Sierra Leone

Rebels make the rules in ravaged Sierra Leone

Originally published
Johannesburg, South Africa. March 29 2000

Despite last year's peace pact, disarmament is proceeding slowly in Sierra Leone, with neither the government nor the substantial UN peace force in control of much of the interior.

By ROBIN DENSELOW in Makeni, rebel-held Sierra Leone

Just outside the little town of Lunsar, less than a hundred miles inland from Freetown, there is a roadblock where the rule of President Tajun Kabbar ends, and that of the rebel leader Foday Sankoh begins.
From here on in, right through to the diamond fields in the east of the country, Mr Sankoh's Revolutionary United Front is in charge. In the shade by the road, armed men of the RUF - and a few armed children scarcely big enough to hold their weapons - sit guarding the piece of string that marks the start of their territory.

In theory, the government and its RUF rivals are no longer in conflict, having signed a peace pact in the Togolese capital of Lome in July last year. Under that deal, there would be an amnesty for everyone involved in the atrocities - including the machete amputations of hands and arms - inflicted during Sierra Leone's eight years of fighting. The RUF would join a new government of national unity, take part in elections next year, and disarm en masse.

But at the string barrier outside Lunsar, national unity looked a pretty notional concept. A little further along the road, the RUF was still firmly in control of the little market town of Makeni, as it has been since seizing the place two years ago. There were RUF gunmen and gun-children in the streets. The RUF still runs its own prison (to which access is denied, even to United Nations observers) and its own military police.

Police war dance

At RUF headquarters in Makeni, local commander Colonel Augustine Bao encouraged the police to demonstrate the RUF war dance, "Hungry Lion". They threw themselves around the office, clawing like lions with their hands, and shouting "Sankoh, our leader".

The government and UN hope, desperately, that these men will start giving up their weapons once a disarmament centre opens in the town in about five weeks. Those who disarm here are promised training, a pardon for any past crimes, protection by UN forces, and a total of =A3190 to ease their return to civilian life.

Such centres are already operating elsewhere. So far, 17 000 combatants from rebel and pro-government groups have handed in weapons, but only 4 000 from the RUF. It is estimated that at least 15 000 RUF fighters remain in Makeni and the rebel heartland.

UN pushed back

Col Bao insisted that they would give up their weapons, but then added that the needs of his fighters had to be met. He suspected that President Kabbah's camp would deny ex-RUF men their place in the new national army. What if UN troops tried to seize the weapons? He laughed: "You can guess what will happen."

It's a strange scenario. The UN - in need of some good news in Africa after its failures in Somalia, Rwanda and Angola - finds itself watching over a peace deal that depends on whether rebels who have already been granted an amnesty actually give up their weapons.

So far, 6 000 troops have arrived for the Unamsil peace force, and by July the target 11 000 could be in place - the largest UN force currently deployed. The annual cost is estimated at $310m. For the moment, the UN troops are "sensitising", letting local people get used to them, looking at the terrain - as far as they can - and helping with the "demobilisation" of child soldiers.

The UN troops are not removing roadblocks, however, or taking guns from fighters. In fact, in one notable case confiscation worked the other way round: a Guinean contingent on its way to join Unamsil was relieved of a large quantity of weapons, including machine guns and mortars. There has already been one incident in which UN troops trying to deploy further east, towards the diamond fields, were forced back by RUF men. General VK Jetley, Unamsil's Indian commander, agreed, "We do get stopped, because those are areas that are sensitive, and as you know there is a lot of digging going on".

Lieutenant-Colonel Joe Puraj Wilcznski from Britain's Parachute Regiment, serving as a UN military observer, drove through the town and pointed down a side street. "There are weapons here allocated to every crossroads, with the potential to turn them into check-points. When a child was killed by an explosion we saw people tumbling out of their houses with weapons, AK47s and RPGs. [rocket-propelled grenade launchers]."

Using force, he said, "is not an option" for Unamsil. "These people spilled blood to occupy this territory and they won't give it up" until they trust the peace deal. Foday Sankoh can carry on mining diamonds and keep guns back in case the election goes against him. Mr Sankoh angrily denied he was digging for diamonds - "that's rubbish and nonsense" - and said he had already instructed his men to disarm. "Did you see arms in Makeni?" he demanded. Indeed I had. "Those are military police, they have to be armed because people are travelling with arms."

Later he changed tack and said he was about to disarm. "It's just a matter of time. We should not be pushed".