Fatmatta’s Escape*

The Franciscan Capuchins of Pittsburgh

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By Julie Rattey


It was midnight when Fatmatta woke up with a start to the sound of banging at the front door of her family’s house in Sierra Leone. She blinked in the darkness. Silence hung, precarious, like a water droplet from the tap. Abdulai, her husband, was still sleeping by her side. The children were noiseless in the other room. Thank you, God, Fatmatta prayed. It was just another dream.

Bang bang bang!

Fatmatta’s heart pounded in reply. Looking out the window, she saw four trucks unloading more than 20 men, each with an automatic rifle glinting in the moonlight. The men were surrounding the house, like greedy insects around dead meat.

Fatmatta knew who they were. The only question had been when they would come. Since the civil war had begun seven years before in 1991, things had gotten worse and worse for her family, many of whom were in the government. They were faithful to their careers, carrying out their duties regardless of who was in power. But that also meant they were at risk of being accused of treachery when a new leader came on the scene.

Fatmatta’s brother, chief of defense staff, had been accused of just that. President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah was back in office after having been ousted by a coup. Despite the fact that Fatmatta’s brother had not been involved, he was now on trial. But that wasn’t enough for some among those who had put Kabbah back in power — the intervention force called ECOMOG. As the trial began, every day brought new rumors from friends, neighbors: The ECOMOG is targeting you. They say you are on the list. Fatmatta, you are going to be killed.

Nothing was safe — neither property nor person. The house already had been raided, and Fatmatta’s aunt had been beaten and raped. Then there was the day Fatmatta had been personally threatened by a man in the security force. “We’ll come for you in the night,” he’d hissed. “By morning your head will be hanging from the cotton trees in the center of town.” 

***

Fatmatta cracked open the door.

“What do you want?”

One of the men flashed his ECOMOG badge. “Let us in.”

“What do you want?” Fatmatta repeated.

“If you don’t open up, we open fire.”

Hands trembling, Fatmatta stepped away from the door. Abdulai and the six children were now standing by her side, the adults trying to comfort their huddled, frightened brood.

Men poured into the room, yelling. “On the ground!” Fatmatta’s face touched the cool floor.

“Where is your father?” one of the men demanded.

“I don’t know,” Fatmatta replied. It was true. The colonel had been missing since January and was presumed dead. He had last been seen in a week-long battle with the ECOMOG.

“Where’s your grandfather, boy?” the man asked Fatmatta’s 18-year-old son. Upon receiving the same reply, the man raised his gun and smashed it down on his captive. Others joined in. Fatmatta moaned. Abdulai was ripped from her side and pushed out of the room, a gun burrowing in his throat.

For seven hours, Fatmatta and her children lay face-down without speaking while the men searched the house and stole their property. One, fancying the earrings in Fatmatta’s daughter’s ears, took them. At 7 a.m., the men left, posting three guards to remain behind for 24 hours. After that, there was no doubt left in Fatmatta’s mind: The family would have to flee.

***

Fatmatta’s ragged breath roared in her ears as she ran in the direction of the port. From the friend’s house where she and her family had been hiding for eight months, it was one mile to a boat to Guinea. It seemed such a short distance for her, three of her young children, and her sister — the family had split up to avoid being an easy target — to travel. But that December night, it was a mile of death. Bullets flew and bombs exploded as ECOMOG and the rebel forces skirmished, hurling fire like hellish blacksmiths in the dark. Fatmatta’s heart stopped, then sickened as she distinguished a cry of pain among an angry exclamation of bullets. My sister. Fatmatta turned and dropped to the ground in time to see the last flutter of her sister’s eyelids, the blood slipping from her mouth. Oh God. Fatmatta’s body heaved itself into a wild sob. Her house and her business had been burned, her brother had been executed. When would it end? But there was no time to weep. With the smell of smoke and death in her nostrils, Fatmatta grabbed her terrified children and fled through the bushes.

 

***

 

“Then what happened?”

“What?” Fatmatta blinked, the dark route to the port dissolving around her. She looked across the table at Tom Betz, the Capuchin Franciscan friar and immigration attorney who had been helping her get housing, food, and medicine in the United States. This was the man who would help her in asylum, who would make it possible for her to stay in Philadelphia. She needed to complete an affidavit; she needed to tell her story.

“The boat arrived in Guinea...?” Friar Tom prompted gently.

“Yes,” Fatmatta said. “At 6 that morning.” Her shoulder witched, the body remembering weariness. “We were taken into a room and questioned by authorities. Then I was separated from my children. They forced me to take off my clothes and answer more questions. They asked for my identification.”

“Your passport?”

“Yes. It was hidden in my underwear, which I’d refused to remove. But I lied: I told them I didn’t have any identification with me. I was afraid that if I gave it to them, it would not be returned. After more than 10 hours, we were released. One of my brother’s friends

She always told me, "God will make a way."

took us to her house not far from the port. She later returned with the rest of my family.” Fatmatta’s forehead creased. “The men had been put in cells and beaten between questionings — Oh!” Fatmatta gave short, involuntary cry as she felt her baby kick in her stomach. She smiled. “He has his father’s spirit.”

Friar Tom smiled back. “You must miss your husband.”

Fatmatta’s eyes glazed over for a moment, as though she were somewhere else, with him. “Yes. He was unable to obtain a business visa and had to remain behind. My mother, my youngest daughter, and I came to the United States. Then I contacted my cousin, who, as you know, introduced you to me.”

“How is your mother doing?”

“Less frightened now. Every day I thank God for her. We are very close, even closer now that we are here together. She always told me, ‘God will make a way.’ She told me not to give up. And I never have.”

Friar Tom smiled. “Nor will I give up on your case, Fatmatta. We will keep you safe.”

Fatmatta smiled, and gently moved her hand over her stomach.

“What will you name him?”

Fatmatta raised her eyes. They were full of gratitude. “Thomas,” she said. “I will name him Thomas.”  CD

* Based on the story of the Kamara family. Fatmatta Kamara and her affidavit were the source for all information for this feature.

Managing Editor Julie Rattey

Julie Rattey is a Boston-based writer and editor. She is the author of If I Grew Up in Nazareth, available from 23rdPublications.com.