The Abduction of Helen

Alpha heard banging at the gates of his family's compound, then gunshots. He looked out a second-story window and saw the rebels. Some wore the combat camouflage of Sierra Leone's disintegrated army. Some wore black jeans, knit polo shirts, Tupac Shakur T-shirts. A few had wrapped their hair in handkerchiefs patterned with the American flag. All of them wore red bandannas around their foreheads. Adhesive strips patched their faces, as if they had been scratched by angry cats. The strips masked incisions where the rebels had ingested cocaine, amphetamines or other drugs that wired their heads for battle.

In eastern Freetown on Monday morning, January 18, 1999, a war that was at that moment the world's cruelest, as well as its most invisible, entered the parlor of the Jalloh family, where breakfast lay unfinished on a table in the center of the room. It was not easy to say why the rebels entered one house and not another, but a faint air of prosperity hung over this gated compound on Kissy Road. Dalibeh Jalloh's nine children by two wives included the three sweet-faced sons now standing frightened by the window. The oldest was Alpha, 22, who traded gold-plated watches he bought in Guinea, had a girlfriend, danced in Freetown's nightclubs, and who now listened as the rebels crashed through the last door and climbed the stairs.

They demanded money and Alpha's father handed over bundles. Gun barrels swung to the three brothers. A rebel commander ordered them outside. Their mother sat in a chair before the unfinished food and wept. Their father begged: "Please don't take them. They are my children. Don't take them."

Outside, the rebels forced them into line. They marched up a red clay road past small shacks and shops toward green, grassy hills.

"We are going back to the bush," a rebel taunted, "but we are leaving something with you."

The brothers began to cry. The line of youths swelled with other abductees as they walked. Some rebels told the boys their hands would be cut off and sent back to the democratically elected president of Sierra Leone, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, as a symbol of the rebels' power. Others said the boys would be killed. The Jalloh brothers begged to be taken to the rain forest, where they could be indoctrinated as rebels and join the "revolution."

"No, we are sending you to Tejan Kabbah. We are not taking you to the jungle."

Two hundred yards up the slope they reached a school driveway. Before a metal gate stood a tall, thin rebel wearing black jeans, a black T-shirt and a red bandanna. Drug strips covered his face. The others called him Tommy. He held an axe.

A neighbor the boys knew as Sheikou went first. As rebels trained assault rifles at his head, he stretched on his stomach on broken concrete before the school gate and extended his arm.

Tommy raised the axe high above his head and slammed it down. Once, twice, three times, four times. Sheikou's severed hand seemed to jump away from him.

The line shuffled forward. Alpha, weeping and shaking, watched his younger brother Amadu, 17, stretch out his right arm.

As Tommy raised his axe, Alpha closed his eyes.

Helen jolted awake. "We've come!" she heard the rebels shout. "You thought we were not coming back to the city! We're here!"

It was three days later in a middle-class neighborhood up the slope from the school gate, where the war would now force entry into the second-story apartment of a salaried government bureaucrat and his 20-year-old daughter, Helen.

Helen: an earnest student who radiates such energy and possesses such physical beauty that on the streets of some other capital, people might assume she was famous. She has a daughter by her boyfriend, Abdul. She lives at home in the wind-caressed suburban hills above Freetown, where she lounges with her doting father, and sneaks away with Abdul, and thinks about going into business, as she and her girlfriends have sometimes done in small ways, trading shampoo and food from an old metal shipping container across from a Catholic church.

Helen, who, like Alpha, belongs to a generation of young Africans whose parents' ambitions have delivered them from rural poverty to urban aspiration. They have come of age in a networked, electronic, globalized, syncretic era that for all its fractures manages to connect even to them. One world, ready or not, even in Sierra Leone, which the United Nations describes as the poorest country in the world. In Freetown, the Atlantic-washed capital, there is not a regular supply of electricity or a reliable telephone system, but inevitably, there is a functioning cyber-cafe, and the streets pulse with battery-powered hip-hop music and generator-operated satellite news and the buying power of Western Union money transfers sent by the tens of thousands who have made it to Europe and America. A progressive generation of young and ambitious Africans, you might say admiringly, except that besides Helen and Alpha, it also includes Tommy and his nihilistic brethren -- acronym-happy ex-soldiers and self-styled revolutionaries who roam and sprawl across the continent, armed with Chinese- and East European-manufactured assault rifles, propelled by grievance, greed and a broad experience of impunity.

"We are all internationalists now, whether we like it or not," British Prime Minister Tony Blair said last year, explaining why the world intervened militarily to stop paramilitary bloodshed in Kosovo (as it would later in East Timor). Expanding global trade, satellites, the World Wide Web and human migration have combined to create "the beginnings of a new doctrine of international community," one where "globalization is not just economic, it is also a political and security phenomenon," giving birth to a world where "we cannot turn our backs on conflicts and the violation of human rights within other countries if we want still to be secure." Acknowledging the obvious limits of such a doctrine, however, Blair worried that "as yet . . . our approach tends towards being ad hoc."

Blair sought to measure his millennial ideas by the world's conduct in Kosovo during the last year of the 20th century. But an African might want to measure them against the world's conduct in Sierra Leone during that same year of 1999.

A year when, on the night of January 21, eight weeks before the war began in Kosovo, two rebels entered Helen's suburban apartment, roughed up her father and told him that they were taking away his daughter.

