells. “I said, ‘We have evidence here, and it is in our possession, because tomorrow they will deny the fact that they used live bullets.’”
As the sun rose over the hills across town, one listener told Bangura that the driver of a mine truck was asking about the station’s location. Soon callers announced over the airwaves that they saw police coming up the hillside packed into the bed of a mining company subcontractor’s truck. Bangura connected another listener. “There are policemen,” he recalls the man saying. “In fact, they are now standing at [your] door.”
Someone started banging on the station’s metal entrance. “It was loud,” Bangura says -- so noisy, it could be heard on air. Callers pleaded: “Don’t open the door.”
Momoh Turay, a friend of the minister listening in, bolted through his front door, sprinting the half-mile to the station. “I ran fast,” says the wiry 47-year-old, “so fast, I lost my breath.” Four others were already there, arguing with policemen, Turay recalls. The police beat and arrested one man, as an angry crowd assembled at the bottom of the hill. He estimates there were more than 50 men, their number swelling by the minute.
Bangura signed off and shut down the transmitter. The radio went silent. The banging continued. He pushed open the double doors and police burst in, including regional commander Daniel Koneh. (Koneh declined to comment on these events.) Officers loaded Bangura into the truck’s cab. He says he was under arrest, but that police called it “an invitation” to join them.
As the truck rolled downhill, the crowd blocked its path, shouting defiance, witnesses say. Bangura convinced the commander to let him speak to avert violence, he says. But after he exited the cab, the chanting crowd swallowed Bangura like a fast-moving school of fish. “The people picked me up,” he says, adding that two men whisked him away on their shoulders. They chanted: “Reverend, Reverend, Reverend!” Turay says. Police teargas canisters streamed and arced overhead, landing all around. Some townspeople threw stones. Then came “very heavy firing,” Bangura says.
Kelly Conteh, a tall 27-year-old, says he was trying to outrun the crowd when something struck the back of his head, knocking him off his feet. He reached up, touched his head, and then saw his fingers covered in blood before losing consciousness. “The only shot I heard was the one that hit me,” he says. It was about 7:30 a.m., April 18. In the hours that followed, more people would be shot.
The mine is creating jobs and development for the area. It’s also bringing social, environmental and even economic troubles. With or without work, people from across one of the world’s poorest nations flood into the town, believing they can benefit. No one is helping Bumbuna with a cascading set of unforeseen consequences, says Michael Y. Kallon, 57, the local government secretary and headmaster of a primary school.
The population has increased almost three-fold since mineworkers first dug a trench for a feasibility study in 2006, Kallon says, bringing hyperinflation. Rents are up eight-fold for a single room. He says the number of students packing his classrooms has tripled to 500, but he still has only four paid teachers. “New students are coming every week.” Other schools and health services are equally strained.
Construction of a compound for foreign mineworkers in a saddleback ridge overlooking Bumbuna ruined the town’s water source, Kallon says. A once-clear mountain stream now runs red with sediment, prompting protests from women in the town last year. The government dammed and rerouted another stream, but Kallon estimates less than 40 percent of local water needs are met. “Even my schoolyard doesn’t have water,” he says.
When miners issued their strike notice in April, their final grievance was with a policy prohibiting them from filling water jugs at work, even though the operation “polluted the main water source for the entire township.”
The company says the mine is Sierra Leone’s largest private employer, though it declined to give breakdowns of the workforce, such as full-time jobs versus temporary workers. Community leaders say thousands of locals have worked indirectly for the mine as day-laboring “stone pitchers,” laying rocks along the refurbished rail line. But hundreds who had gone unpaid for more than three months blocked an entrance to the mine in October until company executives intervened and paid them, police say.
No community has been more affected by the mine than the village of Ferengbeya (pronounced: Fair-in-buy-ah). Late last year, the government moved more than 700 residents. All their possessions were packed into trucks. Bulldozers scraped away what remained. Today, the mine entrance stands in Ferengbeya’s place.
