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Mass Graves and Other Sites
In circumstances of war the dead all too often do not receive a standard burial. People die on territorywhere they are not known. Other times it may be too risky to perform the appropriate rituals and ceremonies. Occasionally the perpetrators simply wish to get rid of the bodies and “dump” them. All these circumstances result in the creation of “mass graves”.
Despite its limited resources the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission sent investigators to most districts in Sierra Leone in order to identify mass graves. These missions were not meant to produce an exhaustive survey of mass graves in the country. The goal was rather to give Sierra Leoneans a sense of what the conflict had wrought in different parts of the country. Behind every mass grave there is a tragic story.
The Commission also asked its investigators to identify certain other sites “that have a story to tell.” These included sites of mass killings, executions, tortures, amputations, etc.
A general overview of all the sites the Commission identified in the districts can be found in the “Table of Mass Graves and Other Sites” contained in Part Three of the Commission's Report on Mass Graves and Other Sites, and shown above on the Mass Graves and Other Sites map. However, the Commission also provides a full account of certain of the stories behind those sites in the pages that follow. These stories have been chosen with the aim of illustrating the different circumstances which gave rise to the mass graves.
While the list is principally illustrative in nature of certain violations, certain conclusions and recommendations have been made on the basis of the information collected, in particular with regard to the preservation of such sites.
Most persons consulted by the Commission suggested that the dead be remembered through some form of community and symbolic reparations.
The Commission recommends that the Government of Sierra Leone and the NGO community consider the erection of basic community facilities in consultation with affected communities. Such facilities should be dedicated to the victims of human rights atrocities.
Simple shrines and monuments should be constructed at the more significant mass graves and other sites in consultation with local communities.
Establishing a successful memorial in Sierra Leone requires the integration of traditional and cultural methods of memorialisation. (See also, Memorials and Transitional Justice in the Final Report.)
In discussions with the Commission, Sierra Leoneans emphasised that they are a hopeful people who like to remember the positive and not dwindle on the negative. Emblematic of this fact is that in many districts the dead are buried outside the town and that the area where they are buried provokes general fear. A stone is usually brought back to town from the area of burial to signify that the spirit of the dead person will not be forgotten. That stone is then placed in a small shrine that houses the spirit tokens of other deceased. In other words, the positive aspect of an event generally perceived as negative, is preserved. In creating new memorials, ideas should be discussed that would honour this scheme: perhaps through the reclamation of space once violated through the conversion of a site of mass atrocity into a school, a museum or a law court.
While memorialising should honour traditional and cultural methods, the magnitude of atrocities and human rights violations committed during Sierra Leone’s decade-long civil war makes this conflict a unique event that requires unique treatment. The raw violence and trauma of an event such as this that affects every stratum of society over an extended period of time cannot and should not be forgotten.
One of the most astounding ideas for a memorial came from some of the key stakeholders in the conflict in Sierra Leone: the perpetrators. A group of perpetrators spoke of a memorial in which perpetrators would leave imprints of their hands on a cement wall erected in a public space (maybe around the Cotton Tree) signifying a tacit agreement with themselves, with other perpetrators and with the nation and the world that they will never use these hands again to pick up a weapon and strike a fellow human being. Such a memorial brings together many of the most powerful aspects of memorialisation. It incorporates civic engagement among key stakeholders (perpetrators and, through the agreement, victims, future generations and other humans) and links the past (their history in the conflict) to the present and to the future (their agreement to not pick up arms again).
Mass grave sites and other sites such as massacre and torture sites serve as powerful reminders of the abuses of the past and the need to ensure that they never occur again. Steps must be taken to preserve the most significant sites in all districts.
Some Stories Told to the Commission during the Investigations of Mass Graves and Other Sites
Bonthe Site 1
One of the inhabitants of Tihun Town, Joseph Yanguba, made a statement to the Commission in which he related the same story of the RUF attack on Tihun. The following is an extract from his testimony:
“The fighters [...] attacked us in Tihun and killed over 600 people, men, women as well as children. Those who were captured and abducted were over 300 in number. During our capture, we were taken to Mattru Jong for recruitment because large number of their colleagues had died in ambush. I was with them for 3 weeks before I managed to escape from them. I then returned home. On my arrival I found out that the RUF fighters killed 9 members of my family. [...]
According to the fighters, they said that, we were told not to encourage soldiers in Tihun and we allowed our son, Maada Bio to send his soldiers to Tihun. That was the reason why large numbers of people were killed in Tihun Town. The dead bodies were left in the town to decay because we were afraid of the number. Secondly, because the RUF fighters would kill us if we were caught by them.”
Kailahun site 7
In Gboijiema, Malema chiefdom the Commission interviewed several witnesses of the events that resulted in massacres. This is the story of one of them:
“On 20 September 1991, the RUF fighters attacked the town at dawn and killed about eighty people. The fighters used guns and knives to kill. We managed to escape from the town. Foday was accused of being a soldier. Four fighters stabbed me with a bayonet at random. I fell on the ground. They used the knife and cut through my neck. As I lay half-dead I was abandoned in the pool of blood. The town was deserted for four years. We returned on 12 May 1994 to bury the remains. A mass grave of forty- five skulls and human skeletons was buried in the town”
The man named “Foday” mentioned in the previous story also made a statement to the Commission. He told the Commission that he was accused by the RUF fighters of “being a soldier”. He was tortured severely. He also provided the Commission with an account of the mass killing in his village:
Pujehun Site 7
At Bumpeh Pejeh chiefdom two mass graves were discovered. As the burial took place three years following the killings in 1996, the remains could not be identified. According to an eyewitness, Bumpeh Pejeh was the only chiefdom in the Pujehun district that had a heavy presence of SLA soldiers. As a result, many people from other areas came to this town for security. The RUF attacked the chiefdom causing heavy casualties and resulting in the dispersal of the population.
When displaced persons returned after three years they discovered that many of the original inhabitants were missing. When the residents of the chiefdom returned the entire village had become overgrown. It was during the time when the bushes were being cleared (“under-brushing”) that many of the remains were discovered. Most of the remains were collected from the township and some others were retrieved from the nearby bush. The first set of remains that was discovered was buried in a hole near a cotton tree at the southern end of the township. When the first site was full, the people dumped the remains at a second mass grave site between the roots of the cotton tree.