He begged them to leave her alone. "If you keep complaining, we're going to kill you," one of the rebels said.

The next morning, her parents watched Helen walk at gunpoint up the hill, through the mango trees, past the Kissy Mental Hospital, toward the peaks that pointed to the country's interior.

Helen found herself walking with another girl from the neighborhood who had also been abducted. The pair wept and begged to be released.

"I am a school-going girl," Helen said.

"I don't want to know," replied her captor, whom she would come in the months ahead to know as Colonel Bloodshed.

The rebels took them into the grass and raped them. Then they pushed them on toward camp.



A Borderless World

At the spot on the world's maps where northwestern Liberia officially ends and eastern Sierra Leone begins lies a shell of broken concrete, the remains of a small customs building burned in war. A village gate concocted from a tree trunk and rope marks the border crossing at Dawa. No government officials from either country work here. There are only teenagers with assault rifles. They do not much care for passports or formalities.

A man in a red beret steps briskly to our jeep and introduces himself as town commander of the Revolutionary United Front, or RUF, Sierra Leone's fearsome rebel army. Two other rebels crowd forward, announcing themselves as "Chuck Norris" and "Rambo." Welcome, they declare sincerely.

Behind us lies 30 hours of Liberian wonderland -- a sinkhole-filled, eroded jungle track that our Mitsubishi Pajero traversed at a bone-rattling, rock-slinging average of about 5 mph. A few miles ahead lies the RUF's base headquarters in the isolated rain forest town of Buedu. There we -- myself and Washington Post photography editor Michel duCille -- have been invited to interview and photograph Sam "General Mosquito" Bockarie, the RUF's military leader. As much as any other person, he will decide whether Sierra Leone begins the new century at war or peace. In getting to know the general, we hope to unravel some of the mystery and meaning of Sierra Leone's violence.

Our journey had begun six weeks earlier, over lunch at an elegant French restaurant in Georgetown. There I met a silver-haired Washington businessman named John Caldwell. He explained that he had been retained by the RUF, along with a Belgian partner, to handle certain business affairs for the rebels, whose territory includes most of Sierra Leone's coveted diamond mines. At my request, Caldwell asked the RUF for permission to travel to its base. The rebels agreed. They felt they suffered from poor public relations, in part because no Western journalists had ever visited their headquarters or traveled behind their lines. They wanted to convince the outside world that the RUF was not commanded by limb-amputating psychopaths, but by revolutionaries with legitimate grievances and political goals.

For my part, I had been moved and frustrated by the violence against civilians in Freetown earlier in the year. I wondered where this cruelty had come from, what purpose its perpetrators imagined. More than 10,000 people had been murdered, raped, abducted or maimed by rebels in a campaign of calculated terror. In their vividness and gratuitous cruelty, the mass amputations epitomized the powerlessness of ordinary Africans at the turn of the millennium. They also marked a climactic spasm in a grinding eight-year civil war shaped by familiar patterns. Outsiders exploited Sierra Leone's diamonds and other resources. Neighboring nations sought advantage by interfering with internal conflicts. Post-colonial politics lay in ruins, felled by autocracy and corruption. The international media paid little attention. And the great powers stood aside, numbed by Africa's wars and poverty. Finding money to halt aggression against civilians, build democratic society or even vaccinate children in a country like Sierra Leone had become a demoralizing, often futile endeavor in official Washington. Many Africans added all this up and saw systematic racism -- a place in global affairs that reflected continuous discrimination and exploitation since the days of the Atlantic slave trade.

That the unchecked amputations in Sierra Leone coincided with NATO's forceful intervention in Kosovo only drew these frustrations to a sharper point. Of course, the two conflicts took place in vastly different arenas. NATO's intervention in Kosovo occurred in a place where the United States and European powers had deep strategic and military interests. They had no such interests in Sierra Leone, other perhaps than the advancement of their values. But there was more involved in the comparison than the interests of governments and military planners.

In Kosovo, the middle-class status and racial features of the victims, as well as echoes of Europe's Holocaust, allowed many Americans to empathize with the Kosovars, to feel and imagine what happens when armies loose themselves on civilians. The resulting popular outrage in the United States and Europe helped ensure the reversal of the expulsion of civilians by Serbia's government and bolstered plans to indict President Slobodan Milosevic and other responsible Serbs on war crimes charges. But in Sierra Leone, outside engagement with the war came to be dominated by pity-inducing, context-empty images of the limbless, whether in media coverage or during visits by politicians to Freetown's rehabilitation camps for amputees. These stripped-down, politics-free pictures of armless victims helped to consign Sierra Leone's war to the mental box many Americans reserve for Africa. Few understood, for example, that most of Freetown's victims were as urban and middle class as Pristina's.

The greatest contrast lay in the outcomes. The violent campaign against civilians carried out by rebel forces in Freetown last January not only failed to stir American and European governments, it set the stage for a United Nations-endorsed rebel triumph. Early last summer, as NATO declared victory in Kosovo, West African nations, the United States, Britain and the United Nations provided diplomatic and financial backing for a peace agreement that delivered amnesty to the rebels. The agreement -- called the Lome accord, after the capital of Togo, where it was signed July 7 -- also gave the RUF several cabinet seats in a transition government, granted the rebels effective control over the nation's diamond mines, and invited them to join national elections next year to be supported by U.N. peacekeepers. In other words, notwithstanding what happened in Freetown last January -- or, rather, because of what happened -- the rebels achieved something like victory.

