Global Policy Forum

New Fighting Is Feared in Sierra Leone


By Douglas Farah

International Herald Tribune
February 20, 2001

The disheveled men shuffled into the bare room and sat in uncertain silence while their leader lit a cigarette and warily eyed a visitor. Identifying himself as Colonel Kennedy, the leader exhaled and said that his 14 Revolutionary United Front rebels had deserted and come here, to a nearly deserted camp about 40 miles (65 kilometers) northeast of Freetown, to lay down arms. The camp was built to hold several thousand combatants who were to disarm as part of an aborted agreement aimed at ending Sierra Leone's civil war. Here, the leader and his men surrendered their rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles to UN peacekeepers.

"We were waiting for the United Nations to come so we could disarm where we were, but they never did," Colonel Kennedy said. "So we came here at great risk to our lives, but we don't know what will happen next." An informal cease-fire over the past three months had meant an uneasy lull in the fighting but little prospect for a conclusive end to the conflict. As a result, all sides agree that unless the troubled UN peacekeeping mission, the largest in the world, quickly fans out across Sierra Leone, one of the most brutal wars in Africa in recent years is likely to resume.

UN officials say that even with almost 10,000 troops, there are not enough to deploy beyond a few positions. The mission costs $1.5 million a day and is heavily concentrated in Freetown and a few other urban centers. The rebels, who have been fighting the government since 1991, control more than half of the land, including the richest diamond-mining and agricultural areas.

The inability of peacekeepers to deploy, according to UN officials and diplomats, could seriously hinder efforts to repatriate tens of thousands of Sierra Leonean refugees who fled to neighboring Guinea to escape fighting. While the rebels, with an abysmal human rights record and no history of keeping international commitments, have agreed to a safe corridor through the territory they hold in the north, refugees have said that they would not return without the presence of the international force.

One diplomat said the lull was allowing rebels to resupply, while newly trained government troops were restive and soon would turn to "unsavory activities." The only way forward, the diplomat said, was for the UN force to "get out in the field." The international peacekeeping mission began after the government and the rebels signed an agreement in July 1999 designed to end a war in which the rebels had kidnapped thousands of children and turned them into combatants, razed hundreds of villages, raped women and hacked arms and legs off thousands of civilians. The deal collapsed in May when the rebels refused to disarm and briefly took 500 UN peacekeepers hostage.

The UN mission has also been plagued by internal disputes, high turnover among its leaders and the abrupt withdrawal of two large contingents. A UN spokeswoman, Margaret Novicki, said the usual troop rotations, in addition to the withdrawal of 4,000 Indian and Jordanian troops, had affected deployment plans. "Once the troops get on the ground and the rotations are over," she said, "we will begin our deployment."

UN officials said the mission, authorized for 20,000 troops after the hostage-taking last year, should stabilize at about 12,000 by the end of March. They said a more rapid deployment would open troops to new hostage-takings and attacks. Diplomats and UN officials said their intelligence reports in recent weeks had consistently indicated rebel plans to seize more UN hostages to force further concessions from the government.

The government, strengthened by the presence of 600 British soldiers who have trained and equipped more than 3,000 Sierra Leonean troops, is threatening an all-out offensive to retake diamond-mining areas. British, U.S. and Sierra Leone army officials say they want to send the newly trained troops into rebel territory with UN troops following to consolidate the government's hold.

UN officials strongly oppose such a move, arguing they are not here to fight or take sides in the conflict, a position that is stirring anger and frustration among people outside rebel territory. Many Sierra Leoneans say that, given the rebels' brutal history and its breaking of the peace process, UN troops should force their way into rebel territory if necessary. "We are very, very angry because the UN doesn't do anything here," Issa Koroma, a driver and mechanic, said. "We see they have vehicles and helicopters and gunships everywhere, and what do they do?"

The camp here is a reminder of how little has changed in the year since it was built. Now the camp is filled with empty plastic tents whose walls flap in the dusty breeze and searing heat, and U.S.- trained Nigerian peacekeepers lounge in the shade of the few trees near the entrance.

More Information on Sierra Leone and Liberia
More Information on Diamonds Conflict
More Information on Peacekeeping


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