About 15 years ago, on the other side of the world, Fatu Sankoh had to make a decision.
Her husband Ibrahim Bangura had been killed. She lived with her three children in a rusting metal shanty with a dirt floor. Their water carried disease and food was scarce. Violence was everywhere.
She took her three children to an orphanage, and begged workers there to find the children families in the United States.
The siblings were split up and sent across the world. Two of them, 15-year-old twins Andrew and Abigail Hansen, grew up on a farm off of Old Butte Road. Their older brother, 19-year-old Usifu Bangura, was first adopted by one family in Washington and later moved with another to Montana.
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After years of searching they were reunited. Now Usifu plans to travel back to the land he escaped in search of their birth mother.
This story begins in Freetown, Sierra Leone, a small country on the west coast of Africa. It was around the turn of the century, at the height of a civil war marked by some of the worst atrocities in human history.
Sierra Leone’s recent history is inseparable from diamonds, which are abundant in parts of the country.
Unlike diamonds in many places, which have to be dug up and sorted with industrial equipment, Sierra Leone’s diamonds were found loose in surface dirt or mud. Anyone with a shovel and a sieve could have them.
For one of the poorest nations in the world, nearly free diamonds should have been a blessing.
Instead, they were a curse — branded “blood diamonds.”
Instead of development, diamonds bred corruption. And competition over control of the diamond fields led to coups, rebellions and ultimately an 11-year civil war. It was marked by unthinkable brutality and terror, particularly at the hands of a rebel army called the “Revolutionary United Front,” whose leaders were later convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity, according to Al Jazeera.
In early 1999, when Usifu was 3, and Andrew and Abigail hadn’t yet been born, the RUF sacked Freetown. A report released by Human Rights Watch later that year documented the atrocities through dozens of interviews with witnesses and survivors.
“Civilians were gunned down within their houses, rounded up and massacred on the streets, thrown from the upper floors of buildings, used as human shields, and burned alive in cars and houses,” the report said. “They had their limbs hacked off with machetes, eyes gouged out with knives, hands smashed with hammers and bodies burned with boiling water. Women and girls were systematically sexually abused, and children and young people abducted by the hundreds.”
The abducted children were brought back to rebel camps, drugged, given guns and inducted into what the rebels called the SBU — “small boys unit.” They were forced to participate in similar atrocities.
This happened to children as young as 7, the New York Times reported.
In all, more than 50,000 people were killed in the war.
Among the dead was Ibrahim, the three siblings’ biological father.
Usifu and the Hansens aren’t sure how Ibrahim died, except that it was violent. They believe he was forcibly conscripted into the military or the security forces fighting against the rebels.
Usifu remembers how they found out, sometime around 2000.
“It was me and my mother, and I saw the newspaper,” he said.
A picture of his father’s corpse, along with many others, was on the front page.
“She knew everything was going to change,” Usifu said. “She couldn’t take care of us.”
Andrew and Abigail left Sierra Leone at too young an age to have any memory of it. But Usifu lived there until he was 7 1/2, and has a few memories.
“It’s quite a vague memory, but I do remember seeing them there,” Usifu said of the twins. “I remember having them as a family.”
He remembers his family sleeping together on a single mattress. He remembers the two buckets that were their only source of water, which had to be hauled from miles away.
And he remembers his mother walking him up a hill to the orphanage in tears. The twins already had been brought there.
They were adopted before he was. He remembers them leaving.
Andrew and Abigail Hansen were adopted by Bruce and Sandy Hansen in 2002.
The Hansens already had six biological children, but they didn’t feel their family was complete, Bruce said. So they first adopted a boy from the east coast, Eli, through The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ adoption agency.
But Eli was the only adopted child and the only black child in the large family. They worried that made him feel out-of-place, so they decided to adopt a second black child so that he could feel “at home, comfortable with who he is.”
They turned to a small adoption agency that specialized in facilitating adoptions from Sierra Leone. They soon chose a young boy, and worked to adopt him for months.
That adoption fell through, but the same day they heard that the twins had been dropped off at the same orphanage in Freetown. Over the course of two years, they went through the arduous process of obtaining approval from the Sierra Leonean courts — they still have two thick binders full of paperwork.
