Above photo: Photo by Ann Wright of Evacuees inside USS Kearsarge.
NOTE: Listen to a recent interview with Ann Wright about the evacuation of Afghanistan on Clearing the FOG here. And here are two powerpoints with more photos of the evacuation of US personnel from Sierra Leone in 1997: evacuation-of-sierra-leone-1997-due-to-coup-part-i and evacuation-of-sierra-leone-in-1997-due-to-a-coup-part-ii.
Evacuations of American citizens from crisis countries is always difficult and dangerous, as the past fifteen days of evacuation of over 124,000 people from Afghanistan demonstrated.
I know how difficult evacuations are because twenty-five years ago, in late May 1997, I was involved in the evacuation of 2500 persons from a violent coup in the West African country of Sierra Leone.
I’m writing this detailed description of the evacuation in Sierra Leone, as it provides some context and comparisons of the challenges and dangers faced in the massive evacuation conducted in Afghanistan which we saw on August 26, 2021 at the Abby gate of the Kabul airport when an ISIS-K suicide bomber detonated a huge amount of explosives on his body that killed over 170 Afghans and 13 U.S. military.
The subsequent retaliatory US drone strike in Kabul against ISIS-K reminded me of an incident our 1997 evacuation from Freetown, Sierra Leone and the violence, potential or in actuality, that can occur during dangerous military operations.
For some context to the coup in Sierra Leone: On May 25, 1997, hundreds of members of the brutal Revolutionary United Front (RUF) had come into the capital city of Freetown, Sierra Leone in the cover of darkness as parts of Sierra Leone’s military decided to join forces to overthrow the elected government.
The RUF had been terrorizing villages in the countryside for several years. They burned houses, forced children to watch as their parents and siblings were raped and murdered in front of them. Some kids were forced to hold machetes that were used to kill their own family members. If family members were not killed, they were severely injured by machete chops that cut off hands, arms, legs, ears or noses. Victims were asked, “Do you want a long sleeve or short sleeve?” And accordingly, RUF terrorists would chop off the arm at the wrist or above the elbow.
The RUF kidnapped many of the children, forced them to take drugs and to become part of the RUF’s child soldiers. Many kids carried/dragged rifles as tall as they were. Drugs were taken orally or rubbed into open cuts with gunpowder added “to increase” the effectiveness of the drugs. This method was a form of poisoning that had further negative mental consequences for the children. After the fall of the coup government a year later, these mental issues had to be addressed by the organizations that tried to deprogram the brigade of child soldiers who were taken from the RUF.
Like in Sierra Leone, in Afghanistan drug usage was a major problem. There are reports of some of the Taliban at checkpoints appearing to be high on drugs and the Afghan national army had problems with drug usage within the ranks. Despite the U.S. spending almost $9 billion on drug eradication in the nineteen years since 2002, poppy production increased each year the U.S. was in Afghanistan. According to the 2018 Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, Afghanistan is the world’s largest producer of opium with annual exports of between $1.5 and $3 billion each year.
I was the acting head of the US Embassy during the coup in Sierra Leone as our Ambassador had just left for a well-deserved vacation in the U.S. As Charge affairs, I was responsible for getting our small embassy team coordinated to keep Washington informed of the events surrounding the coup and to protect U.S. Embassy personnel and U.S. citizens to the extent that we could. Our diplomatic security officer kept me abreast of what he was hearing from local police and our consular and administrative officers kept track of American citizens, friends and contacts in the Sierra Leonean community. Our local staff were key to understanding the breadth of the coup as they were in touch with friends and family members throughout the capital city and in the provinces.
Two days after the coup began, in an attempt to talk the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) out of maintaining the coup, the British High Commissioner Peter Penfold, the head of the United Nations mission in Sierra Leone Berhanu Dinka and I arranged a meeting with the military head of the AFRC, the person that was the public face of the coup.
