In February 1998, government soldiers and troops from the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) launched an all-out offensive to evict the rebel forces from Freetown. Tragically, one brother was killed by stray shrapnel during the ferocious battle.
Some 150 publishers took shelter at the Kissy and Cockerill missionary homes. Laddie Sandy, one of two Bethel night watchmen, relates: “Late one night, while Philip Turay and I were on duty, two armed RUF rebels appeared at Bethel and demanded that we open the glass lobby doors. As Philip and I leaped to safety, they repeatedly shot into the door lock. Remarkably, it held, and they did not think to shoot out the glass panes. Frustrated, they left.
“Two nights later, the rebels returned with about 20 determined, well-equipped companions. We quickly alerted the Bethel family and ran to a prearranged refuge in the basement. Seven of us hid in the dark behind two large barrels, shaking with fear. The rebels shot their way into the building, melting the door lock in the process. ‘Look for those Jehovah’s Witnesses, and cut their throats,’ one rebel bellowed. We crouched in silence as they ransacked the building for seven hours. Finally satisfied with their night’s work, they left.
“We gathered our personal belongings and ran to the Cockerill missionary home
Two months later, after ECOMOG forces were in control of the city, the missionaries began returning from Guinea. Little did they know, though, that their stay would be brief.
Operation No Living Thing
Eight months later, in December 1998, hundreds of delegates at Freetown’s National Stadium were enjoying the “God’s Way of Life” District Convention. Suddenly, they heard a low boom, and a plume of smoke rose from the hills. The rebel army had returned!
In the days that followed, the situation in Freetown worsened. The Branch Committee chartered a small plane and evacuated 12 missionaries, 8 foreign Bethelites, and 5 construction volunteers to Conakry. Three days later, on January 6, 1999, rebel forces launched a brutal killing campaign called Operation No Living Thing. With terrifying violence they ravaged Freetown, massacring some 6,000 civilians. The rebels amputated arms and legs at random, abducted hundreds of children, and destroyed thousands of buildings.
One much loved brother, Edward Toby, was brutally murdered. More than 200 traumatized publishers were housed either at Bethel or at the Cockerill missionary home. Others hid in their homes. The Witnesses who had taken shelter at the Kissy missionary home, located on the east end of town, desperately needed medication. But crossing the city was highly dangerous. Who would risk it? Laddie Sandy and Philip Turay, the intrepid Bethel night watchmen, immediately volunteered.
“The city was chaotic,” Philip recalls. “Rebel soldiers manned numerous checkpoints, harassing people at will. A strict curfew ran from mid-afternoon to mid-morning, limiting our ability to travel. Two days after starting out on our journey, we reached the Kissy missionary home, only to find that it had been ransacked and burned.
“Checking the surrounding area, we found one of our brothers, Andrew Caulker, who had horrific head wounds. Rebels had bound him and struck him repeatedly with an ax. Amazingly, he survived and had managed to escape. We rushed him to the hospital, where he slowly recovered. Later he served as a regular pioneer.”
Other Witnesses were spared death or injury because of their reputation as Christian neutrals. One brother relates: “The rebels demanded that we don white bandannas and dance in the street to support their cause. ‘If you refuse, we will hack off your arm or leg or kill you,’ they told us. Terrified, my wife and I stepped aside, quietly praying for Jehovah’s help. Seeing our plight, a young neighbor who was collaborating with the rebels, told the rebel commander: ‘This is our “brother.” He doesn’t get involved in politics, so we will dance for him.’ Satisfied, the commander turned away, and we hurried home.”
As an eerie calm descended over the city, the brothers cautiously resumed meetings and field service. Publishers wore convention lapel cards to identify themselves at checkpoints. Brothers waiting in the long checkpoint queues became skilled at starting Bible conversations.
As shortages of all sorts gripped the city, the Britain branch flew in 200 cartons of relief aid. Billie Cowan and Alan Jones flew from Conakry to Freetown to escort the shipment through a succession of checkpoints. The shipment reached Bethel just before the evening curfew. James Koroma made courier trips to Conakry, returning with literature and other vital supplies. Some of this spiritual food was forwarded to isolated publishers in Bo and Kenema.
On August 9, 1999, the missionaries in Conakry started returning to Freetown. The following year, a British armed expeditionary force drove the rebels out of Freetown. Sporadic fighting continued for a while, but by January 2002, the war was declared over. As a result of the 11-year conflict, 50,000 people were killed, 20,000 were maimed, 300,000 homes were destroyed, and 1.2 million people were displaced.
How had Jehovah’s organization fared? Jehovah had clearly protected and blessed it. During the conflict, about 700 people were baptized. Hundreds of Witnesses had fled the war zone, yet the number of publishers in Sierra Leone increased by 50 percent. Guinea had an increase in publishers of over 300 percent! More important, God’s people had maintained their integrity. In a “furnace of affliction,” they had displayed unbreakable Christian unity and love and had “continued without letup teaching and declaring the good news.”