Umu Marah was living with her family in a remote village in the north of Sierra Leone when the RUF (Revolutionary United Front) rebels attacked. This is her story…(edited exerts from an interview in 2008).
“I was five years old when the rebels came, my father told me to take rice to them. When the rebels met us they took me and my father, when we reached far away they killed my Father, when they have killed my father, they put a big load on my head to go for a journey.
I was afraid that they were going to kill me because I was thinking they have killed my father.
I had a very heavy load on my head, I was tired and they were beating us as we walked and we became hungry. We told the rebels that we were tired and needed to rest. They said that everyone that needs to rest will be killed. We reached a village, and met an old blind woman. The rebels cut the old woman’s hand off.
The rebels told us to take our loads and continue upon the journey but we have no strength, so they take marijuana and boil it and give it to us. They gave us the marijuana to drink when it has been boiled so we will have the mind and the strength to do anything we are told.
I was six years old when they raped me and took my virginity. I was raped three times then one of them said you are going to be my wife. I told them you have done this to me but I am not the age to become a housewife, my intention is to go to school.
Later they started to train us how to use guns. They started to supply us with cocaine, brown brown and other things so we will be a better help and do anything that we are told.
When I tell you this story I really feel sad in my heart and want to cry..”
Umu was with the RUF rebels for 5 years. She was trained to fight and forced into combat, forced to kill, when old enough she tried to escape, she was caught, beaten, tied to a tree and left to die.
“I was tied up to a tree and I saw a big snake coming towards me, I was shouting, shouting but there was no one to rescue me, I saw a small dog, the small dog fought with the snake, the dog killed the snake.
God gave me the strength and I was able to release myself.
After the dog killed the snake and I released myself I do not know which way to follow. The dog had a rope tied around its neck so I held the rope and followed the dog with the rope to a town. We went to a village. I met with an old lady. She washed me and gave me food. At night when we were sleeping the rebels came again.
The villagers were afraid when they saw the rebels and some ran into the bush, others ran into their houses, those that ran into their houses were shot and their houses burnt. From one burning house I heard a small girl crying, I ran into the house and took that little child from the fire."
Umu with 'Little Umu' and Rocky
"...So we were going to another place and a helicopter gun ship came. All the RUF run away. They left all their belongings, I was there, I did not run away, I took another route, I did not follow the RUF.
I walked for many days. When I arrived at my home with the baby on my back and the small dog with me there were children on the veranda, when I said hello to them, they all ran away.
So I was there with the small baby I saved from the fire ( Little Umu ) and that small dog ( Rocky) when I saw my aunty, when my aunty saw me, she too ran away from me. I called out to my aunty, please don’t run from me, I am Umu, I told my aunt, it is Umu. I asked where is my mother? she told me my mother was dead too."
Umu was then 10 years old. She had survived 5 years on the run, as a sex slave, soldier and prisoner of the RUF. Although her Aunty took her and Little Umu in and supported them as best she could, integrating back into the village was not easy. She was initially outcast and beaten by her own people.
"My aunt told me that she could not afford to pay my school fees or put me to school so she said ‘lets do farming this year and next year I will put you to school,” so we were doing this farming until we got a small amount of money then my aunt sent me to school. I want to become either a Doctor or a Lawyer
By then I was thinking every day about what happened to me during my time with the RUF, all the time when I think about this I start crying. I was lying at night and I got a dream, my mother sent a dream to me, I was travelling and I saw a beautiful place in the dream, in that dream my mother told me “please my child, don’t cry, you see where I am, I am in a beautiful place and when you cry you are disturbing me so please stop crying”. From that day on, I stopped crying.
From then, the past became history, I am happy, I have the child I saved from the fire with me, she is now in class three, we call her Little Umu, the aunty is with me, so the past has gone and now I am doing my present life. All that the RUF have done to me, I have forgiven them. But when I die God will judge us, that is what I think.
When people in other countries hear my story, they will think, eh Umu has been punished a lot, lets help Umu."
Umu and village girls meet with Shamans for re enacting of cleansing ceremony, to rid them of evil and enable re-entry to the village.
Umu has never forgotten these times, but she has, she says, forgiven. From the nightmare she endured, a dream has manifested, a dream that she is passionately turning into reality .
Letter From Umu Marah. March 2016 ( Edited)
"I want to study law in order to enable me to fight for the rights of vulnerable women and children.
In my country women and children are faced with many abuses, including denied access to education, child labor, rape, torture, trafficking and enforced early marriage.
Women have been raped in in my country, some report their cases but they are neglected.
As a child taken by the RUF rebels I had bitter experiences which drive me now in promoting such welfare issues in the future.
It is since that time that I had the passion to work for women when I am educated.
The situation for women in my country is deplorable. Women are still abandoned and they are crying for justice. Just last week I met with a young woman who was sent in to an early marriage and now she has been abandoned by the husband and lives in poverty with her three children. According to her, she was still at school when she was forced in to an early marriage.
To practice law in this part of the world, advocating for women’s rights, I need to stand on my dream about becoming a saviour for all women. I am told by a woman lawyer that I will need to have enormous courage and special confidence to stand on my decision as society will look at me as a wayward woman who should be home taking care of the children.
All I need is courage to accomplish my dream".