When armed rebels advanced across the Sierra Leone border, I ran for seven hours to my mother’s village because she was alone with my grandmother. I was only 17, but I wanted to protect them. Eventually, the rebels overwhelmed the region and took our village as a base. My mother, sister, and I decided to escape. My grandmother could not walk, so before we left I brought her food, water, and firewood and said I’d return tomorrow. I never saw her again.
We ran toward a river. On the way, we agreed on a route of villages we’d flee to in case we had to separate. Sure enough, rebels stopped us at the river’s bank. I acted aggressive so that the rebels would think I was with them, then jumped into the water, grabbed a canoe for my mother and sister, and pushed it into the current. To survive, you need to read situations quickly and respond confidently. Battle broke out the following day. I hid in the bushes, then walked upstream for weeks. When I came across abandoned settlements, I searched houses for commodities. Salt was gold. You need seasoning when you’re eating what you find in the bush: leaves, roots, fish, opossums. I took matches to cook with and tobacco to trade. Money was worthless.
When I found my mother and sister, we fled to Liberian border towns where the fighting had paused and thousands of Sierra Leoneans had set up tents. We stayed for 10 months, but we’d flee into the jungle when fighting flared. We’d farm small plots of land we’d cleared, make traps to catch bushmeat, and teach one another which roots and fruit to eat.
We got rashes, and flies landed on the bushmeat we set out to dry, so we got worms. We learned which types of bark could be ground up to soothe wounds, and we’d collect bitter roots to treat the worms. Certain birds made a particular kind of call when humans approached, and we’d listen for that so we could tell one another when we heard those sounds. Eventually we ran more than 70 miles in 24 hours, wearing flip-flops, to a United Nations refugee camp in Monrovia. I lived in tents at that camp for nearly four years until I finally got a visa to the United States.
You just want to live, so if you need to run, you run. You have bad dreams. You could be dead the next day. I don’t know how I made it, but I think it’s because I saw hope. I told myself, this will be over and I will have a good life.
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