About 15 miles away, a yellow road sign points to “New Ferengbeya.” Almost every one of the 116 small, yellow brick houses is shared by two, three, or even four families, says the deputy chief, Foray Kargbo, 48. He organized the move. “We need development in this country,” he says of the sacrifice his village made. But elders now realize they paid too dearly, says Kargbo. Villagers lost hunting grounds, the waters where they fished, and the farmlands where they grew rice. “You have no place to find money, you have no place to find food,” he says.
For a few months, each house, no matter how many people lived inside, got an equal monthly allowance: the equivalent of about $12 and a bag of rice big enough for about five people. The allowances ended Dec. 5, according to Kargbo. He says he doesn’t know how his people will eat.
Only 12 residents have full-time mine jobs, he says, despite vague promises before the move. Homes less than a year old already are crumbling and cracking. Yellow, undrinkable liquid streams from water pumps. Children in the village did receive those Bob the Builder coloring books, printed with the notation that each was a gift from African Minerals. “The benefit is not enough for us,” Kargbo says.
Kelly Conteh, the first man shot in Bumbuna on April 18, sat upright on a narrow, iron-framed cot, a white bandage wrapping his head like a turban. Someone had carried him away from the gunfire to the Bumbuna Community Health Centre, where Joseph Caesar M’bayo, 33, the medical technician in charge, tended the wound. Caesar, as townspeople know him, determined the bullet probably bounced off the back of Conteh’s skull, and that the young man required hospitalization. “After this, others started coming in,” Caesar recalls, seated in a wheelchair inside his center’s closet-sized treatment room. “They were just streaming in.”
At 7:59 a.m. that day, Caesar held out his iPhone and started photographing victims. After Conteh was a young boy overcome by teargas and in shock. Unisa Bangura, a mason working near the market, says he was running when a bullet ripped into his right leg below the knee and tore away a hunk of calf upon exit. Within a few hours, shooting victims doubled up on the clinic’s cots, or lied on the floor between them.
Throughout the morning, police swept the town, clearing streets, shooting people, and bursting into homes to make random arrests, witnesses say. Twenty-nine people were detained without prosecutions, many allegedly beaten. As police entered Karim Moreba’s home near the market, he says he hid above a false ceiling. After they left, he checked a back room that he’d been renting to a young woman who had just landed a job as a house cleaner at the mine compound in the saddleback ridge. But Musuh Conteh wasn’t there.
Called “Rihanna” by friends, 22-year-old Musuh Conteh had gone to the edge of town, where about 45 women gathered. As a matter of custom, every man is supposed to go inside when women perform a traditional dance. So the women of Bumbuna reckoned they could clear the streets of men and bring peace by singing and dancing, says Baromi Konteh, who heads the local women’s society.
She and the other women waved mango leaves, long like blades on a ceiling fan, up and down as they passed the market and danced toward the police station at the other end of town. Musuh Conteh and other young women led the procession. Instead of leaving, the women say, police threatened to violate them with guns. The women were not deterred. “We made a cry for peace,” Baromi Konteh says.
When the women reached a large mango tree close to the police station, the “policemen started to fire at ground level,” says Kadija Kamara, 29, who was near Musuh Conteh. A single bullet entered Musuh’s chest, and she fell to the ground. “‘I’m dying,’ she said,” according to Kamara.
In the ensuing chaos, a man carried Musuh to the clinic on his back. Caesar says she was dead on arrival. Her body was placed on a wicker mat laid on the concrete floor. Someone shrouded her in a sheet printed with white clouds over a sky- blue background. In all, nine shooting victims filled Caesar’s tiny clinic that day. The eight survivors were driven down a rutted dirt road to the nearest city hospital, about 90 minutes away, where they were admitted for treatment. Musuh Conteh was the only shooting victim who worked at the mine.
