By Alpha Koroma, Generations For Peace Lead Pioneer in Sierra Leone

The walls of the tiny cell shook as grenades exploded outside the confines of the local police station where my family and I hid for almost two days. It was 2 April 1994, and I was only ten years old. My name is Alpha Koroma, the son of a public transport driver and petty trader, and this is my story.

24 hours earlier, our small town of Masingbi located at the central district of Sierra Leone fell under attack. I fled my home with my sisters and parents, watching people around us drop as the bullets hit them, taking their lives in the blink of an eye, or worse, leaving them to suffer as the attack was carried out.

My country, Sierra Leone, experienced 11 years of civil war. After a handful of violent crises in the 1970s and 1980s, arising out of elections, anti-government demonstrations and local uprisings, the conflict finally broke out in Sierra Leone in March 1991 and came to an end in 2002. The war left over 75,000 people dead, 2.5 million displaced, and over 20,000 injured.

For days, my family and the few others who had managed to take refuge with us peered cautiously through the windows and door cracks between explosions, only to see our community members lying dead and being raped and captured. I did not know at the time, but I would join the ranks of those kidnapped by the rebels one day.

On the third day of the attack, the government military forces began to overtake the rebels, leading to the rescue of my family. We relocated to Makeni, the largest city in the northern province of Sierra Leone, where the rebels’ influence and violence had not yet reached. There, we were placed in an overcrowded refugee camp, in which shelter, food, education, and medication were scarce. Yet, for almost two years, I knew peace, at least in terms of militant action.

After a month of living in the camp, my father’s friend who lived nearby offered us a home. At that time, I was struggling with psychological challenges stemming from my survival of the first rebel attack a few years earlier. Despite the violence that ensued from the election of President Ahmad Tejan Kabah in 1996, my family, as well as our generous landlord, lived in peace until 1998, when everything took an abrupt turn.

A few months before the attack, panic began to rise. My mother and sisters escaped to Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, before the eruption of violence took place in Makeni. My father and I were not as lucky.

Sleeping hindered by constant fear of attack, my father and I remained in the house waiting for an opportunity to join the rest of the family 200 km away in the coastal capital.

One morning, the rebels that were ramping up attacks on the town suddenly broke into our house. They put us under gunpoint, and I watched them as they beat my father, stripped him naked, and left him battered on the floor of what had become our home over the past three years. The rebels then kidnapped me from my father and forced me to return to the refugee camp, which had since been taken over by their forces and turned into an arms and ammunition centre. Those who had been kidnapped, mostly young men like me, were forced to participate in the looting, killing, and bombing carried out by the rebels. Young and traumatised, and after spending over a year and a half in captivity with the rebels, I knew my only hope for survival was to escape.

One night, while patrolling the surrounding grounds of the centre, I took my chance; I dropped my weapon and ran for the city, towards the only place I knew – the home I was kidnapped from. Ducking through alleys and taking every possible form of cover, I somehow made it, immediately escaping to one of the nearby villages still untouched by the rebels with my father, who had not known what to do other than wait hopefully for my return. There, we remained hidden until we were able to reunite with my mother and sisters in Freetown when the war finally ended in 2002.

Back together with my family and trying to overcome the trauma caused by the attacks and kidnapping, I returned to school, involving myself in many activities to keep busy, distracted, and equipped for whatever might come next. This is where I first began to take an interest in volunteerism, joining the National Corps of Volunteerism and working with the Ministry of Youth and Sport as a Youth Brigade Supervisor, as well as Student Partnership Worldwide as a Youth for Empowerment Volunteer. Through these programmes, I was sent to volunteer in one of Sierra Leone’s more remote villages for 9 months, during which my passion for volunteering and community involvement only grew.

Alpha during the 2019 Generations For Peace Advanced Training at GFP’s HQ

I was then introduced to Generations For Peace through my internship with the Ministry of Youth and Sport following my volunteering period in rural Sierra Leone. It was 2008 when I was first invited to the Amman Camp in Jordan, where I learned how to scale the impact of my passion for volunteering by leading others who could cascade my passion and knowledge, creating a sustainable ripple effect that could affect not just local communities, but generations of young people.PD Structure and Country Allocation 20200304

Though I did not have the immediate means to organise an entire programme through Generations For Peace on my own, I began taking one step at a time, mobilising youth in Kabala, a town in northern Sierra Leone just south of the border of Guinea where I had moved to in 2007.

As time progressed, I continued to learn more about the scope of impact I could have in the communities in which I dedicated my time and efforts, my colleagues and I formed the Centre for Youth Advocacy and Assistance (CYAA), created by like-minded youth who sought to volunteer wherever they were needed, however they were needed. From cleaning neighborhoods to leading informational sessions on schools about the dangers of drugs, the importance of leadership, and more, CYAA consistently grew until it had the capacity to form Peace for Development clubs in schools across the community. This, then, freed us up to begin entering the ghettos and areas of the city where students still did not have access to proper education and academic opportunities.

Alpha and other members of CYAA during a nonviolence campaign in Kabala, Sierra Leone

Since launching CYAA, I have continued to be deeply involved with Generations For Peace, working with the organisation to target aggressive behaviour between youth in two secondary schools and clique and gang youth aggressively, fighting over political and social dominance, resulted in broken relationships and trust. These programmes have contributed to providing a safe space for youth to interact, to accept each other, respect, and build trust amongst one another.

I continue to see how my own efforts can impact a growing circle of youth in my local community; the sport fields and ghettoes, which were once a place of violence and conflict has now become a hub for acceptance and peace, and the programme participants are not only learning peace now, but they are practicing peace in their everyday lives.

This is what continuously motivates my seemingly endless drive to transform the conflict that once left me in a state of seemingly hopeless trauma. Despite my previous violent behaviours and experiences during the civil war, I am now enjoying being able to lead peacebuilding efforts in my country. Not only can I see a brighter hope for the future – I know I have helped shape the future! In honour of Human Rights Day, I hope I have inspired you to do the same.