Aminata Conteh-Biger grew up surrounded by the mountains and red dust of Freetown in Sierra Leone. She remembers the smell of the dust after the rain, baking bread in the morning and her father’s favourite leather chair in their family home. It was a comfortable life, one full of love and security.
Conteh-Biger was raised by her father. She describes him as a generous, humble man and one of the biggest influences on her life: “He wanted to treat every single person equally, but he was firm. And he was gentle and vulnerable. All of that in one person; we were very blessed to have that sort of example.”
Her father was foundational in making Conteh-Bger who she is and shaping how she sees the world. “What he really left me, that I’ve always carried, is the value of human beings, not the value of material things,” she says. He taught her integrity and belief in herself, but above all a respect for human life. “He really wanted us to know that at the end of the day, you speak to the beggar in the street in the same tone as you speak to the man in the mansion. So, for me, I love you but I respect you first. That’s the key: you respect people first, before you’re capable of loving them,” she says.
Finding light in the darkness
In 1999, when Conteh-Biger was just 18, the civil war that had been raging for eight years arrived in Freetown. From her window she could see her neighbour’s homes burning and people slaughtered on the streets.
The Revolutionary United Front reached her door and snatched Conteh-Biger from her father’s arms. The rebels were infamous for targeting civilians — maiming and raping non-combatants and recruiting child soldiers. Conteh-Biger knew, as all young women did, what her fate would be once she was enslaved.
It was the start of several dark and terrifying months for Conteh-Biger, where one rebel in particular became obsessed with her. Throughout her time in captivity, Conteh-Biger held on to her faith in God. “My faith is a personal, intimate relationship with God,” she says. “When I was kidnapped, I saw so much evil, all I could see was full of evil. That [the parables] was the only place I could see goodness.”
Rebuilding a life far from home
After several months of captivity, Conteh-Biger found herself in a group of children being exchanged for food and medical supplies during a brief ceasefire. The high-stakes trade was televised across the country and marked the start of the transition towards peace, which was finally reached in 2002, after 11 years of war and an estimated 50,000 deaths.
Terrified her obsessive captor might come after her, Conteh-Biger left her beloved father and the red dust of Sierra Leone and flew to Australia to start afresh as a refugee in a land she knew nothing about.
Still in her teens, and without her parents, Conteh-Biger’s new home in Western Sydney was far from her picture-perfect childhood. The trauma of war and the sexual abuse persisted. But it was also where she proudly built a new life, finding support in a spiritual community and church, and set about on the path towards baptism.
“In a baptism you renew in your mind, your spirit, your body, your soul,” she says. “And for me, it was much deeper than that. I knew something had been taken away from me. I was going to be a brand new person, almost like I was never touched.”
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