Global Policy Forum

Sierra Leone Rebels Contemplate Life


By Douglas Farah

Washington Post
April 14, 2001

The few vehicles that venture down the single ribbon of highway that leads to this town pass a dismaying wasteland of razed villages and overgrown fields. Every few miles there is a checkpoint, where boy soldiers with AK-47 rifles step out onto the road, cigarettes in hand, to shake down the passengers for whatever cash is in their pockets. The region has only a smattering of people and almost no schools or clinics. Aid workers say malnutrition among children is high and likely to get higher, because war has prevented planting crops on time. That means the coming harvest will be sparse.

The breadth and brutality of Sierra Leone's 10-year civil war was evident everywhere in a visit to this town, headquarters of the rebel Revolutionary United Front. About the only people showing any sign of prosperity were young combatants, many of whom wear baggy shorts, athletic shoes, tank tops and wraparound sunglasses, attire they said was brought home by friends who have traveled to the United States and Europe.

The rebels, who reneged on previous peace agreements, gained international notoriety by forcing thousands of children into combat, systematically raping women and hacking off the arms and legs of civilians. But two days of conversations with a visitor painted a picture of a rebel force reassessing its future. Sitting in a house that was abandoned by an international relief agency and is now guarded by boy soldiers, senior leaders of the RUF said they realized the possibility of military victory was gone, and offered unconditional talks with the government.

For the first time, they apologized for taking more than 500 U.N. peacekeepers hostage last year. They pledged to allow the U.N. troops to deploy freely across the 60 percent of the national territory that the rebels control. "We are in a stalemate," said Gibril Massaquoi, a senior RUF commander and official spokesman. "We are not defeated but we can't take power, and therefore the people will suffer if the war continues. We are now ready to struggle politically, not militarily. The RUF of yesterday, branded with all sorts of names, is not the RUF of today."

To push the peace process forward, the RUF leaders said they have named a peace commission headed by Omrie Golley, a British-educated lawyer who has represented the rebels in the past. Diplomats and analysts reacted to the RUF statements with skepticism, because the rebels have reneged on past peace agreements, including a July 1999 accord that was supposed to end the fighting and give the RUF a role in government. Still, some said there were signs that the war may be winding down.

The big question, they said, was whether rank-and-file troops would go along with a peace agreement. "You won't believe how isolated they are, how little they know of the outside world and how many of them know nothing outside of war," said one civilian source who has dealt with the RUF for years. "They are asking what will happen to them if there is peace. They don't know life without a gun."

Whether the government should take up the offer to talk is a point of debate. In a report issued earlier this week, the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based research and advocacy group, said that the Sierra Leone government should make no further deals with the RUF, demand its surrender and prepare to move militarily if the answer is no. It also called for a more aggressive strategy by peacekeepers.

Several factors, outside analysts said, have combined to spur the RUF leadership to reassess its situation. These include the increased presence of U.N. peacekeepers, the reduction of support from neighboring Liberia and the imprisonment of its leader and founder, Foday Sankoh. "The war has turned a corner but is not necessarily over," said a senior U.N. military officer in the capital, Freetown, 65 miles west of here. "But the RUF is no longer in a position of strength, and they seem to finally understand that. The idea now is to get the government to talk with them to see where this new leadership can take them."

Julius Spencer, the government's spokesman, said his side was studying how to respond to the peace council proposal. He said that if the RUF is sincere, the disarmament of the rebels, along with militias fighting for the government, would take 30 days to complete. The RUF leaders linked final disarmament to a broader settlement of several undeclared wars that have spread along the borders of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

Western intelligence sources in the region confirmed that, in the past two weeks, the Guinean army has used helicopter gunships and artillery to support irregular Sierra Leonean troops who have advanced on RUF positions near diamond-producing areas in the east. The RUF has sustained heavy casualties, the sources said. "We cannot talk disarmament while the government is using Guinea to attack us," Massaquoi said. "Until that is resolved, it is not time to talk of disarmament."

Makeni, a town of several thousand people, sits between the capital, Freetown, in the west and the diamond fields to the east that fund the rebels' operations. Spared widespread destruction in the civil war, the once-thriving town today has no lights or running water. Its hospital is able to operate even at minimum capacity only because the aid group Doctors Without Borders began funding and staffing it last month.

To show that the organization has a political and social side as well as a military one, the RUF allowed The Washington Post unusual access to leaders of its military police, its court and a struggling orphanage operated by the rebels. Although several commanders and combatants agreed to be interviewed, Massaquoi was the only one who consented to be quoted by name. He appeared to hold preeminence in the group.

In hours of talks over rice and potato-leaf stew in the evening, the RUF commanders and combatants said their peace overtures carried none of the demands that the RUF had made in the past. They said they were not seeking senior government positions. An earlier peace accord had guaranteed them a role in government.