As we rattled among palms and through neck-high grasses along the clay track into rebel headquarters at Buedu, one question hanging over Sierra Leone was whether the Revolutionary United Front really wanted the peace it had won. A shaky cease-fire had prevailed since July between government and rebel forces, but clashes among rebel factions erup-ted regularly. The Lome agreement requires all combatants to disarm under U.N. supervision and enter into rehabilitation camps for schooling and job training. But the camps, especially in the forest areas controlled by General Mosquito, have mostly stood empty.

Mosquito has been the focus of Sierra Leone's anxiety about whether peace will hold. Leading a force of more than 10,000 armed men, he was perhaps the most feared man in Sierra Leone. As the RUF's chief of defense staff, he was the rebels' most prominent battlefield commander in recent years, the man in charge on the ground while the movement's supreme political leader, a former army photographer named Foday Sankoh, languished in jail or in exile. Rarely photographed or seen in public, Mosquito moved like a shape-shifting spectral demon around the country's rain forests, surfacing via satellite telephone to issue blood-curdling threats through Freetown media or the BBC World Service. Rumor and debate raged about his motivations and ambitions. What kind of country did he want? What role did he imagine for himself? Could he accept peace, or was he now so accustomed to jungle warfare -- so unable to imagine an alternative for himself -- that violent "revolution," whatever that meant, had effectively become his lifetime profession?

In the answers to those questions lies the credibility of the international community that bargained with Mosquito. In them too lies the future of Sierra Leone, and part of Africa's future as well.



In Mosquito Country

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

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."

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.

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."



At the Crossroads

On our final night at RUF headquarters, we sat with Mosquito in a dark concrete room and talked for hours about his past and future, tracing a journey that holds many threads of West Africa's crisis.

He never knew his father, quit school at 19 and struggled as a diamond miner, sometimes supporting himself as a nightclub dancer. "I was fed up with Sierra Leone." He migrated to Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, where "a lady convinced me to try to learn to be a beautician. I was not easily convinced to do the work at first because I thought it was women's work. I was feeling impoverished, and she led me to a salon, and it impressed me. A whole apartment with a hall and passages . . . all wall-to-wall carpet. I saw a young man standing over some high-ranking women and I said, `No problem, a good-looking man like myself, I can do it.' "

Mosquito paused. "Even now, I can do any hairstyle."

Like many among his generation, he thought of aiming for Europe or America. He took courses that would qualify him as an electrician. He had an ambitious plan: to move to Abidjan, the relatively prosperous West African capital of the Ivory Coast, do electrical work and become a beautician in a parlor frequented "by high government women." He would then seduce and cajole his way to France. "That was my big plan -- to jump to Paris and become the person about whom people say, `He's the top man.' "

Then civil war erupted in Liberia. "I think if the war hadn't happened, I would have been somebody in Paris by now," he reflected. "I would have changed my position [by now] to London or maybe the United States." Instead, he started hanging out with Liberians who were gathering arms and volunteering for combat. He heard about a plan to recruit Sierra Leoneans to start their own revolutionary force. He traveled abroad to what he would only call "an undisclosed location" (almost certainly Libya) for extensive classroom and combat training. At revolution school he met Sierra Leonean political dissidents, including Foday Sankoh. Together they formed the RUF in 1991. "I was not recruited. I recruited myself." He began to read the Green Book and, "I became interested in this, that these are some of the things that man can do."

I asked about his battlefield leadership of the RUF's war and the terrible violence inflicted on civilians. He had been waiting for questions about human rights. As he prepared to answer, he pulled his pistol out of his jeans pocket and set it on his thigh. It seemed an instinctive gesture.

"I don't believe in innocent killing in the field," he replied emphatically. Through his satellite and Internet connections to global news, it became clear, Mosquito had studied in some depth his potential problems under war crimes law. He criticized Mary Robinson, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, because she had suggested that RUF commanders might eventually be subject to prosecution, despite the Lome accord's amnesty. He insisted that he, personally, had only executed men under justifiable circumstances -- to enforce martial law or prevent desertions. "I have no outlaw record," he said. "If soldiers have raped, I have executed them. If soldiers have dropped arms, I have disciplined them. Those are the only two crimes I have committed."

What about the dozens of boys and young women in his own camp who had been abducted and recruited by the RUF? "We don't force people to join," he answered. "When we capture these girls, we encourage the young people to join," and they do, voluntarily.

He claimed that he had never ordered amputations of civilians. He said ex-soldiers allied with the RUF, but not directly under its command, were responsible for the worst atrocities in Freetown in January. (Human rights investigators say those ex-soldiers probably did carry out a large proportion of the violence, but that RUF combatants also carried out amputations, killings and abductions.) Mosquito accused government militias of carrying out amputations and then blaming them on the RUF. (We met amputees in Buedu who told credible stories of being tortured by the government militias. New York-based Human Rights Watch accuses the militias of human rights violations, but says abuses by the RUF and its allied ex-soldiers have taken place on a far greater scale.)

Once the amputations began, Mosquito said, each side retaliated against the other. "It started as a revenge. If some have done it to your relatives, you will go back and do this. To boys who had their hands cut . . . when you see this with your own eyes, you want to take revenge on their families."

