Global Policy Forum

Sierra Leone Still Far From Peace


By Clarence Roy-Macaulay

Associated Press
April 18, 2000

Kailahun, Sierra Leone - Former rebel fighters, whose group indiscriminately killed and maimed tens of thousands during an eight-year war merely to prove their power, now beg for food and medicine in the town that was once their headquarters.

Emaciated residents dressed in rags wander barefoot among bombed-out buildings. The town's main hospital, looted long ago, was abandoned until 150 U.N. peacekeepers from India arrived in March and made it their base. Nearby houses are all destroyed.

"It is too much! Nobody ever comes here to help us. Take us out of here!" Alieu Kamara, a wounded former rebel, screamed to journalists who made a rare visit Monday. Kamara writhed in pain on a mattress on the cement floor of another crumbling, filthy building used as a makeshift hospital. Worms protruded from his wounds. It was just one more sign of misery and decay in a place that left the world behind.

The peacekeepers, part of a 6,500-member U.N. force that is expected to receive 5,000 reinforcements by June, are trying to safeguard the peace accord signed by Revolutionary United Front rebels and Sierra Leone government officials last July. But peace is far from secure. Rebels still rape, rob and kill defenseless villagers in many parts of the country, human rights groups say. And many rebels have refused to disarm. Although the former rebel fighters don't openly carry guns in Kailahun, U.N. peacekeepers say their weapons are believed hidden not far away.

Kailahun, a once-sleepy farming town 215 miles east of Freetown near the eastern border with Liberia, was the nerve center of the rebel holocaust. Since war began in 1991, the Revolutionary United Front cruelly maimed civilians as they gained territory. Many Sierra Leoneans bear the cruel scars of that macabre struggle - the rebels cut off lips, arms and legs and carved "RUF" in the skins of their victims.

From here, charismatic and unpredictable leader Foday Sankoh directed his loosely organized bands of foot soldiers and expanded a growing illicit trade in diamonds dug from crude mines nearby, say aid organizations and human rights groups. In the process, Kailahun, the town, returned to the bush.

Contact with the outside world was severed. Outsiders were killed or forced to become sex slaves or porters. Telephone and power lines were vandalized for their valuable wire. Buildings were destroyed from air raids by a West African intervention force backing Sierra Leone's government. Bridges collapsed and trees sprouted up on roads that became trails. The journalists who visited Monday came by U.N. helicopter. Today, the only access to many neighboring towns and the nearby Liberian and Guinean borders is by foot. Two unexploded bombs protrude like signposts from what was once a main street.

The people have also disappeared. U.N. officials estimated only one-tenth of Kailahun's 15,000 former residents were in the town in April, including several hundred rebel fighters and their families and an equal number of refugees who straggled back since the peacekeepers arrived. Many who fled still live in the surrounding forests or in Liberia or Guinea. Rebels routinely fleece returning refugees of their meager belongings, U.N. officers said.

Those in Kailahun survive by growing tiny plots of cassava, peanuts, vegetables and maize corn. Basic foods like salt, sugar, flour and oil have not been seen in years. "The people are crying for food and good drinking water," said Indian Maj. Sunil Nair. "Aid groups have come to check out the situation but so far none have set up yet."

Isata Momoh, a local nursing assistant who remained with the rebels during the war, said most of the babies suffer from dysentery and malnourishment. "We are using one needle to inject 10 children with drugs before we sterilize it. We don't have enough antiseptic or syringes," Momoh said.

Kamara, the wounded former rebel, and his sister, Adama Kargbo, complained angrily that they had been abandoned by both the international community and their own rebel leaders. Sankoh and his deputies have taken up positions in Sierra Leone's government under the peace deal. All other rebels have been given amnesty for their atrocities. "We have been told the war is over but nobody comes to help us," Kargbo said. "It is time that Foday Sankoh focuses his attention on us. We are his people."

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