Mrs. Agnes Deen-Jalloh: A Memory

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  • By Lans Gberie
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  • In Abidjan in early 1996 to report on peace talks between the Sierra Leone government and the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), I and two friends were taken to meet with the “advance RUF delegation” in a gated house at Biétry, one of the wealthier suburbs of Abidjan. The area seemed exclusive and the security detail rather light. A slight young man, unhurried and somewhat vacant, opened the gate and showed us inside. He turned out to be Fayia Musa, the RUF Spokesman at the time: before the meeting, he was only a disembodied frantic voice on the BBC to me.
  • In the large sitting room, undecorated and impersonal, sat around half a dozen people. I recognised Dr. Mohamed Barrie (abducted by the RUF at Sierra Rutile) and Mr. Deen-Jalloh (abducted with his family while a senior staff at Bunumbu Teachers College), bearded and genial. Seated on his side was an elegant, dignified woman of great beauty. Mr. Musa introduced her as Mrs. Agnes Deen-Jalloh. Her photograph had not been in circulation, as had those of her husband and Dr. Barrie, though she was the elder sister of President Brigadier Julius Maada Bio. Bio had become leader of the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC) three months earlier, had initiated peace talks with the RUF (the first, tentative, meeting between a delegation of NPRC and RUF had taken place in Abidjan in February), had conducted successful national polls that elected Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, and would lead a delegation a few days later to meet with RUF leader Foday Saybanah Sankoh in Yamoussoukro, the capital city of Côte d’Ivore, before handing over power to Kabbah.
  • I found it all very strange, that advance delegation: half of the people – the Deen-Jallohs and Dr. Barrie – in the sitting room had been kidnapped by the RUF and forcibly inducted. Though introduced a the senior members, none seemed to carry authority: indeed they seemed rather subdued.
  • I was fascinated by Mrs. Deen-Jalloh: she was the only woman in the room, and she seemed such a charming presence. I sat next to her and quietly asked her whether she was thrilled that her little brother was now Head of State. “I would like to see how that boy has grown up,” she said, almost in a whisper. She averted her eyes. As quietly, I asked her about the story, which had circulated earlier, that President Bio had sent commandos to kidnap her while she was based at Danane, a dusty Ivorian border town and a notorious rebel entreport. She had not heard the story, she said, but she seemed fascinated by it. (When I asked President Bio about it later, he denied it. “I sent some people to verify whether she was still alive,” he said. “But they never found her.)
  • With great dignity, Mrs. Deen Jalloh invited us to lunch, which she had set on a large dining table. There were animated discussions about the elections and what prospects the talks would have after Kabbah (“the civilians”) took over. An hour and half later we left. As we did, Fayia Musa gave me a large parcel full of the RUF’s putative manifesto, Footpaths to Democracy, to take back to Freetown and “educate our people about the peoples’ struggle”, he said. I had not heard about the pamphlet, and I thought this would be a scoop. But at Yamoussoukro a few days later I saw copies of it being passed around; and two of the RUF delegates I met at the bar at Hotel President – where all delegates were hosted – late one night told me that Addai Sebo, a Ghanaian old left political agitator, had written it. Sebo was at the talks, always seen around Sankoh, a large camera hanging around his neck.
  • What I later learnt about Mrs. Deen Jalloh, some of it from a long interview I had with Maada Bio in 2011 and mainly from the report of Sierra Leone’s Truth and Reconciliation report of 2004, only added an extra, retrospective dignity to her profoundly admirable character: a character and personality indeed very rare and truly heroic.
  • From a family of 35 children, Mrs. Agnes Deen-Jalloh, President Bio’s elder sister by many years, brought Bio to her home, which was at the time in Pujehun, where she was a schoolteacher; he stayed with her for five years, during which time he completed primary school. She then sent him off to the Bo School, some miles away from Pujehun, which he completed in 1984. Mrs. Deen-Jalloh and husband then moved to Bunumbu, both to teach. The RUF attacked the town, in Kailahun District, in 1991 and kidnapped the couple along with Elizabeth Bio, Mrs. Deen Jalloh’s younger sister. According to the TRC report, Sankoh subjected the three, particularly Mrs. Deen Jalloh, to the most horrific of abuses. After Bio took over as NPRC leader, according to the TRC, “he sent photographs of his sister Agnes to all military formations to try and track her as they launched attacks on RUF positions. A witness reported to the Commission how Bio broke down and wept uncontrollably when he was finally reunited with his sister. Tihun, their hometown, was attacked in January 1996 because Maada Bio was the Head of State. That attack has entered the conflict folklore as the ‘Tihun Massacre’. Several members of the family including Josepo Bio were killed in the attack. It is to the credit of Julius Maada Bio that he did not allow family tragedy to becloud his pursuit of peace with the RUF.”

The report continued: “Part of Sankoh’s cruel and deliberate abuse was to compel both Agnes and her husband to perform active and public roles in the RUF movement.  Ibrahim Deen-Jalloh became something of a spokesperson for the RUF, making statements on behalf of Sankoh and a movement for which he can have left little affinity.  Agnes Deen-Jalloh was despatched to the Ivory Coast as part of the first RUF peace delegation there in 1996.” The TRC report said that Mrs. Deen Jalloh refused to make any attempt to escape without her husband: she knew he would be executed immediately after.

Foday Sankoh, the report said, “singled out the Bio family deliberately for a range of violations and abuses at his personal behest, principally at his own hands.  When Julius Maada Bio became a member of the NPRC administration and later the Head of State, Sankoh sought to place the family under the most deplorable pressure.  Indeed, several further Bio relatives were killed or maimed in the Tihun massacre of 1995.” The report concluded that “In this light, it is to Julius Maada Bio’s great credit that he retained a statesmanlike demeanour towards Sankoh during the peace efforts of early 1996.  Against a background of widespread distrust in Maada Bio as the head of a military junta that was thought to want to perpetuate itself in power, his dignity and courage in overcoming a family tragedy was not publicly understood. His effort in attempting to make peace with Sankoh in Abidjan in 1996 is commendable. In his interview with the Commission, Maada Bio lamented the personal agony he felt in negotiating with a man who had caused so much pain and anguish to his family. Putting nation above self, he pushed himself to shake Sankoh’s outstretched hand in Abidjan.”

I was witness to that outstretched arms and arched embrace. I looked around at the time to see whether Mrs. Deen Jalloh was there: I didn’t see her. I am glad that she lived long enough to witness peace return to our country and moreover to bask in the great triumph of his beloved brother. Her story is a reminder, if this were needed, of the triumph of human will over great adversity, of dignity in the face of immense suffering, and of the terrible toll the war – now fading into distant memory and barely remembered by a much younger generation – wrought on our country. May she RIP.

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