Civil Courage Prize
for steadfast resistance to evil at great personal risk

Paul Kamara Remarks
Palazzo Carignano, Torino, Italy, October 13, 2001

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I come from a country whose mineral resources are more than enough to ensure a happy life for its less than 4.5 million citizens. There are diamonds, gold, iron ore, bauxite, rutile and fertile land, to name a few. And, now there is oil.

Ironically, every year for the past 20 years or more, my country has been ranked as the poorest in the world, with the least standards of living. The average citizen earns less than ten American dollars a month.

The reasons for this are simple; corruption and bad governance. This has been the case since we achieved independence 40 years ago.

Ladies and gentlemen, I come from a country where wives were raped in front of their husbands; little girls were raped by men their fathers' age. Fetuses were ripped from the stomachs of pregnant women.

I come from a country where families were locked inside their shelters and the shelters set on fire. The killers took positions round the shelters and watched as the families burned to ashes amidst cries of agony.

I come from a country where killers used machetes to cut off the hands and legs of innocent citizens.

Killers entered churches and mosques, sprayed bullets on all those that had taken refuge there and set the buildings on fire.

A priest in my country summed it all up in just one word: "apocalypse". He said what befell Sierra Leone for the past ten years is an apocalypse. And, if I survived that apocalypse, and I am standing right here on two legs and I can raise my two hands, then indeed I must thank the lord god almighty.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is therefore with a sense of great humility that I stand here to receive the honour you have given me.

It is also, I must confess, with a sense of some surprise. We engage in our battles without expecting to gain reward for it. And sometimes when we are rewarded, as you have rewarded me, you do me not just a personal honour -- for which I am grateful--but you also legitimize and endorse the struggle and the sacrifices we have made.

I would never have done all of this alone; I therefore dedicate this award to all my friends and comrades who have struggled with me, side-by-side over the years and also to all truly democratic forces in Sierra Leone.

I was born in Kambia district exactly 45 years ago. My parents are from humble farming stock. Kambia district is one of the most neglected districts in what was even then, one of the poorest countries in the world. Thanks to my parents and the Catholic Mission I was able to receive a decent education, but it was a struggle. I was more fortunate than most of my contemporaries, I must confess.

By the early 1970s, as I was struggling through school on a single meal a day, the ruling All Peoples Congress had turned itself into a corrupt de facto one party dictatorship. It had eliminated formal opposition parties, and dissidents in its own ranks. Free speech was curtailed and a cult of the leader--rivaling anything promulgated in Stalinist Russia--was gradually growing up around then President, Siaka Stevens.

It was in this atmosphere that school friends and I joined the anti-All Peoples Congress demonstration of January, 1977. These riots were sparked off when a peaceful demonstration caused a brutal reaction from the regime.

I entered Fourah Bay College in 1978 and here too, because of my poor background and due to the fact the APC, in order to tame students, had begun to slash university scholarships, life was really a struggle.

The one-party state was now officially declared, through a rigged referendum and the constitution of 1978.

For Di People newspaper was born in 1983, a year after I graduated from the University. From day one, we have always tried to make our publication a real newspaper born out of a strong sense for humanity, freedom and justice.

Ironically, it was precisely these values that got me imprisoned in 1984, after less than four months of acting as For Di People's editor. We ran a story exposing how President Stevens had taken the star of Sierra Leone — the third largest diamond ever found — abroad for sale. This was how our country was run then. I recall Time (in one of the rare stories on the situation in Sierra Leone written by a western magazine during those days), remarking dryly that "President Stevens often confused the treasury with his personal bank account."

For my pains I was whisked off into solitary confinement and held in damp and unhealthy conditions for over ten days. No charges were ever brought against me. Everyone, including Stevens, knew that the story was completely true. My crime in the eyes of the state, was to tell truths which, in their opinion, should best be whispered.

A few months later I was back inside the dreaded Pademba Road maximum prison for a much longer spell, this time for exposing a deal involving an inflated contract for the purchase of uniforms for our military police.

I have been jailed more times than I can recount, and seen inmates die in droves, many because of a corrupt judicial system manipulated by a despotic regime. I wrote an article in which I compared that prison to a silencer that whispers a soft, painful, and agonizing death.

I shall not burden you with all the travails we went through during those bitter days; my illegal abduction and detention on a false bench warrant signed by a magistrate who had been bribed by a gang of crooked foreign contractors whom we'd exposed; the temporary "banning" of our newspaper in 1988 — only reversed following a popular outcry — and our protracted battle with the inspector-general of police — the most powerful and feared man in the country — during the days of Siaka Stevens' successor, Major General Joseph Saidu Momoh.

By this time the APC was universally detested for its corruption and incompetence. For Di People was no longer walking alone as it was. To broaden our base we set up the National League for Human Rights. By then the winds of political change were blowing; the same winds that toppled the Berlin wall also shook the far less sturdy barriers of the one-party dictatorship. We were poised to play an active role in ensuring a level playing field for free, democratic elections, which would have meant the ouster of the APC, without doubt, when two disasters hit almost simultaneously — war and a coup, in 1991-1992.

The April 29, 1992 coup by a group of young officers was popularly hailed as a "revolution", but within a year the NPRC showed a streak of brutality which surpassed even the rotten dictatorship they'd overthrown. Our paper was the first to detail some of these human rights abuses — including the rape of a senior hotel manageress, beatings of people who opposed the military's will and the bloody executions of 26 people who were accused of being involved in a coup plot; even though most of them were already in detention when this phantom coup was being plotted.

The military refused to issue our license in January, 1993. For almost two years we languished, but the National League for Human Rights took up the slack. We were able to support the eight detained journalists in late 1993 held for exposing the case of Captain Strasser, then head of state, who disappeared with a 100 carat diamond.

Even though our paper was not circulating, the military still considered us a threat. Both my news editor, Sallieu Kamara, and I were hauled before the so-called military council and accused of being "enemies of the state." My accusers eventually backed down.

When we finally won back our license in 1995 we hit the streets with a bang; doing exactly the same things for which we'd been banned more than two years earlier. We gave our full support to the independent elections commission and also fully covered and participated in the two consultative conferences that led to the fixing of a date for free elections in February, 1996. We covered and supported women's students' and civil society groups who agitated for those elections.

On February 26, 1996, after voting along with the rest of my staff, we were sitting in a bar having beer and quietly hoping that we'd live to see what we'd agitated for almost 20 years: democracy. Suddenly, a curfew was declared.

On my way home, I was ambushed in front of the press house. More than 50 bullets were fired into my vehicle. I staggered out and dropped on the ground. They fired another shot into my leg and thigh, then a passing vehicle scared them off, and I was taken to the hospital.

I won't bother you with the long and painful period of operation after operation to repair my shattered thigh. I spent long days with my foot in traction, and had a slow and painful process of physiotherapy.

We denounced the killers and mobilized the population into civil disobedience for the next nine months, until the junta was flushed out by the West African peacekeeping forces: ECOMOG.

One fateful day they came and flung me from the second floor of our office building. Had it not been for an international outcry, particularly to the BBC, which alerted the world to my plight, I would have been dead by now. Our offices were ransacked, and we lost over 15 computers and our two printing presses donated by the US based National Endowment for Democracy and the Swedish International Development agency.

Our work has been greatly hampered by this terrible loss. We only hope that someone can assist us to stand up again in our struggle.

I thank you for giving me this Prize. But I beg of all of you here to take the struggle against oppression, illiteracy, injustice beyond the level of Prizes. Let it live in your hearts and in your consciences. Always fight for the right. In fighting for truth, we advance the human condition.

May peace finally return to our troubled land and our tortured continent.

 

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