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Sierra Leone

III. Buedu:
In Mosquito Country

Story by Steve Coll
Photographs by Michel duCille

I am a good-looking man, a big showman,
I like good living," Mosquito declared,


Victims Gallery  
Rebels Gallery  
The Abduction of Helen
A Borderless World
In Mosquito Country
At the Crossroads
The Best Intentions
"We've come to see you..."
Toward Politics
Meanings of Sierra Leone
Among the Wounded

tilting to aim a menacing stare at the Egyptian colonel sitting beside him. "Can you en-camp me!!?"

No, the Egyptian allowed, it seemed unlikely that Mosquito would enroll in a U.N. rehabilitation camp. The colonel sat nervously with three other U.N. military observers in a circle of plastic chairs assembled in fading light on a dirt lawn near the Buedu bungalow housing Mosquito's offices. The U.N. team had turned up in confused circumstances late that afternoon at the town's western entrance. They seemed to think they had been arrested.

Mosquito sat center stage at this ambiguous tribunal, resplendent in quasi-military dress: a felt beret with two pinned stars, combat camouflage, a silver pistol and, around his neck, a medallion in the shape of Africa hooked to a shiny gold chain.

For the past half-hour, he had declaimed about the failings of the United Nations in Sierra Leone and around the world. He complained bitterly that U.N. observers such as these four had been traversing RUF-controlled territory without his knowledge. He dramatically threatened to withdraw security guarantees for U.N. personnel. He mentioned the commander of Sierra Leone's U.N. military observer force by name and threatened him with death.

General Mosquito lists free schooling and free medical care for Sierra Leoneans among the RUF's goals.
And then, after declaring, "We are ready to disarm, but it should be done in a way that guarantees our security and provides something of what we fought for," Mosquito told the officers they could go. They saluted and extended backpedaling handshakes, jumped in their jeeps and sped west toward government-held territory.

Mosquito had arranged this spectacle as much for our benefit as for the United Nations', it seemed. We had been in Buedu since early the previous morning, and increasingly the place seemed a phantasmagoric theater.

Our host was ebullient. He talked for hours about the war, the prospects for peace, and his own life story, which involved his rise from professional nightclub dancer and women's hairdresser to national revolutionary commander. He buzzed flamboyantly around town on an off-road motorcycle. He changed clothes frequently-safari suits, European designer wraparound sunglasses, the latest designer jeans and, for a family photo on our final morning, a smart charcoal double-breasted suit.

He would pull up to us on his dirt bike, lean back on the seat, and make pronouncements in lilting English such as, "I am a military man and I don't think I can transform myself into a civilian. I will die as a soldier." Pause. "Or I will retire as a soldier." Vroooooom . . .

"You know," he observed delightedly during one long account of the war, "I really admire myself."

General Mosquito often delivered his demands to the Freetown media and BBC World Service using his satellite phone.
Mosquito is a Big Man in a very small town. He delivered thumping speeches to his men about his decision to live in the rain forest rather than in Freetown. He forswore political ambition. "I don't want to be minister. I don't want to be president," he told them. "All I want is to see this revolution through. But we will not disarm until total revolution is achieved in Sierra Leone."

Total revolution? And that would look like?

The arid phrases of Moammar Gadhafi's Green Book, the Libyan leader's manifesto for "people's revolution," blew through Buedu like a bad wind. Free schooling, free medical care, an end to corruption, nepotism and tribalism-these have been the slogans of RUF pamphlets and radio broadcasts for years. The rebels' themes successfully tap popular disgust over Sierra Leone's failed one-party politics after independence. They speak to a generation of rural young people-including Mosquito himself-who never made it to Freetown, whose families lacked the pluck or position to stake a claim in Kissy's suburban hills, and who found themselves shut out by Sierra Leone's failed education system and corrupt public sector.

Yet as a practical matter, you could locate more socialist engineering in Montgomery County than in eastern Sierra Leone. War-ravaged RUF-controlled territory is so poor that it is all most people can do to feed themselves from small rice plots and fruit trees. The RUF appoints commanders to run towns and cities, honors traditional chiefs where they have survived, and lately has tried to work with foreign charities and citizen committees to develop social services. But the forests remain a desperate subsistence economy.

Confident theories of national revolution rang out noisily in Buedu nonetheless. Most startling was the ideological fountainhead of one Martin Coker, "personal assistant to General Mosquito," who told us he had lived in the Washington, D.C., area for much of the 1990s.

We first heard the improbable, clipped tones of Coker's middle-class British accent as we unpacked ourselves from our jeep upon arrival in Buedu. "Good morning!" declared a tall, polite man holding an official-looking bundle of papers. "Welcome to the defense headquarters of the Revolutionary United Front!"

Born to an elite Freetown family, Coker attended school in Britain and then migrated to America, where he developed a business putting up ceilings in major D.C. area office buildings—including, he said, CIA headquarters in Langley. A neo-Marxist as well as an entrepreneur, he listened regularly to WPFW's Pacifica Radio talk shows and fed his revolutionary yearnings at leftist bookstores in Dupont Circle. In 1997, some sort of spiritual crisis—he said it involved portentous dreams, his faith in God, and a belief in the urgency of a people's revolution in Sierra Leone—caused him to return to Africa. There he presented himself unannounced as an intellectual who wished to serve the RUF. He wound up at Mosquito's base camp.

Coker ran the general's satellite telephone, television and radio systems; helped to write Mosquito's letters to RUF colleagues, the United Nations and foreign heads of state; maintained a computer room; and helped to supervise "Radio Freedom, voice of the People's Army of Sierra Leone," an FM station in Buedu that Coker said was paid for with a particularly fine diamond, and which was now broadcasting rap music and RUF messages across the country's eastern forests.

Delighted to have his hometown newspaper visiting Buedu, Coker asked about the Wizards' prospects (poor, we admitted) and became our effusive guide to the RUF's nascent revolutionary society. Intelligent, articulate and plagued by recurring malarial fever, he seemed a tropical, slightly unhinged version of one of those political commissars the Soviets used to place on their nuclear-armed submarines—feared and influential, but vulnerable to fragging.

RUF soldiers
These two young members of the rebel army say they are sergeants.
Arrayed along a dirt track and made up of perhaps 100 homes, Buedu teemed with young men carrying assault rifles. Some of them were "recruits" captured in battle, taken from their families and indoctrinated in RUF ideology. These included boys no older than 14 who belonged to the feared "Small Boys Unit," or SBU, notorious in Freetown for carrying out grotesque acts of violence. In Buedu, the boys typically worked as household help for senior commanders. Coker arranged for us to interview several, even as he railed against the West's criticism of "child soldiers." Elitist human rights activists fail to understand, he explained, that in a people's army, families must move together "on the front lines"—husband, wife, children all fighting the people's war together.

As Coker listened, the boys told us how pleased they were to be RUF volunteers—they could hardly have said otherwise in the circumstances. But in reciting how they were captured in battle and separated from their families, nostalgic emotion sometimes reached their throats.

"I have a family I've left behind, but I'll stay with this family until it's time to look and decide," said Corporal Jonathan Phillie, contemplating his future if peace holds. He was only in sixth grade when he was captured by the RUF three years ago; he does sometimes think about a world beyond Buedu. "I want to be a doctor," he said. "It's a blessed job."

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