Outside the meeting at the home of the British High Commissioner, we had with us the 13 person U.S. Special Forces team that had been conducting small unit training program with one battalion of the Sierra Leonean military. Neither the US military team nor the British or Nigerian military teams that were in the country providing various aspects of military training were involved in the coup. After meeting once with the coup-makers, Washington and London decided we should not meet again with the AFRC delegation as intelligence sources were indicating that we might become high level kidnapping targets of the AFRC/RUF coup makers.
We told the coup makers that the international community was not going to recognize the coup and that, with the agreement of the elected government, we could assist the coup makers in brokering a deal for an amnesty if they would renounce the coup. A similar strategy had been successful during a previous coup in which a senior coup-maker agreed to college education outside the country. Ultimately our attempt at talking the coup-makers out of sticking with the coup was unsuccessful.
With the violence of the coup with RUF hooligans beating up, raping and killing in Freetown and the inability of the Freetown police or non-coup elements of the Sierra Leonean military to stop the violence, the State Department and the Foreign Ministers of many countries decided to evacuate their citizens and diplomatic missions from the country.
In our meeting, I told the coup makers that a very large U.S. Navy ship was a few miles off the coast and that we would be flying evacuees to the ship. If the coup makers interfered with the evacuation, we had fighter jets and armed helicopters that would be used to deter anyone attempting to stop the evacuation.
We also said that we expected the AFRC to allow the passage of persons who were being evacuated onto the peninsula where the hotel was located from which we would be doing the evacuation. The hotel had a helicopter pad and was used as the location for commercial helicopter service that ferried passengers across a five-mile wide river to the international airport for airline flights out of the country. The entrance onto the peninsula was one of two choke point where the AFRC could control who came onto the peninsula.
The first day of the evacuation there were several thousand people that arrived on the hotel property seeking evacuation–American citizens, government officials, members of the international community and thousands of Sierra Leonean citizens who feared the horrific reputation of the RUF for their atrocities. The U.S. government West African service of the Voice of America and BBC radio had been broadcasting the evacuation location for two days.
The first day of the evacuation was reasonably orderly with time to process over 900 persons for the evacuation. All passengers signed paperwork that included their passport numbers, address in Sierra Leone and the location where they wanted to ultimately arrive. The paperwork also included a statement that they would reimburse the U.S. government for the costs of their passage to the de-embarkation evacuation site which turned out to be Guinea, the country next to Sierra Leone.
As they boarded the helicopters that would fly them to the U.S. Navy ship USS Kearsarge, passengers wore helmets and only fifty passengers were put on each helicopter that flew them out to the ship. After evacuating all US citizens, diplomats, former government officials and US Embassy diplomatic and local staff who had arrived at the hotel, over 900 from a crowd of several thousand, I was on the last helicopter to leave the hotel.
We knew there were several U.S. citizens who decided not to leave, including the manager of the hotel from which we were conducting the evacuation and members of several diplomatic missions who said they would remain open and ride out the coup, which was the third coup in the previous five years.
After we got 900 persons aboard, the USS Kearsarge left Sierra Leonean waters and headed on the overnight voyage to Conakry, Guinea. Several U.S. Embassy consular officers from U.S. Embassies in surrounding countries had been flown to the USS Kearsarge to help with further processing of evacuees. As we got into helicopter range of Conakry, we began flying groups off the ship. First to fly off was our Embassy consular and administrative staff, both US and local staff, to help US Embassy Conakry with booking passage for persons on commercial or chartered aircraft that would take them out of Guinea to family or friends in West Africa or Europe.
As we were beginning that movement, I got a call from the State Department in Washington with information that several US citizens had arrived at the hotel from arduous and dangerous trips from the countryside after our last helicopter had flown out. The State Department and Defense Department had decided that the USS Kearsarge would return to Freetown to pick up more evacuees, including young Sierra Leonean children from an orphanage that was operated by a U.S. citizen. We were told that all those who wanted to be evacuated were already at the hotel.