Mosquito tells his men he is protected from bullets by magic powers. As we talked late into the night, he stood and stripped off his shirt to show scars across his shoulders and arms -- from bullets that have bounced off him, he said. He pulled down his jeans to show similar wounds on his thighs.

Yet the longer he talked, the more it became clear that, superpowers or no, Mosquito at 35 lacked a convincing vision of his own future. Last spring, he said, Lebanese intermediaries working for the U.S. government offered him $2.5 million to leave Sierra Leone and settle peacefully in Nigeria. He said he asked the negotiators to bring the cash to the Liberia-Sierra Leone border. "I was going to ambush them, deal with them ruthlessly and spend the money on arms," he said. They refused to come. Afterward, he told that story repeatedly to his followers and vowed never to be bought off. Still, as the night wore on, he talked wistfully of Paris or America, even though he knew he would be vulnerable to arrest in such places. Other times he talked of his desire to lead Sierra Leone's army after the next election. And then, over and over, he waved his arms and threatened angrily to retreat from Buedu to the rain forest and start the war all over again. If he were provoked by the United Nations or Freetown's government, he said, "I'm envisaging another serious battle in Sierra Leone. I told all my men to clean all their barrels and wait."


Buedu to Koidu:

The Best Intentions

Freed blacks and white Christian abolitionists in Britain and America created Sierra Leone as a new, enlightened "Province of Freedom" in 1792. Since then, the export of American and European values to this stretch of the West African coast has been a sorry, violent, hypocritical business.

Like Liberia next door, Sierra Leone owes its existence as a modern nation-state to international humanitarian law, at least as it was understood by British and American reformers in the late-18th and early-19th centuries. Abhorring slavery but unable to imagine a multiracial society at home, British idealists conceived of Freetown as a homeland for free but impoverished black populations languishing in Canada and London. The former included Jamaican Maroons, who had won their freedom in revolt, and American blacks who had been freed from slavery to fight with Britain during the American Revolutionary War but were then shipped off to freezing Nova Scotia when the redcoats lost. Later, British opponents of the Atlantic slave trade began seizing slave vessels on the high seas and freeing their human cargo in Freetown's harbor. Few of these freed slaves could figure out how to get home again, so Sierra Leone became a melting pot of African cultures and tongues from as far south as Angola.

Even as we plunged into the interior, my Jamaican-born colleague, Michel, could understand much of the local creole, which contains phrases and inversions closely related to Jamaican dialect. It felt odd, amid such dense forest, to hear the linguistic residue of such a long, tangled history of Western exploitation and reform -- although no more odd than it was to encounter Mosquito's satellite-downloaded globalism.

"Open the arsenal!" our host declared dramatically on our final afternoon in Buedu, as his men loaded supplies into a "Mad Max" special, a dented Toyota pickup equipped with several boxes of rocket-propelled grenade shells, half a dozen grenade launchers, an equal number of cans of sardines (for sustenance, not defense), a dozen cans of beer and soda, and a last-minute gift from Mosquito himself, a three-quarters-full bottle of Irish cream liqueur. The pickup would also carry us, an RUF colonel, two other commanders, one of our Liberian police escorts and, in the truck bed, all of our luggage plus eight bodyguards armed with assault rifles. I liked our chances in an ambush, but wondered if the potential for spontaneous combustion had been underestimated.

Our plan was to travel the length of RUF-controlled Sierra Leone, from the far northeastern corner of the country, through diamond territory and finally to the provincial town of Makeni, about 100 miles from Freetown. We set out late in the afternoon. Our driver popped in a cassette and Kirk Franklin's "Revolution" rocked from the speakers as we raced down a grassy track. Half-empty smoky villages appeared every few miles, ragged and visibly impoverished, a sharp fall from the more prosperous impression of RUF headquarters.

These eastern forests have borne the brunt of Sierra Leone's tragedy for nearly a decade. When Gadhafi and Liberian warlord Charles Taylor launched the RUF in the autumn of 1991, hoping to rattle their enemies in Freetown's government, it was here that the original band of 100 cadres, including Mosquito, first attacked government outposts and enrolled recruits. There has been little letup since.

The RUF's most significant early achievement was to stimulate a coup in Freetown. A 28-year-old army captain, Valentine Strasser, who had grown tired of battling the RUF without a regular paycheck, marched to the capital with some of his men and demanded their salaries. Sierra Leone's president -- heir to an undistinguished line of undemocratic politicians -- panicked and fled. Strasser decided that, well, since the office was vacant, he would appoint himself president. It was a measure of popular desperation that this Lord of the Flies government of twentysomething junior officers initially received a warm welcome. Four years later in 1996, Britain and the United States persuaded the junta to leave by offering the novel inducement of scholarships and stipends to study abroad at the universities of their choice.

The grim statistics of Sierra Leone's sliding life expectancies and ballooning rates of child mortality are compiled in eastern towns like Pendembu, where we slept our first night out of Buedu. There is little food distribution or medical service of any kind behind RUF lines. The government cites security concerns and says the RUF won't cooperate. The RUF says the government is starving it of services to weaken the rebels' political base. The braver international charities, such as Doctors Without Borders, make occasional forays into the eastern forests. (Mosquito kidnapped two Doctors Without Borders volunteers last month, releasing them unharmed days later.) But refugees lured home by reports of peace find essentially a wasteland. Only the bounty of the rain forest -- particularly its fruit trees -- prevents a famine.

