Global Policy Forum

War-Weary, Peace-Wary


By James Rupert

Washington Post
July 18, 1999

Freetown, Sierra Leone –– For Tommy Kargbo, as for many of Sierra Leone's 5 million people, the peace deal reached last week in a bid to end this country's savage, eight-year civil war is a bittersweet pill.

"If the fighting will really end, that is good," said Kargbo. But like many Sierra Leoneans, who have watched previous peace accords collapse, he is not confident. Also, like many, he is quietly galled that the deal will give a role in government and an unconditional amnesty to rebels who burned his home and neighborhood--and who killed or mutilated hundreds of his friends and neighbors.

After years of seesaw warfare ravaged one of the world's poorest countries, claiming tens of thousands of lives and bringing several changes of government, African and Western governments brought Sierra Leone's current, elected leadership and the Revolutionary United Front rebels to peace talks. The foreign brokers, which included the United States, pressured them over the course of seven weeks to sign last week's accord, and Sierra Leonean officials have since been trying to sell the deal in parliament--where it was approved Friday--and on the radio. Broadly, Sierra Leoneans say they will accept it, because they have no choice.

But in Kargbo's neighborhood--along Old Road in Kissy, a poor district of eastern Freetown--people are uneasy about letting the rebels back into the capital. The last time they came, when they fought their way in in January, they arbitrarily rounded up and killed civilians--sometimes for money or apparent revenge, sometimes for no known reason. They burned most of Kissy's houses, often after forcing their occupants inside. At Kissy's mental hospital, rebels massacred 16 people. At the Rogbalan Mosque, they killed 66.

And hundreds of times, according to witnesses who have spoken to journalists and to the New York-based Human Rights Watch, the rebels committed their signature atrocity: using machetes to chop hands, feet or other body parts off people to terrorize the population into submission. In a war that has killed and maimed thousands and uprooted half of the population, the rebels' seizure of Freetown in January "marked the most . . . concentrated period of human rights violations" so far, according to a Human Rights Watch report issued last month.

"We have not recovered from those days," said Kargbo, 37, as he and some neighbors took shelter from torrential rains under a leaky porch roof.

Along the stretch of Old Road leading to Kargbo's place, 35 of 50 houses are burned. Some residents camp in the more intact shells, stretching plastic sheets across surviving roof beams. Others have had to join the thousands of displaced people huddled under the bleachers of National Stadium, several miles away.

Kargbo, a secretary, said he is one of the few people who has a real job in a poor neighborhood where "nobody has any money to rebuild."

Nor, say some, the confidence. Under the peace deal, the rebels will be given four of 18 cabinet seats and will benefit from a universal amnesty for all crimes committed by either side during the war.

"We are accepting this with pain because we had no way to defeat these boys," said Foday, a resident of Old Road who gave only his first name. With their control of Sierra Leone's diamond mining areas, the rebels "have bought weapons and we have nothing to fight them with," he said. "And the outside world would not give us what they spent in one day to fight for the people in Kosovo. . . . We were forgotten because we are black and in Africa. Kosovo is white and in Europe."

"Don't print my surname, because we don't know what will happen next," said Foday. In January, the rebels who came to Freetown carried lists of people whom they sought to kill for having publicly criticized the RUF.

Exhausted by war, many Sierra Leoneans say they would try to forgive the rebels past crimes if they clearly repent. But while rebel leader Foday Sankoh sometimes voices regret about atrocities--especially when speaking to Westerners--he and other rebel spokesmen more often deny that they happened or blame them on the government.

It is not yet clear how the rebels will be present in Freetown. Rebel spokesmen say Sankoh and other leaders will arrive later this month, but they have not said where they will stay or how many of their followers they may bring.

Like residents in Kissy, Freetown's few remaining business executives worry about the rebels' return. In a rented villa where he has lived since his own was looted twice, diamond company executive Zeev Morgenstern contemplated the peace deal's provision for giving the rebels a piece of what they've been fighting for: control over Sierra Leone's rich gold and diamond mines.

Sankoh, the rebel leader, will be made chairman of a new Strategic Minerals Commission, which will review all mining licenses in the country, including three diamond concessions issued to Morgenstern's company, Rex Mining. The commission is seen as certain to escalate the political battles over who gets the potentially lucrative right to mine this country's riches.

Summoned by Sierra Leone's vice president, Joe Demby, last weekend, Morgenstern drove his white Mercedes through yet more driving rain up into the lush hills above Freetown. "We have very good concessions here . . . [and] we want to keep them," he said.

Later, when he emerged from the meeting, he shrugged. Like everyone in Sierra Leone these days, he had no guarantees.

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