On a Sunday in May, 1997, Joseph awoke to his uncle gently shaking him. There had been a coup, his uncle said. A coup. There were natural questions, like who did it? And are we safe? But consuming Joseph for the last several weeks were his O-level exams and the last exam he had left to write crowded everything out. Wide-eyed but still in the embers of sleep, he breathed “How am I going to do my French?” They stayed indoors listening to the radio.

A band of officers in the Sierra Leone Army had forced the elected president into exile. Over the airwaves on Sunday, May 25, the junta announced themselves the new leaders in Freetown, where Joseph lived. In the coming weeks, fighters ordered in by the rebel group Revolutionary United Front (RUF) would help seize control of the capital.


Name changed to protect identity.