"We are all tired of the war now," our host in Pendembu, RUF Colonel Vindey Cosi, told us. "Whenever the leader says we should disarm, we will disarm. But we are waiting for an order."

We saw the problem the next morning in Daru: empty tents flapping in the wind in an open field between an RUF checkpoint and a government barracks, manned by Nigerian soldiers who serve in effect as Sierra Leone's army. The tents had been erected to receive disarming RUF combatants under the Lome accord and to rehabilitate them for new lives in peacetime. But under Mosquito's orders, no combatants had yet arrived.

We had to cross government lines at Daru to traverse the only bridge over the wide Moa River that could handle our truck. That afternoon, pointed north toward the diamond mines, we entered dense, empty forest. In silence we cut through swamp, grasses, palms, mango groves and soaring hardwood giants. Streams crisscrossed the track every half mile, and we slid across bridges strapped from logs, rocks and the occasional steel beam. Flowering plants and fronds obscured the sky. Spiders and dragonflies as big as fists splashed into the cabin as we crashed through puddles three feet deep.

Apparitions of poverty or war flashed by periodically: a boy no older than 11 standing sentry, an AK-47 strapped to his shoulder; disheveled families in nearly empty villages, cooking over smoky fires; two boys carrying rice bags who fled into the bush when they saw our heavily armed vehicle.

We limped at dusk into Koidu, rocking on two flat tires and a snapped shock absorber, headlights gone. Once we realized where we had at last arrived, the streams we forded acquired a new allure. In the pinkish half-light, you stared at the stones and sand and wondered what a rough diamond might look like.

Koidu and surrounding Kono District are the prize that for generations has lured colonizers, mercenaries, bandits, prospectors and revolutionaries to Sierra Leone's interior. After slavery, its outpouring of diamonds has been the source of the country's greatest misery and exploitation. Scraped over by thousands of greedy hands, the region no longer ranks among the world's better diamond fields, but it still yields enough to fire imaginations and fuel the schemes of crooks, killers and politicians.

Around a bend loomed the abandoned, rusting hulk of a mining complex built a few years before by a private corporation of South African mercenaries whose 1995 intervention in Sierra Leone's war marked a strange nadir. Too busy partying in Freetown to contain the bush-disciplined RUF, Strasser's twentysomething junta hired Pretoria-based Executive Outcomes, a private company, to fight its war. Strasser paid $15 million and a share of Koidu's diamond concessions to the firm, which was led by retired white officers from the notorious apartheid-era 32 Battalion of the South African special forces. Executive Outcomes staged a lightning triumph, using attack helicopters, artillery and well-paid black Angolan and Namibian troops to push the RUF from Freetown's outskirts all the way to small enclaves in the east. The mercenaries secured Kono, erected a massive defense perimeter around the diamond areas, laid anti-personnel mines through the forest, and settled in to start digging out their reward.

The success of Executive Outcomes set in motion the events that led ultimately to the horror in Freetown last January. The twenty-something junta went back to school. The appearance of stability created by the mercenaries led to peace talks with the RUF and a proposal for free elections. But the accord quickly fell apart. The RUF complained that elections were being rushed before it could organize as a political party; the government complained the RUF was not serious about peace. The United Nations pressed forward with the vote early in 1996, declaring it would not be held back by the rebels.

The eventual winner, a former U.N. official named Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, campaigned on the slogan "The Future Is in Your Hands." Some Sierra Leoneans believe this electoral slogan helped give birth to the country's cycle of amputations. During the campaign, RUF rebels began cutting off civilians' hands to "send them back" to Kabbah in a grisly reply to his electoral speeches, according to human rights investigators. Still, tens of thousands of ordinary Sierra Leoneans risked their lives to vote. Witnesses said that in places such as the southern town of Bo, the vote went forward almost as a popular uprising against the rebels.

But soon after Kabbah took office, some former army bodyguards to the Strasser junta seized power -- angry because they had not also been offered scholarships abroad. Calling themselves the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council, they invited the RUF to join their new government. RUF rebels entered Freetown openly for the first time, squatting in federal ministries and looting vigorously in a program dubbed "Operation Pay Yourself." Freetown residents went on strike and refused to cooperate with the new regime. West African governments, the United States and Britain persuaded Nigeria to send troops to restore Kabbah. Embarrassed by the presence of South African mercenaries, Washington also insisted that Kabbah break the contract with Executive Outcomes. Gradually, the Nigerians pushed the rebels out of Freetown. Kabbah returned to the shattered capital and the RUF appeared again to be routed. Sankoh, the RUF's supreme leader, was arrested, tried and sentenced to death.

But in the eastern forests, Mosquito rallied his retreating men, reorganized and plotted revenge. He launched as soon as the rains ended in the autumn of 1998. The RUF and their allies among the bodyguard junta slammed into Kono, then Makeni, then on toward Freetown. Ambassador Joseph Melrose evacuated the U.S. Embassy on Christmas Eve. Overconfident, underequipped Nigerian commanders allowed the rebels to enter the capital shortly after New Year's Day. The rebels organized forced marches of great crowds of abducted civilians to shield their advance.

By the end of January, the Nigerians had recovered just enough to begin slowly rousting the rebels from the capital and its eastern suburbs. But by then, thousands upon thousands of people had been killed, kidnapped or mutilated by the rebels.



