Global Policy Forum

Sierra Leone Alarmed Over Peacekeepers' Exit

New York Times
November 21, 2000

The Jordanian colonel himself, here as part of a United Nations peacekeeping force, had gotten behind the wheel of his sport utility vehicle to drive on the lawless road his soldiers had reclaimed. The West Side Boys, one of several militias that rose up as this West African country sank into anarchy, had been coming down from the surrounding hills to terrorize travelers. But now, the officer, Colonel Jehad Alwedyan, said with a grin, "The legend of the West Side Boys is over."

Masiaka, a strategic junction town that had been destroyed, patched up and destroyed in successive attacks over a nine year civil war, was finally secured. The colonel was shifting gears when the sight of a figure by the side of the road, a hat crushed low over his eyes, made him slam on the brakes. "Rambo!" he yelled out to a young man with a wooden matchstick clenched between his teeth. "Get in."

The young man - a colonel himself who was born Idriss Kamara 26 years ago and had made Colonel Alwedyan's acquaintance in August when he became the first West Side Boy to surrender - climbed in. "Rambo, you see?" Colonel Alwedyan said, waving at the crowds who had returned to Masiaka, which is 80 kilometers (50 miles) east of the capital, Freetown. "Yes, Masiaka is nice now."

Nice, but for how long? Six months after the UN force nearly collapsed in Sierra Leone, raising doubts about the West's commitment to peacekeeping in Africa, its two best-trained and equipped armies, the Jordanians and the Indians, say they will leave, although two-thirds of the country remains under the control of the rebel Revolutionary United Front, or RUF.

With the country still teetering on the verge of war or, worse, collapse, and with the ready prospect that peacekeeping here could end up looking a lot more like war fighting or an open-ended commitment to nation-building, the Jordanians and the Indians have become steadily less interested in staying, and Western countries with little or no direct interest in this corner of Africa have become less tempted to show up at all.

Sierra Leone, once viewed as an urgent test of what the world should do with states that have all but broken down, could quickly become the test the West has failed.

Britain, the former colonial power here, intervened in May after the rebels reignited the civil war and helped save the peacekeeping operation from crumbling, but it has pointedly refused to place its combat troops under UN command. In November, it sent 500 marines to Freetown to fill a "possible vacuum" that will be created by the departing Indians and Jordanians, said Brigadier David Richards, the British force commander here. "The UN force still has no clear mandate," he said. "They came here as a neutral force to implement a peace accord but were let down by one of the parties. Our view is that the RUF forfeited their right, and the UN must take clear sides." Britain has already begun training and equipping about 3,000 Sierra Leoneans in the hope that a government army might recapture some territory, with the backing of the UN force. But it is far from clear that the force has any interest in such an expanded task.

Jordan said it was withdrawing 1,800 soldiers by the end of the year because Western countries had not joined the force. India announced it was pulling out 3,150 troops by February, after several of its soldiers were killed or wounded in eastern Sierra Leone and its commander, Major General Vijay Jetley, became involved in a dispute with the mission's Nigerian leaders. Their departure will leave the Bangladeshis, who have comparatively little battle experience, as the only non-Africans in the UN force.

"We're at a kind of stalemate," said a high-ranking Indian officer in Freetown. "No country is ready to lose its troops here. So we have accepted the fact there is no military solution - militarily we cannot beat the RUF." He added: "What have we accomplished in the 11 months we have been here? We have not gained an inch of territory, but in fact we have lost a few. This is not the time to feel satisfied about what we have done in Sierra Leone."

Bangladesh and Ghana have volunteered troops to replace the Indians and Jordanians. So while the force's current level of 12,500 troops might be maintained, it will be difficult to raise it to the 20,500 that Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the Security Council want.

Despite a 30-day cease-fire signed this month by the rebels and the government, many Sierra Leoneans expressed worry about the pullout, particularly because it will coincide with the start of the dry season, usually the most intense time for fighting.

"For now we are O.K.," said Emerson Kargbo, assistant chief of police in Masiaka. "We are able to sleep through the night and wake up in the morning. But we don't want the Jordanians to leave."

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