Red Eyes

Observers of the wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone typically pointed out how extremely red the eyes of rebel soldiers were. Explanatory factors were typically excessive abuse of alcohol and drugs. I have, in an article on the West Side Boys published in Journal Modern African Studies (46: 3, 2008), written about the concept of making yourself fearful as a deliberate tactic amongst the militia. Here is how a junior commander of the group explained it:

You use Liberian slang, you get a lot of beard, you plait [your hair], you fearful yourself, you know eh? You pull your clothes, wear hot pants and people will know that it is bush he comes from – he is different from those in town. So when you stand up and open fire the people will be afraid. Pa-pa-pa-pa. Yes, you will fearful yourself, so people will say this bad man; I am afraid of him. As you see our car people will say: ‘ah – this is the West Side Boys. They have arrived – they are fearful.’ They will know when we come down from the West Side because they will see a lot of fearful old tubes and old things and so-so fearful weapons. We don’t dress correct. We wear combat uniforms; we wear t-shirts; all kinds of dressing. We fearful ourselves, in that way when you see our bushiness you will be afraid.

In Liberia we have seen similar tactical dressing during the war; from fighting “butt naked”, in life-jackets to donning wedding-dresses, all in order to fearful yourself. I have never really reflected over the red eyes, but when a former commander of one of the Liberian rebel groups yesterday told me that there is a particular leaf in the jungle that you use to fearful yourself, it made perfect sense – the leaf is used to make one’s eyes red.

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2 Responses to Red Eyes

  1. I thought about this a lot in Sierra Leone. The notion was that combatants would make a small slit on their temple, and rub cocaine or “brown brown” directly into the wound to make it more fast acting or powerful. Some of the former child soldiers I worked with told me that they would sometimes wear a plaster (what we in America would call a band-aid) on their temple, just to seem more fearful to people.

    Maybe you and I could write a paper on this together?

  2. In their 1998 article “‘Why We Fight’: Voices of Youth Combatants in Sierra Leone,” Krijn Peters and Paul Richards quote one young woman as explaining that she took gunpowder as a contraceptive, and also because it makes one brave for battle: “If you take gunpowder before you sleep you will wake with red [fierce] eyes” (191). So many ways to become fierce…

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