`We've come to see you on a very important matter'

He felt sharp pain when the axe first fell. The second, third and fourth times, Amadu felt nothing. When Tommy had finished, the rebels picked Amadu up and kicked him away from the chopping block at the school gate. He did not stay to watch his brothers, Alpha and Dawda, who were behind him in line. Bleeding profusely, he walked and fell, walked and fell, then collapsed on the clay road.

Alpha stumbled upon him. He, too, was now bleeding from a stump. They walked about a mile toward Freetown. The streets were deserted. They knocked on a stranger's door along a main road. A family bundled them inside. Alpha and Amadu each asked for a poisonous potion of cleaning fluid; they had decided while walking that they wanted to commit suicide. Their hosts refused. They wrapped the brothers' wounds, gave them milk and tried to assure them that they would survive. The boys slept fitfully in the parlor. Nigerian artillery shells echoed outside. When the sun rose, the boys found themselves on a street newly controlled by pro-government forces. One of the family with whom they had stayed took them to the hospital. The boys were bedded in a ward where dozens of amputees were beginning to arrive.

The next day, their half-brother tracked them down. He told them that their 10-year-old brother, Dawda, had bled to death in the street after his amputation and had been buried in a makeshift grave nearby. Their parents and younger sister had been locked inside their home, which the rebels had set on fire. There was nothing left of them or the house, only charred concrete and rubble.

Outside the hospital where the brothers lay, scores of bloodied stragglers and desperate relatives wandered in the streets, searching for medical help or seeking news of the abducted. On street after street in the eastern suburbs, the rebels had staged elaborately orchestrated attacks. Families were corralled and divided, some selected for death, some for amputation, some set free. Children were raped within earshot or view of their parents. The disoriented survivors zigzagged toward Freetown's center, hoping for medical attention or refuge.

At the mosque in a section of Kissy's slopes called Rogbalan, about 100 Muslims and Christians had huddled for days in the sanctuary. Some were neighbors. Some were strangers seeking shelter, people whose names could not later be recalled, whose fate would be registered officially on the lists of the disappeared.

After days of harassment and threats, several rebels, including one described by survivors as no older than 10, arrived at the mosque's gate. They wore black T-shirts and women's wigs. A teenaged boy sitting on the mosque's steps was caught warning those in the sanctuary that the rebels were coming. The rebels told the teenager to open his mouth. One then jammed an assault rifle down his throat and shot him dead.

They entered the sanctuary and one rebel in a dreadlock wig stood before Alieu Bangura, the mosque's gray-flecked imam.

"We've come to see you on a very important matter," the rebel announced. "We're going to kill all of you."

"If God Almighty agrees, that will happen," Bangura replied.

They told him to take a few steps back and then they opened fire, tilting their barrels down to the floor where dozens lay huddled, spraying wildly from left to right as the refugees screamed. Some ran and were gunned down in the courtyard or in the hallway leading to a small school out back.

They missed the imam, though he stood right before them -- a miracle, it would be widely agreed. As the shooting erupted, a man lying nearby, struggling with pain, kicked Bangura's legs and knocked him on his back. He felt other people's blood washing over him, even into his eyes.

The stories of other massacres would later echo with common themes: the strange, almost formal deliberateness; the chilling dialogue between killers and victims, talk that often touched on politics, although the civilian victims usually knew little; and the terrible images of the rebels with their faces covered with drug patches or masks or bandannas or wigs.

All through late January, corpses lay unattended in the streets. At the Kissy Mental Hospital farther up the hill, Human Rights Watch would later report, about 16 men were executed and six women hacked with machetes. At the Brotherhood of the Cross and Star Church in nearby Wellington, another 12, including three children, were massacred with pistols and assault rifles. In the eastern suburbs, families were locked in their houses and burned alive. Entire streets were sprayed with kerosene and set alight.

Human Rights Watch, citing the government's senior medical examiner, later reported that 7,335 corpses were registered for burial after the January rebel offensive. Thousands more people simply disappeared -- dead or kidnapped, their families did not know.

Helen's family was among them: They had no idea what had become of her after she was led away into Kissy's hills by the rebels.

As Kissy burned, Helen lay imprisoned at a rebel camp not far away. For what she would later recall as a period of about two weeks, she was gang-raped by boys and men roving in and out of the base. Like many other women abducted by the rebels, she worked to partially protect herself by forging a union with Colonel Bloodshed, relying on him to keep others away. By February, shelled by Nigerian and Guinean troops, they struck camp and trekked to the bush. They arrived at an isolated patch of jungle called the Occra Hills and settled in. Helen was forbidden to speak freely with other rebel captives. In the deepest trough of night, she remembers, "when they were asleep, I would raise up my head to see if everyone was sleeping. But there was no way to escape."

February passed this way. And March, April. The BBC resounded with news of a major war in the Balkans. In Sierra Leone, the war ebbed; negotiations for peace had begun in neighboring countries, sponsored by the United Nations. The rebels awaited the results.

"One night," Helen recalls, "they were drunk after smoking and drinking. All drunk, and dancing. And they all passed out . . . I was watching them, thinking."

She sat down beside another abductee, her friend Fatmatah. "Right now, these people are drunk. Let's run away," Helen recalls saying.

"They'll kill us," Fatmatah whispered.

"They will not know. They're drunk."