The captain of the USS Kearsarge and I discussed the capacity of the ship for more evacuees and how many helicopter flights we needed to offload sufficient people to Conakry, Guinea to make room for the next group of evacuees. We kept steaming toward Conakry to get the helicopters within range and began sending helicopters filled with evacuees into Conakry. Then we turned and headed back to Freetown.
The orphans had arrived at the evacuation hotel with their U.S. citizen sponsor and several staff. The orphans had no birth certificates, no identification other than the names they were called as the sponsor said there was no time to collect any paperwork. I was very uneasy about taking them to another country, especially since several of them appeared to be sick and might have a difficult time with the stress and lack of medical care for days upon arriving in Guinea, but the Assistant Secretary of Consular Affairs personally assured me that the US government would work with the Government of Guinea to let the orphans in without documentation.
On that second day of the evacuation, we quickly processed and flew out to the USS Kearsarge over 300 persons—US citizens and specific local government officials who felt their lives were in danger and had been able to get through the AFRC/RUF checkpoints… and the orphans.
For each day of the evacuation, I, along with security, went into the large crowd outside the perimeter of the hotel and looked for any remaining US citizens to make sure we got all U.S. citizens that were there.
As we left a second time, I spoke again with the US citizen manager of the hotel, some members of the international community and Nigerian military who were at the hotel. They all said they were comfortable in remaining in Sierra Leone. As with the first day of the evacuation, there were thousands of Sierra Leoneans who wanted to be evacuated but we could not take them.
With our new passengers, the USS Kearsarge turned and again began the trip to Guinea. Several of the baby orphans had to have medical intervention on the trip as well as later in Guinea.
Then, during the late evening, the hotel manager called the State Department operations center and said that the AFRC military had flown its helicopter gunship to the hotel and was firing into the hotel. Part of the hotel was on fire and several persons including a British soldier and several Nigerian soldiers had been wounded by gun fire from coup ground forces who were coming onto the hotel grounds. On behalf of over 300 persons in the basement of the hotel, he requested evacuation.
We immediately began helicoptering passengers to Conakry to make room for the next group of evacuees as we turned the ship back to Sierra Leone. During the night, the Marine contingent on the ship made plans for how we would handle the evacuation which we anticipated could be under gunfire.
We arrived offshore Freetown at dawn and in a scene out of the movies, I watched from a helicopter above the USS Kearsarge, as several huge hovercraft with giant rooster tails of water streaming behind headed toward the beach near the hotel. The hovercraft drove up onto the beach, Marines disembarked with weapons and quickly constructed a large secure perimeter with concertina wire surrounding the road that paralleled the beach. I was helicoptered into the evacuation site very quickly as I would make the decisions on who would be evacuated. I was the only US diplomat remaining on the ship as I had sent the rest of the diplomatic staff to Conakry to help with the evacuation processing there before Washington told us to go back to Freetown.
Once the beach area was secure, we told persons inside the hotel to come in single file to an opening created in the concertina wire. We hoped the AFRC/RUF forces would not shoot the persons leaving the hotel. I personally checked the documents of each person very quickly and passed them onto the Marines who were putting people directly onto helicopters.
This time, no time for helmets, life jackets or flight manifests. And no space for luggage. We instructed everyone to take their travel documents and medicines out of their luggage and leave everything else behind. Travel bags began piling up on the beach, as well as cars that had been driven by the few remaining members of the diplomatic corps in Freetown who had seen that helicopters were arriving again and decided it was time to leave after the AFRC attack on the hotel.
At one point, the Lieutenant Colonel Marine ground coordinator and his radioman came over to me and said, “Our air cap of fighter aircraft have spotted a group at the military headquarters walking toward the gunship that had fired on the hotel. We want your agreement that if the pilot gets into the helicopter, we will ‘disable’ the aircraft as the AFRC may have decided to stop the evacuation by firing on us.”
In a similar decision predicament as those in Kabul are having to make in their immediate decisions to protect lives that sometimes involves violence toward others, we had to make a decision that would protect those wanting to be evacuated as well as those who were conducting the evacuation operation.
