Africa

Sierra Leone: One man's tale of war and recovery

Suleiman Turay

By the end of the Sierra Leonean civil war, Suleiman Turay was destitute and had witnessed his father being beaten to death. Now he is a successful businessman, husband and father. The BBC's Ed Davey reports how one man bounced back from scarcely-imaginable horrors.

"There was a big attack in Kabala," said Mr Turay, recalling the moment of his capture.

The 31-year-old is energy personified - but this is the first time since meeting the BBC that he has stopped grinning massively.

"My mother had warned me to go to the bush," he went on.

"But we did not go to the forest - we thought it would be safe."

'Hard and bad'

Image caption Sierra Leone's infrastructure remains very basic - but hope is in the air

First he heard gunshots; the next thing he knew a man with a rifle was standing over him.

"This guy was very hard and bad," says Mr Turay. "I was very scared. I wet myself. I knew I was going to be finished today.

"My cousin, they chop chop his body like meat, and threw it everywhere.

"Then they captured my brother. They told him to shut up, or the enemy would come.

"He did not shut up, so they killed him, without a gun. They killed him like a fish or a chicken.

"These people have no mercy."

The details of what was done to the 11-year-old's body are too graphic to relate. But Mr Turay saw it all.

It was while being held captive in a house that he had the idea which in all likelihood saved his life.

He claimed to have seen someone hiding under a bed.

As the soldier guarding him bent down to look for the imaginary stowaway, Mr Turay made his move.

"When he went to look under the bed I jumped over his back and ran out of the door," he recalls. "The rebel was chasing me but I escaped into the bush."

But worse was to come. Aged just 18, Mr Turay bore witness to the killing of his own father.

'Crying for his mum'

"We were cooking, close to the village," he said. "You have to be careful cooking because the rebels can see the smoke.

"Then five men came, with AK47s and one RPG-7 [rocket launcher].

"One of the boys was about 14 years of age - he had red cloth tied around his head."

He went on: "They were not talking Creole - they were talking a Liberia language.

"There was a big hill in front of us and they told my dad to walk up it.

"They cocked the gun to kill him but they had no ammo, so they beat him with a fence post."

Mr Turay had tears in his eyes as he continued: "They hit him in the jaw and the back of the head.

"He was about 40 years old at that time and he was crying out for his mum.

"That is how they killed my dad."

When the war finished, Mr Turay inherited a sum of money from his father.

But his father also had debts - and a dispute over the funds ended with him being locked in a shipping container by police officers he says were corrupt.

"I was afraid I was going to lose my life," he said.

The final settlement included bags of rice and one sheep, which Mr Turay was forced to hand over. When he was eventually let out he was left with nothing.

So - like a West African Dick Whittington - he set off for the capital, Freetown, to try and make his fortune on a combination of nothing but hard work, intelligence and sheer good luck.

He had with him 1,500 leones, less than a dollar.

Eventually he found a garage willing to take him on as an apprentice so he could learn to be a mechanic.

Image caption Sierra Leone remains one of the world's poorest countries...

But not only are Sierra Leonean apprentices unpaid - they actually have to give something to the garage owner.

"There was no payment," says Mr Turay. "I had to give him some leones and some kola nuts.

"It was hard to get food. We would wash vehicles for people and they would give us 500 leones so we could buy cassava to eat."

This hand-to-mouth existence continued for eight years until eventually Mr Turay got his first big break.

"Someone brought in a car that had been in a very bad crash," he said. "The garage thought there was no way to repair it.

"I said: 'OK, bring the car to me and I will fix it'."

Mr Turay not only fixed the car - he did such a good job that the client brought him two minibuses to work on. These were soon back on the road too.

'Dancing, dancing'

It led to work as a driver - earning about 40,000 leones ($10; £6.50) per month.

As a driver who could also fix vehicles - a golden skill with Sierra Leone's bone-jarring road-network - he found his services in demand.

Image caption ... It hopes its stunning beaches can attract foreign tourists - and their money

And that is how he got his second big break, landing a job driving for the UN.

"It paid more than $100 per month," he said. "When they told me I was so happy - I was running down the street because I was so overjoyed.

"My mum was dancing, dancing."

He has since started driving work for Africa Governance Initiative (AGI), founded by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

"He is a very sweet man, a very kindly man," says Mr Turay of their meeting.

Mr Blair is a hugely popular figure in Sierra Leone, largely due to his decision to send British troops to help save Freetown from the rebels.

While working for AGI, Mr Turay got his third big break - when a member of staff lent him $300 to buy a car.

It meant he could take clients out by himself. And as a fledgling driving and car hire business took off, one car turned to three.

Mr Turay is using the proceeds to build a little house in a tiny village on the outskirts of the capital.

It is a peaceful spot, far from the din and the mayhem of downtown Freetown, the vertiginous slopes of Leicester Peak in the distance.

'So happy'

Image caption The entrepreneurial spirit is strong in modern Sierra Leone

Construction is frequently interrupted when Mr Turay runs out of money for cement, breezeblocks and labour - but the house will get built eventually. He is sure of it.

He has a wife and two children, a boy and a girl.

"I am so, so happy right now," says Mr Turay.

An entire generation were robbed of their education by Sierra Leone's ghastly, decade-long civil war.

"I am illiterate and so is my wife," says Mr Turay. "My desperate desire is to educate them. And I want so much for my children to not experience a life like mine."

He attributes his success to hard work, combined with those three strokes of fortune.

Sierra Leone is now a functioning democracy, with a peaceful transfer of power in 2007, although there were opposition complaints about last year's poll.

Freetown is experiencing a building boom. The country has mineral resources beyond compare, and the basis for what could be a lucrative tourism industry.

The economy grew by 21% last year, according to some reports, even if poverty and unemployment remain widespread.

In terms of security, the country is among the safest in West Africa.

With hard work and natural gifts, Sierra Leone is bouncing back. Just like Suleiman Turay.

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