During the 1980’s, social, political, and economic problems kindled dissent throughout West Africa. When war ravaged neighboring Liberia, many fled to Sierra Leone. The branch arranged for homes and Kingdom Halls to be used to house the Witness refugees, and the brothers took care of their needs.
Though times were hard for the refugees, there were some amusing moments. Isolde Lorenz, a longtime missionary relates: “A young boy was sent by his father to warm up some food in the fireplace that was set up in the garden behind the Kingdom Hall, which was located on the branch’s property. When the boy came back, he told his father that there would be no food today. The father asked why. ‘Because,’ exclaimed the boy, ‘Today Jehovah has saved me from the mouth of the lion!’ What had happened? On his way back with the food, the boy had met the branch’s large, but rather harmless, German shepherd named Lobo. The boy had the fright of his life. While holding the plate of food, he had stretched his hands out as far as possible to ward off the dog. Lobo, of course, considered this as an invitation to help itself. And that’s exactly what Lobo did!”
On March 23, 1991, the armed conflict in Liberia spilled across the border into Sierra Leone, igniting an 11-year civil war. A rebel group called the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) advanced rapidly on Kailahun and Koindu, prompting most of the local population to flee to Guinea. Among the refugees were about 120 brothers and sisters. Meanwhile, other Witness refugees from Liberia flooded into Sierra Leone ahead of the rebels.
“For several months, groups of haggard, emaciated, hungry brothers arrived at Freetown Bethel,” says Billie Cowan, the Branch Committee coordinator at the time. “Many had witnessed unspeakable atrocities and had avoided starvation by eating wild herbs. We quickly gave them food and clothing and cared for the relatives and interested ones who accompanied them. The local brothers and sisters opened their hearts and their homes to the refugees. The Witness refugees immediately got busy in field service, helping the local congregations. In time, most of them moved on, but while they were here, they strengthened us!”
Sharing Comfort and Hope
The branch office sent food, medicine, building materials, tools, and utensils to Witnesses in refugee camps in southern Guinea. This included a large supply of donated clothing from France. “My children were dancing, singing, and praising Jehovah,” one father wrote. “They had new clothes to wear to the meetings!” Some brothers and sisters said that they had never dressed better!
The refugees, though, needed more than material aid. Jesus said: “Man must live, not on bread alone, but on every word that comes from Jehovah’s mouth.” (Matt. 4:4) So, the branch office sent Bible literature to the region and organized regular assemblies and conventions. Pioneers and traveling overseers were also sent to the area.
When circuit overseer André Baart visited Koundou, Guinea, he met a camp official who invited him to give a Bible talk for the local refugees. About 50 people heard André speak on the theme “Take Refuge in Jehovah,” based on Psalm 18. When he finished, an elderly woman rose and spoke. “You have made us very happy,” she said. “Rice does not solve our problems, but the Bible shows us how to hope in God. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts for bringing us comfort and hope.”
When missionaries William and Claudia Slaughter were assigned to Guékédou, Guinea, the congregation of over 100 refugees was aglow with the spirit. (Rom. 12:11) “Many young men were reaching out spiritually,” says William. “If someone could not give his assigned talk on the Theocratic Ministry School, 10 to 15 young brothers would volunteer to take his place. Large groups were out in service zealously preaching. Some of those zealous young men later became special pioneers and traveling overseers.”
Construction Amid Conflict
Soon after the civil war began, the brothers in Freetown purchased a one-and-a-half-acre (0.6 ha) property at 133 Wilkinson Road, a few hundred feet down the road from the branch office. “We wanted to build a new Bethel home on the site but were concerned about the war,” says Alfred Gunn. “Since Lloyd Barry of the Governing Body was visiting us at the time, we raised our concerns with him. He replied, ‘If we let wars hold us back, we will never get anything done!’ His stirring words gave us courage to move ahead.”
Hundreds of brothers labored on the project, including over 50 volunteers from 12 different countries and many willing helpers from local congregations. Work began in May 1991. “Onlookers were impressed with the high-quality blocks that were made on site. The steel-stud structure was very different from local buildings,” says Tom Ball, the construction overseer. “But the people were more amazed to see white foreigners and black locals working unitedly and happily together on the project.”
On April 19, 1997, a multinational crowd joyfully assembled for the dedication of the new branch facilities. One month later, after five years of savage rural conflict, the RUF attacked Freetown.
Battle for Freetown
Thousands of RUF fighters with matted hair and red headbands surged through the city, looting, raping, and killing. “The situation was extremely tense,” recalls Alfred Gunn. “Most of the foreign missionaries were quickly evacuated. The last to leave were Billie and Sandra Cowan, Jimmie and Joyce Holland, and Catherine and me.
“We prayed with the local Bethelites who volunteered to stay behind, and then we hurried to the evacuation point. Along the way we were stopped by about 20 wild-looking, drunken rebel soldiers. When we gave them magazines and money, they let us pass. Along with more than 1,000 other evacuees, we converged on a fortified checkpoint manned by heavily armed U.S. marines. There we boarded a military helicopter and were whisked offshore to a U.S. naval ship. A ship officer later told us that our civilian evacuation had been the largest conducted by the U.S. Navy since the Vietnam War. The following day, we flew by helicopter to Conakry, Guinea. There we set up a temporary branch office.”
The missionaries anxiously awaited news from Freetown. Finally, a letter arrived, stating: “Amid the chaos we are still distributing Kingdom News No. 35, ‘Will All People Ever Love One Another?’ People are really responding, and even some of the rebels are studying with us. We have thus resolved to intensify our preaching activities.”
Jonathan Mbomah, who was serving as a circuit overseer, recalls: “We even held a special assembly day in Freetown. The program was so spiritually motivating that I traveled to Bo and Kenema to hold the program in those areas. The brothers in those war-torn towns thanked Jehovah for the wonderful spiritual food.
“In late 1997, we held a district convention at the National Stadium in Freetown. On the final day of the program, rebel soldiers entered the stadium and ordered us to leave. We pleaded with them to let us finish the program. After a long discussion, they relented and left. Over 1,000 people attended the convention, and 27 were baptized. Several brothers made the perilous trip to Bo and heard the program again there. What wonderful, thrilling conventions they were!”