In Kabul, the U.S. military was trying to prevent another suicide bombing incident after a suicide bomber had blown himself up at a gate at the Kabul airport killing at least 170 Afghan civilians and 13 U.S. military. There are reports that some of the Afghans may have been killed as U.S. soldier fired their weapons in the immediate aftermath of the massive suicide explosion.
Of critical importance was the location where possible military action would take place to ensure the protection of the evacuation. In Sierra Leone we would be using military rockets fired from manned aircraft onto a military base at a helicopter with no civilians around.
That situation was in stark contrast to the use of an unmanned aerial vehicle (drone) firing at a car reportedly filled with explosives that was on a road filled with civilians as the car and occupant were reportedly headed toward the Kabul airport to conduct another suicide mission.
As we know now, the car that was fired on from the drone was not on the road but had driven into a family compound. The car was surrounded by ten people including seven children who should have been visible to the drone pilot and intelligence specialists who were watching from the camera on the drone in real time in several U.S. military bases in the Central Command Headquarters (Forward) in Qatar, Central Command Headquarters in Tampa, Florida, the Pentagon and perhaps even from the White House.
Ten people were killed in the explosion including three men who had worked for international organizations and seven children. The U.S. military has initially claimed that the car was destroyed in a secondary explosion that occurred after the intended target car filled with explosives was hit by rockets from the drone. The U.S. military has suggested that the driver of the car may have been an ISIS supporter although members of the family strongly dispute that allegation.
We know from our work challenging the U.S. assassin drone program from 2001 onward in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Syria and other countries, that many civilians who had no link with any terrorist group have been killed by these drones—people gathered for weddings, funerals, helping survivors of drone attacks in double taps or just going about daily life in their home compounds.
After having reopened the U.S. Embassy in Kabul in December 2001, I have watched the unfolding events of the eleven days of evacuation of over 124,000 people from the Kabul airport and have known in general terms, some of the behind the scenes decisions that had to be made very quickly by the diplomats and military from many countries to get their citizens and Afghan colleagues out of the country. In 1997 we ended up evacuating over 1200 people in four hours in the last day of the three-day evacuation. At the time, it was the largest evacuation since Saigon.
We too were faced with a relatively sudden change of circumstances that one could classify as an “intelligence failure.” We knew that the RUF was taking over more villages in the rural areas and we wondered why the Sierra Leonean military was not responding better to prevent RUF movements. We did not have specific information that elements within the military had decided to join forces with the rebel group.
In Afghanistan, it was very apparent that the Taliban was taking more and more provinces with little resistance from Afghan military and national police and that Taliban forces were going to be in the Kabul area faster than the three to six months that the U.S. government intelligence agencies apparently were predicting.
The decision to withdraw the remaining 2,500 U.S. military prior to dramatically increasing the number of American citizens and special immigrant visa holders and friends of the U.S., was a mistake.
A mistake, like the mistake to think that military action in Afghanistan to go after Al Qaeda was the way to deal with terrorist actions, and like the mistake to think that twenty years of occupation of a country was in U.S. national interest or the Afghanistan national interest, especially a country with indigenous forces that over time defeated other militarized empires for the past 500 years, the lessons known but not respected, are lessons that our politicians who like the profits of war for the corporations who are their campaign contributors, are lessons learned very well—war is profitable and therefore, they will support wars instead of diplomacy to resolve political issues.
As these mistaken leaders try to convince the American public that China and Russia must be dealt with and they increase dramatically the numerous of dangerous military naval, air and land war maneuvers that could lead to a worldwide nuclear catastrophe, we must continue to challenge these mistaken political leaders of our country and demand that the war mentality must end.
Ann Wright was in the US Army/Army Reserves for 29 years and retired as a Colonel. She was also a US diplomat in US embassies in Nicaragua, Grenada, Somalia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Sierra Leone, Micronesia, Afghanistan and Mongolia. She was on the small team that reopened the US embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan in December 2001. She resigned from the US government in March 2003 in opposition to the US war on Iraq. She is the co-author of “Dissent: Voices of Conscience.”