They watched some more. Fatmatah summoned her courage. "Let's not take a thing," Helen said. "Let's run."

Helen slipped into the forest and soon Fatmatah followed. They began to run. For hours they crashed through the blackness, slicing themselves on vines and brambles. They reached a stream and rested until dawn. In the light they stumbled down from the hills, found a village and were sheltered by an old woman. After two days, Helen pressed on for Freetown alone. She walked until she found the main road, waved down a van, spilled out her tale and begged the driver for a ride.

In Freetown hours later she spotted an uncle in the street, leaped out, and asked about her family. Her father, the government official, was in Connaught Hospital. The rebels had burned her home. Everything was lost. But her parents had survived.

At Connaught, she ran to Ward 8, where her uncle said her father was recovering. She spotted him sitting in the sun behind a railing on a second-story balcony.

"Papa! Papa! I've come! I've come!" she shouted.

Astonished, he called to his wife and raced to meet his daughter. Weeping and shouting, they embraced in the hospital hallway, and Helen saw the bandaged stumps above her father's elbows where his two arms had been.



Toward Politics

Secret societies in painted faces, the graying pooh-bahs of a paramount chieftaincy, the women's league, children, traders and notables of every stripe -- out they poured by the thousands into dusty streets under a brutal sun, swaying and singing and shouting joyously that the Big Man had come to town.

"Peace!" he promised when he climbed from a shiny car.

"Revolution!" they cried, knowing the drill.

It was the nearest thing to normalcy we had seen in our travels through rural Sierra Leone -- a holiday festival masquerading as a political rally in Magburaka. To the pent-up, school-less, war-weary citizenry of Makeni District, just a few hours drive from Freetown, it hardly mattered who was the guest of honor. The party was the thing, and just about any Big Man would do. But as it happened, our slog across RUF territory had led us finally to the rebels' boss of bosses, "The Leader," as even General Mosquito called him, former television cameraman Foday Sankoh.

Shaking his ample belly as he danced and weaved through the throng, Sankoh seemed a fuzzy and wizardly man, mild and eccentric. "No more war," he told the young RUF combatants who had lined up to greet him in an honor guard, symbolically taking assault rifles out of the boys' hands. "No more war."

When Gadhafi organized the RUF, Sankoh was apparently the most credible dissident he could attract to his desert guerrilla school. He must have seemed an unlikely cult revolutionary. A poorly educated farmer's son, Sankoh had enlisted in the army in 1956 and never rose above the rank of corporal. His superiors sent him to Scotland for training as a cameraman, then assigned him to Sierra Leonean national television. One day in 1969 he went to cover a mutiny in an army barracks. Instead of reporting on the uprising, he decided to join; he was jailed for five years when the coup failed. Freetown's hulking concrete prison became "my first university in politics," Sankoh said, where he "read about all revolution -- in the U.S., China, elsewhere." Upon release, he traveled east to the rain forest and "used my camera, my photography, as a front to organize."

He fought in the bush during the early years of the war, but after 1996 languished in custody or exile until the Lome accord was signed last July. Sankoh ceded the battlefield to Mosquito. Tensions between the two men ran high. In Buedu, Mosquito complained to us bitterly that Sankoh was rushing too quickly to embrace peace, that he was selling out the RUF combatants to an uncertain future. The two men had spent very little time in each other's company during the last several years and each clearly worried that the other might attempt an arrest or assassination.

"He is my son," Sankoh said of Mosquito. "Why should Mosquito have in mind any plan to overthrow the RUF? He would destroy himself."

The United States and the United Nations have invested considerable hope in Sankoh. They rely on his assertion that he wants to enter politics and run for Sierra Leone's presidency. The Clinton administration's special envoy to Africa, Jesse Jackson, helped persuade Sankoh to embrace the Lome deal. When the negotiations reached a critical stage, President Clinton called him -- Sankoh has been dining out on the conversation ever since. "What rebel leader gets called by the president of the United States?" he asked. "I only got that call because I fought in the bush for so many years."

Not to mention the amputations and kidnappings. Here, too, Sankoh went further than Mosquito. He sometimes apologized in public for wartime atrocities and begged public forgiveness for excesses committed by the RUF. While he said his enemies staged amputations in order to blame the RUF, he was also careful to argue that all of the most offensive atrocities occurred only after 1996 -- a period when he was no longer leading the RUF in the field. When government militias began the amputations and blamed the RUF, he said, they created a "political-propaganda machine" that turned opinion against the rebels.

"But the people know the truth of what happened."

That may be so. The question is whether it will matter.



The Meanings of Sierra Leone

Was there really anything the United States or its European allies could have done to ameliorate Sierra Leone's violence? Perhaps -- and it would not have involved a wrenching decision to put U.S. or NATO soldiers at risk. But it would have required a view of Africa far different from the one that has shaped U.S. foreign policy during most of the last decade.

As U.S. troops withdrew from Somalia six years ago after sustaining casualties on a humanitarian mission, American journalist Robert Kaplan wrote in the Atlantic Monthly an influential essay partially set in Sierra Leone titled "The Coming Anarchy." He described the country as engulfed by "an increasing lawlessness that is far more significant than any coup, rebel incursion, or episodic experiment in democracy," a lawlessness that signaled a world where "criminal anarchy emerges as the real `strategic' danger," where Africa and much of the rest of the Third World would be marked by "the withering away of central governments, the rise of tribal and regional domains, the unchecked spread of disease, and the growing pervasiveness of war."

