Global Policy Forum

An Uneasy Peace in Sierra Leone


By Norimitsu Onishi

New York Times
April 5, 2000

Daru (Sierra Leone) - This town, attacked 59 times during a nine-year civil war, was left for dead, deserted by its residents. Its strategic airstrip was protected by forces loyal to the government but surrounded by brutal rebels who controlled the rest of eastern Sierra Leone.

Now, with United Nations peacekeepers here, life has begun to stir again in Daru. Shops have opened as thousands have resettled here, some returning from refugee camps in Liberia, where many people fled. Others have stopped here in the hope of eventually heading to their homes farther north in the heart of Sierra Leone's diamond mining region, an area that the rebels have so far guarded fiercely from the United Nations troops.

"I want to go back there, but not yet," said Salifu Din, 42, who is from a village near the diamond mining city of Koidu and who arrived in Daru a month ago. Mr. Din, who spent two years in a Liberian refugee camp with his wife and two children, has set up a small stand in the market here, selling nails, hammers and other tools that people are buying so they can rebuild. He said he would try to go home when the United Nations troops moved into that area.

The peacekeepers have slowly started pushing into rebel-held territory, like the area around Daru, providing the first glimpse into regions that for years were inaccessible to most outsiders except soldiers and mercenaries. Despite the peace accord signed last July, more than half of Sierra Leone remains effectively under the control of the Revolutionary United Front, the group that waged a campaign of terror by chopping off ordinary citizens' hands, arms and feet.

The peacekeepers are part of a United Nations mission that will bring more than 11,000 troops to this West African nation by July. Already 7,400 troops are here, but many are the Nigerian soldiers who were already in Sierra Leone as part of a West African peacekeeping force. The operation will be watched closely, especially as the United Nations Security Council considers sending troops to Congo, a much larger country whose conflict has drawn in half a dozen nations.

Under the Sierra Leone peace agreement, the nation should now be one entity. But the reality is far different. The government controls the area around the capital, Freetown, while the rebels retain authority in the north and east. Two other groups - former soldiers who were allied with the rebels and a civil defense militia known as the Kamajors who backed the government - are ensconced in other parts. Of the 45,000 estimated combatants, only about a third have been disarmed and demobilized.

The main rebel group, the Revolutionary United Front, has proved the most resistant. The United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Annan, recently criticized its leader, Foday Sankoh, saying he was hampering progress with his "often negative and confusing approach."

Despite assurances by Mr. Sankoh that United Nations peacekeepers can go anywhere in the country, his soldiers have continued to block their advance. In January the rebels stole significant amounts of weapons and equipment from Guinean and Kenyan peacekeeping troops. The harassment has also delayed the delivery of aid for civilians in rebel-held territory. The World Food Program, a United Nations agency, has yet to make deliveries in the far east and did not begin distribution in the north until March. "It's a test," said Julie Thoulouzan, a program coordinator for the program in Freetown.

After a battalion of Indian peacekeepers arrived in Daru in February, more than 100 troops were able to move recently to another eastern town, Kailahun. "We have had a great deal of difficulty getting to this area," said Lt. Col. Amit Sharma. "The RUF set up barricades. They would allow us through now and then. One day they would say, 'Peace, peace, peace.' The next day they would stop our convoy. The same men, the same place."

A helicopter ride from Freetown to Daru provides a view of endless forest, the monotony broken by the occasional town and village, whose lands have largely been left uncultivated because of the war. Along rivers about 20 miles west of here in a town called Kenema, people could be seen toiling in water-filled holes, mining for diamonds.

Diamond mining is mainly done along riverbeds in Sierra Leone and is mostly illicit. In Kenema, military officials said, Lebanese merchants sell water pumps, which diamond prospectors use to fill holes with water so they can look for diamonds, as if they were panning for gold in the American Old West. Diamonds have fueled the conflict, as they have in Congo and Angola, providing the warring parties the means to buy arms. Diamond trafficking has been particularly important to the main rebel group, which has ties to Liberia's president, Charles Taylor. It has financed its war with diamonds smuggled out through Liberia and Burkina Faso.

Not surprisingly, even as Mr. Sankoh has professed his commitment to peace, his soldiers have remained armed. They have not allowed peacekeepers to move into the areas with the richest diamond mines, which are centered on Koidu. "Maybe they'll try to hold on to it until before the elections," one military observer said, expressing the commonly held opinion that Mr. Sankoh is not fully committed to peace and is preserving a military option.

Under the peace agreement, Mr. Sankoh joined a power-sharing government and is chairman of a government commission in charge of the nation's mineral resources. The accord was criticized by human rights organizations for granting blanket amnesty to Mr. Sankoh and others widely believed to be guilty of crimes against humanity. It allowed the rebels to become a political party that will be able to offer candidates in the presidential and legislative elections scheduled for early 2001.

Diplomats and international aid agency officials based in Freetown say they believe that Mr. Sankoh has been amassing money for his future political efforts. They also suspect that he may try to win the elections by simply threatening to resume the fighting if he loses -- the same approach used successfully by Mr. Taylor, a former rebel who won an election in Liberia in 1997.

Mr. Sankoh, who pushed for early elections during the peace talks, has denied delaying the peace. Recently he even blamed the peacekeepers for impeding the distribution of aid to civilians. United Nations officials reject the accusation and contend that Mr. Sankoh is responsible for the delays in bringing peace to the area. Oluyemi Adeniji, the United Nations special envoy to Sierra Leone, said in an interview that the delays might "have an effect on the timing of the elections."

Mr. Adeniji, a Nigerian, added that the United Nations would not endorse elections held while one or more of the warring sides remained armed. "Of course, the U.N. would not want to get involved, either in providing logistics or observing elections that may be fundamentally flawed," he said.

Here in Daru, the slow process of rebuilding has begun. Capt. Sandeep Shah, a munitions expert, has collected four tons of unexploded bombs inside two concrete buildings. He found many of the explosives strewn across Daru. In a third building are stacks of rifles collected from the 500 former combatants who have passed through Daru's camp for what is called disarmament, demobilization and reintegration, or D.D.R.

"I don't despair," said Maj. Gen. Vijay K. Jetley, the commander of the peacekeeping troops. "I find there is a lot of hope. While D.D.R. is going slowly, I think it's a matter of time. Two months ago there was not a single person in the camp in Daru."

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