As the violence receded, government ministers and company executives rushed to town on April 18, holding the meeting that never happened the day before as strike leaders faced live fire and teargas. Miners ultimately got 16 percent raises, retroactive to January. Bangura, who had fled into the hills, emerged from hiding after a few days.
The nation’s five-member Human Rights Commission, independent and well-funded as a legacy of the war, held an unprecedented series of public hearings. Police brass denied officers used live fire, just as Bangura had foretold. Commanders even suggested townspeople injured their own with homemade shotguns.
Ballistics tests on the shells Bangura had collected, along with testimony -- even from officers -- left no doubt. “The police were shooting at people without warning and without good cause,” commissioners concluded in a 112-page report issued in September. “They even shot people who were scared and fleeing.”
Commissioners were unable to say who gave the fatal orders. No one has been charged in Musuh Conteh’s death, or in the other shootings. The panel’s report savages the police’s reaction to the strike threat. Nothing workers or townspeople did warranted the deployment of such overwhelming force, or the ensuing levels of police violence, they said, adding that officials exaggerated potential threats. Commissioners were critical specifically of Bangura’s arrest, calling it a tipping point.
They concluded there was “scanty evidence to arrive at a finding of complicity” by African Minerals in these human- rights violations, but added that the company “needs to review its relationship with the police and the government as a whole to ensure that it exerts positive influence in favor of the promotion and protection of human rights.” The commission also said the company needed to be transparent about material support it provides to security forces. A senior police official even arrived to testify before the panel in a mine vehicle.
The company, through a spokesman in London, declined to comment on its relationship with the police, or the commission’s findings. It did point to a previously issued statement in which it said executives were trying to manage community expectations. It also took credit for organizing talks that defused the strike, and noted the appointment of a new human resources chief.
Commissioners said it was unclear whether the company has kept all of the promises it made after the strike because they were not given access to workers. Saluh Conteh, the strike leader, was transferred by African Minerals to Freetown. In an interview at a seaside guesthouse provided by the company, he says he’s being paid to enjoy the beach. Other strike leaders got perks, including vehicles, he says. The workers’ most significant demand, to join the union of their choice, remains unaddressed, he says. “Another big problem will arise,” he says between drags on a cigarette.
Given that Sierra Leone is recovering from a war enflamed and funded by the exploitation of its minerals, agencies of the United Nations, the British government (the largest donor to Sierra Leone), and others have long warned of potential fallout from large-scale resource extraction. Haddijatou Jallow, who heads the country’s Environmental Protection Agency, wrote in a June essay of the unique risks posed by an industry with “a history of under-delivering” on promises. “Unless this round of resource extraction promotes inclusive development, it will endanger the peace-building process,” she said.
The Human Rights Commission found that “gross human rights violations” by police in Bumbuna were indicative of systemic abuses against workers and communities facing off against extractive companies nationwide.
The commission cited the case of another village near the Tonkolili iron-ore project where police allegedly suppressed a strike in November 2010 by brutalizing 10 people, destroying their houses and looting their property. A year later, residents of another community accused police of similar offenses. “The villages were deserted,” the commission found. “People had to run away from their homes again.”
The violations continue, it concluded, because “no one has so far been prosecuted for using disproportionate force in response to public disorder situations.”
The radio pastor at the center of April’s violence doesn’t seem content to let his congregants play the victim again. On a recent Sunday on the edge of Bumbuna, more than 100 women, men and children squeeze under blue tarps stretched across a frame made of tree trunks. Bouncing up and down the aisle between rows of plastic chairs and battered benches, Bangura alternately shouts and whispers, imploring his flock to ignore the doubts of others and find their feet.
“Even when you die,” he says, “people will criticize you.” Better to join in individual and collective action. “In the community, I have a role to play. In the society to which I belong, I have a role to play,” he shouts. “In national business, I need to play my own role.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Cam Simpson in London at firstname.lastname@example.org