Even then the adoption nearly fell through. U.S. officials were dragging their feet, Bruce said, and it took the intervention of Sen. Larry Craig to get the ball rolling.
Then the American embassy, which needed to issue a visa in order for the children to travel, said the Hansens didn’t have enough income to adopt them. So the Hansens had to scramble to find a sponsor who would sign a paper saying they would raise the twins if the Hansens proved unable.
Andrew and Abigail arrived in the airport the size of infants, Bruce remembers. They were 2 1/2 years old, but they could barely walk. Their bellies were distended and their skin clung tightly to their skulls. It took weeks to overcome their malnourishment, and months of specially-ordered drugs to rid them of the parasites that had invaded their bodies, a consequence of the lack of access to clean drinking water.
The twins showed no interest in playing with toys or watching television.
“They were always looking for food,” Bruce said, though it was never in short supply.
Over time they overcame their early trauma, enrolling in school and growing up living the life of Idaho farm kids.
It wasn’t until some time after Bruce and Sandy had adopted the twins that they learned of Usifu’s existence. They considered trying to adopt him as well, Bruce said, but with nine children in the home their financial and emotional resources were already stretched to the breaking point.
So instead they watched the regular mailings they received with lists of children waiting for adoption back at the orphanage in Freetown.
They hoped someone would adopt Usifu. It was two years before that happened.
Usifu was adopted in 2004 by a family in Washington. The first thing he remembers is trying pizza. He loved it. Like his brother and sister, his early time was spent eating as much food as he could find.
Usifu’s first adoptive family meant well, he said, but they were unprepared for the challenges presented by a child who had undergone the kind of trauma that he had.
Unable to deal with his behavior, they sent him to live in a playhouse in the backyard, he remembers. He slept outside. And although it was summer, the nighttime temperatures were unbearably cold for a boy who had spent his life in the tropics.
Luckily, friends of the family agreed to take him from his first family. He moved to Montana. Things were better there. He had a bedroom. He swam and hiked with his new family. He joined the Boy Scouts. He called his adoptive parents “Mom” and “Dad.”
All the while, Bruce and Sandy were trying to get in contact with Usifu. They tried over and over to get the new family’s information so that they could reunite him with Abigail and Andrew. Eventually, they made contact and Usifu came with his family for his first visit about seven years ago.
It was a strange experience for the twins, who had no memory of their time in Sierra Leone or of their brother.
“I just though, ‘Oh, cool,’” Andrew said.
Abigail said the experience gave her a glimpse of her roots.
Bruce said the experience was important for his children, who knew no one else who had been adopted from Africa.
“Only he can say, ‘I know how you feel,’” Bruce said.
For example, all three talk about experiencing “survivor’s guilt” when the Ebola crisis flooded the airwaves. They felt uneasy that they lived stable lives while those they left behind suffered.
The Ebola virus killed some 11,000 over the last two years in Sierra Leone. They didn’t know if their birth mother, Fatu, was one of them.
Usifu returned to Idaho Falls for another visit a couple of years later. They rode four-wheelers around the farm. He insisted on paying for his brother and sister’s meals.
After he left they stayed in regular contact by phone. Usifu graduated from high school and took a job working construction in Missoula, Mont. He began to think more and more about their birth mother, Fatu.
Usifu decided to go back to Sierra Leone.
“My hope is to go back and find her,” he said.
He plans to leave sometime around May, if he can raise the necessary funds. He came back to Idaho Falls last week to visit the Hansens again and discuss his plan.
Andrew said he wants to go. Bruce and Sandy say it’s too dangerous for a 15-year-old, but they support Usifu and hope he can find Fatu.
Usifu hopes to bring with him water filtration devices such as LifeStraws, which could save lives from the waterborne diseases that still plague Sierra Leone.
Usifu said he isn’t angry that his mother gave them up. She made the right choice.
They were all on a sinking ship, and she saw a lifeboat, he said. So she pushed her kids into it knowing she would probably never see them again.
They all grew up with enough to eat. Usifu’s family life hadn’t always been perfect, but it was far from the grinding poverty, violence and disease he would have faced in Freetown.
If he finds her, Usifu will say: “Thank you.”