Global Policy Forum

War in Sierra Leone Loosens Its Grip


By Norimitsu Onishi

New York Times
May 26, 2001

The children, 424 of them, began filling the stands in the soccer stadium this morning just before the oppressive heat blanketed this town in West Africa. Most had been brought here to the center of Sierra Leone a few days earlier, in preparation for their big day today. Many of them looked younger than 10 years old, some of them said they were as young as 6 and all of them had spent large chunks of their lives fighting in one of Africa's cruelest wars, a war that still rages in parts of the region. But these child soldiers were being released today by the Revolutionary United Front, or R.U.F., the rebel group that has terrorized this country for the last decade by kidnapping children and chopping off the arms of ordinary citizens.

A year after the rebels took more than 500 United Nations peacekeepers hostage and raised doubts about the West's commitment to peacekeeping in Africa, the situation has clearly begun improving in recent weeks. About 2,600 rebels and pro- government militia members have surrendered their weapons in the last week and, with today's ceremony, almost 600 child soldiers have been freed. But the government says the rebels still hold 1,400 children.

In the ceremony attended by officials from the United Nations, the government and the rebel group, uniforms belonging to some child soldiers were burned. The children now wore donated T-shirts that carried strange, dissonant messages from overseas - a "N.Y. Yankees" jersey here, a "Hooters, Albany, N.Y.," there. After the ceremony, the children were taken to camps where they will embark on a process that may eventually reunite them with their families.

"This clearly demonstrates the commitment of the R.U.F. to the total stoppage of this war," said Oluyemi Adeniji, the United Nations special envoy to Sierra Leone. Speaking of the peace process, he added, "There is no stopping it until it gets to its final destination." Mr. Adeniji did not mention that the rebel group and pro-government militias were fighting in the country's eastern diamond areas, having broken a week-old cease-fire pledge. Still, Mr. Adeniji, who had watched the United Nations mission nearly collapse last year, had many reasons to be pleased.

Peacekeepers have begun deploying again in rebel-held territory, including in the eastern diamond mine regions that have fueled and financed the war. British troops continue to train Sierra Leonean soldiers and rebuild its army. Military officials from the United States, criticized for not doing enough in Sierra Leone, have been training West African peacekeepers, and about 1,500. American-trained Nigerian soldiers are now in Sierra Leone, including here in Makeni, a rebel stronghold.

At the same time, while the situation has stabilized in Sierra Leone, it has deteriorated in Liberia and neighboring Guinea - fueling fears that the fighting, involving many of the same actors, has simply moved to new ground. In recent months, the Liberian-supported revolutionary front has fought against Guinean troops on the borders between Sierra Leone and Guinea, because the government of Guinea is believed to be supporting Liberian rebels. The fighting has caused a refugee crisis in Guinea. Adding to these worries, the rebels have a history of making pledges that they have repeatedly failed to respect. The group's longtime leader, Foday Sankoh, who remains in prison at an undisclosed location, broke almost every agreement he made in his quest for power. But now the rebels' leaders say their desire for peace is genuine.

"The R.U.F. has realized that the time for fighting is over, and it is time for them to tell their side of the story," Omrie Golley, a lawyer who left the group last year but returned to become its political and peace council chairman two months ago, said in an interview in the capital, Freetown. He said the revolutionary front had cut its ties with Charles Taylor, the president of Liberia who has long been regarded as the real leader of the organization, when rebel leaders based in the Liberian capital, Monrovia, left that city two months ago.

The rebels have begun talking peace, United Nations officials and Western diplomats say, partly because of the increasing pressure on Mr. Taylor. The United Nations Security Council, which accused Mr. Taylor of leading the trafficking in diamonds and weapons in the region and of stirring up the war in Sierra Leone, imposed sanctions on Liberia early this month. United Nations officials received a reminder of the dangers of the widening war last week when they began disarming combatants in the western region of Kambia, where clashes between the revolutionary front and Guinean soldiers have occurred. Shortly after United Nations officials left, Guinean troops began shelling a town called Rokupr.

Early this week, the United Nations force commander, Lt. Gen. Daniel Opande, a Kenyan, toured the Kambia area, to make sure that the shelling would not interrupt the disarmament. "We must see the entire country free of armed combatants, so that genuine peace can come," General Opande told a rebel leader, Col. Bai Bureh. "So people can return to their farms, or to school, or to politics. I know you want to become a politician." Later, Colonel Bureh exhorted disarmed followers at a camp in nearby Port Loko, "War is over." The disarmed combatants are supposed to stay for orientation in the camps for several weeks before being set free. "It's promising," a Western diplomat said of the disarmament process. "This time, they've come in and they've given up not only piddling stuff, but also quality weapons. The question is what do they do after the camps? How do they earn a living without a gun or machete? That won't be easy."

The biggest difficulty may be bringing peace to the diamond mining region in eastern Sierra Leone. Most of that area has been under the control of the revolutionary front, with a smaller section in the grip of the pro-government militia known as the Kamajors. The rebel group and the Kamajors mined diamonds, co- existing in the area and selling diamonds and buying provisions in a town called Kenema.

But in recent weeks, with the rebels apparently weakened, the pro- government militia has been trying to gain territory in the region. "Their thinking seems to be that by grabbing territory now, and with the peace process under way, they will be able to keep control of the diamond mines later on," said Margaret Novicki, the United Nations mission spokeswoman. It is unclear whether the pro-government militia has been acting on the orders of some government officials or other local leaders.

Early this week, in Koidu, a big town in the diamond district of Kono where United Nations peacekeepers deployed recently, revolutionary front leaders accused the pro-government militia of going up to Guinea for training and weapons. Asked whether his rebel group was willing to disarm, a top leader, Brig. Gen. Morris Kallon, snapped his fingers: "We can be like this! But we are afraid of the government."

Maj. Gen. Martin Luther Agwai, an energetic Nigerian who is the United Nations deputy force commander, talked of having fought in Nigeria's Biafra war. Nigeria, he said, had survived its civil war and remained one nation, and so would Sierra Leone. "In my tribe," General Agwai told the rebel officers, "there is a saying. The tongue and the teeth live together in the mouth. But one day the teeth will bite the tongue. It's not because the teeth hate the tongue - it's an accident. You must live together."

The general flew by helicopter to nearby Jagbwema, a village that had recently been seized by the pro-government militia. Many of the militiamen were tribal hunters, who wore feathers and hats and wigs, and sprinkled lotion on their bodies in the belief that it would deflect bullets. A couple hundred of them, armed with rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, swarmed around a meeting hall in the deserted village. Many were children.

"The war has been going on for 10 years," General Agwai told them. "That means some of the boys I am seeing here were not yet born. Do you want war to go on for another 10 years?" "No!" several of them cried out. The general pleaded with them not to continue fighting.

But the very next day, pro-government militias attacked two villages held by the revolutionary front in the diamond region. And, today, about 100 heavily armed militiamen - including some fighters from Jagbwema whom the general had addressed - advanced toward the rebel stronghold of Koidu, coming as close as eight miles before United Nations peacekeepers persuaded them to give up their weapons in town.

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