Because the RUF assigned a person from its propaganda wing to accompany a visiting journalist on a tour of the town, it was hard to gauge the level of popular support for the rebels. When asked what the RUF had done for the town since installing its headquarters here in December 1998, most people either had no response or mentioned that the rebels had opened the road to Freetown last month so that 15 or so trucks and buses can make the trek daily.

The highest praise any of the locals offered was that the RUF let them live. "They did not burn our town like they burned the others," said one resident after pondering the question. "We have no problem with the RUF, because here they did not chop limbs. They let us be."

A rebel commander said "many" RUF combatants had been executed for crimes including rape and robbery in an effort to rein in abuses. "It is not easy to change people's behavior, but by the grace of God we are doing it little by little," the official said. Besides execution, the RUF court hands down only two punishments: flogging or prison time with hard labor, according to two members of the seven-member court that dispenses justice from the upper floor of a building that was attacked by a government helicopter.

Massaquoi acknowledged that the RUF has committed widespread atrocities during the war and said it supported an international inquiry. That, he said, would show that all parties to the conflict had used the same brutal tactics of rape, amputation and scorched-earth destruction of villages. "The RUF shares the blame, but if you analyze the real case you will see the army and the Kamajors [pro-government militias] were doing the same thing," Massaquoi said. "That is why we support an international investigation. Even if we are branded black, let them listen to us. Maybe they will learn one or two truths from us."

Human rights groups have long agreed that all sides are guilty of such atrocities and that the most vicious tactics began in 1997, when, for nine months, Sierra Leone was jointly governed by a military junta and the RUF, leading to the bloodiest phase of the war. The junta, known as the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council, was driven from power by a West African force led by Nigeria, and the RUF returned to the bush to continue its rebellion.

The war drew to a temporary halt after the 1999 Lome accord, which granted the RUF a share of political power in exchange for disarming and called for deployment of U.N. peacekeepers to monitor the process. The agreement fell apart last May when the RUF, refusing to disarm, took 500 peacekeepers hostage and marched toward Freetown. Britain, the former colonial power here, dispatched several thousand troops, along with warships, to defend the capital and work with the government army, halting the RUF advance. RUF leader Foday Sankoh was captured and imprisoned and the peacekeepers were released.

Although a tenuous cease-fire signed in November has generally held, there have been no talks between the RUF and the government. The most formidable factor enforcing the peace is the threat of intervention by the British, who have several hundred trainers working with the army, a warship off the coast and an "over the horizon" force of several thousand poised for rapid intervention.

At the same time, Liberian President Charles Taylor, a longtime patron of the RUF, is no longer able to support the rebels. In the past, Taylor has supplied them with weapons, logistical help and an avenue to sell diamonds to finance the war. But Taylor is under increasing international pressure to cut his ties to the RUF or face stiff international sanctions, and his economy is crumbling. He is also facing a growing war in his own country as Liberian insurgents based in Guinea inflict heavy losses.

And the RUF is no longer led by Sankoh, a messianic leader who compared himself to Jesus and the Prophet Mohammed and whom RUF members call "Pappy" because part of their indoctrination was the declaration that he was their father. The new RUF leaders, mostly in their late twenties or early thirties, are more flexible and realistic, according to sources who deal with the RUF regularly. Sankoh's replacement, Issa Sessay, and Massaquoi have become the leading proponents of seeking a political end to the conflict. In a change from past RUF statements, Massaquoi said Sankoh's release from prison was not a precondition to peace, although he said the rebels would more readily lay down their weapons if Sankoh gave the order.

At the same time, the U.N. contingent -- which now numbers about 12,100 troops, the largest peacekeeping force in the world -- is slowly beginning to carry out its mandate to deploy across the country, including into RUF territory.

Following the hostage-taking last year, several nations pulled their troops out of the U.N. force. Late last month, the U.N. troops, who have been widely criticized for their slow deployment, moved into the RUF stronghold of Lunsar, a gutted, razed village 55 miles southwest of here, and have carried out patrols in this town. The United Nations also sent patrols last week to the diamond-rich Tongo area for the first time.

U.N. spokeswoman Margaret Novicki in Freetown said the peacekeeping mission, which costs about $1.5 million a day, would be up to its fully authorized strength of 17,500 troops by the summer, when 4,000 Pakistani troops deploy, and would then be able to fan out across the country. "All in all, we have been moving forward and we haven't encountered any major obstacles," Novicki said, adding that U.N. troops would soon be deployed here in Makeni.

Massaquoi and other RUF commanders said they were allowing the U.N. deployment to go ahead in part because the presence of U.N. troops ensured that their positions would not be attacked by the army or the British.

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