Kaplan's thesis that Africa was drifting beyond governance took hold with many members of Congress, diplomats and foreign policy analysts. It seemed to capture their own gathering revulsion and exhaustion with post-Cold War challenges America faced in the Third World, especially in violent corners of Africa. Americans and Europeans watched passively during Rwanda's genocide in 1994, where hundreds of thousands of African civilians died in a killing spree far greater in scale than anything that has taken place in Sierra Leone. President Clinton later expressed pangs of regret. Nine months before the crisis in Freetown, he embarked on a six-country tour of Africa, and he apologized in Rwanda for the West's failure to intervene. But in early 1999, as the rebels entered Sierra Leone's capital and began to butcher civilians, the United States shut its embassy and stood down; among other things, Clinton now had a Senate impeachment trial on his hands.

There was an alternative. By late 1998, Nigeria had already placed thousands of troops in Sierra Leone with support from a broad alliance of African governments. This alliance would almost certainly have battled the rebels indefinitely if the United States and Britain had provided funding, intelligence, communications and weaponry -- as they have subsequently pledged to do, on a more limited scale, to support the Lome accord. Nigerian and other African troops fighting from a U.S.- and European-supplied high-technology platform almost certainly could have pushed the RUF out of nearly every major city and town. Not that a military victory would have been certain or inexpensive. Nor would it have necessarily curtailed violence against civilians, as the Kosovo intervention showed. But reducing the RUF to a marginal, defeated force scattered in the bush probably could have been achieved with an all-African intervention army roughly the size of the one that eventually entered Kosovo.

Of course, no such scenario was ever seriously entertained. State Department officials say it was hardly even discussed at the White House. Sierra Leone is probably the last place on Earth in which today's Pentagon would wish to fight. Moreover, the handful of specialists paying attention weren't sure the RUF could be defeated on the battlefield. And the humanitarians in Washington and London who complained about Africa's neglect had little stomach for a military solution. When Tony Blair's government was caught early in 1999 trying to smuggle arms to Kabbah to help him fight the rebels, outrage among liberals in Britain forced the government to apologize and back down.

So instead, the United States and Britain leaned on Sierra Leone's elected president to open peace talks with the rebels just weeks after they had slaughtered thousands in Freetown. The Clinton administration turned the case file over to Jesse Jackson, a special envoy with virtually no bureaucratic clout, a negotiator with a one-peace-fits-all approach. General Mosquito, commanding 10,000 teenagers in the rain forest, discovered that he could bring the world's most powerful military nations to the bargaining table through the selective application of force. "When I ran out of alternatives, I had no choice but to go on the offensive, to use force, which is all they understand," he says. "I had the upper hand -- I told them that they had to release Sankoh and go around the table" for settlement talks.

And why would the United States go along with his demands? To secure peace, argues Jackson, but also because an isolationist Congress and an indifferent public meant the United States had no alternative but negotiation. "If we could go in there with half of the Kosovo budget and use that budget as an essential force to democratize, we'd have something to offer," Jackson says. But countries only intervene where public opinion insists or strategic interests are seen to be at stake. "This, of course, is press coverage," Jackson says. "If Americans had seen Sierra Leoneans walking down the street amputated, babies bludgeoned and pregnant women stabbed, Americans would have been as upset over Sierra Leone as they were over Kosovo . . . Part of this thing is putting light on Africa."

Defending the peace negotiations and amnesty plan for the rebels, the architects of the Lome accord cite East Africa's Mozambique as inspiration. There a similar peace agreement persuaded Renamo -- a guerrilla group that once terrorized and mutilated civilians -- to forswear violence and enter politics. Last month, Mozambique staged its latest successful elections after five years of peace and surging economic growth. Renamo leaders sit in parliament; they have no war crimes tribunals to fear.

But much has changed in the world since Mozambique's peace was forged in 1994. War crimes tribunals have convened for Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Chile's former military dictator, Gen. Augusto Pinochet, has been arrested on torture charges in Britain. And in Kosovo, of course, an entire war was framed in 1999 around the ideas of international humanitarian law.

Now comes a U.N.-sponsored amnesty absolving the RUF and its allies of kidnapping, rape, murder and amputation. "For civil society in Sierra Leone, for civil society in Africa generally, the amnesty shook the concept of accountability to the core," argues Peter Takirambudde, executive director for Africa at Human Rights Watch. "It represented a major retreat by all the parties -- the U.N., the Clinton administration, the others. For the rest of Africa, where there are rebels in the bush, the signal is that atrocities can be committed -- especially if they are frightening atrocities. The lesson to other rebels is that half measures will not do."

That is certainly the lesson Mosquito has learned. Last month, four weeks after we left his camp, Mosquito reportedly fled Buedu in a spasm of bloodshed. The Nigerian general commanding pro-government forces in Sierra Leone announced that Mosquito had executed eight of his senior aides after accusing them of conspiring against him, and that he had then left the country. In Freetown, Sierra Leoneans initially celebrated. The RUF appointed a new general loyal to Sankoh to command guerrillas in the eastern forests. On December 29, Sankoh held a press conference in the capital. He announced that Mosquito had been fired for insubordination, the BBC reported, and he sharply criticized the peace process. Mosquito surfaced in Monrovia, where Charles Taylor, now president of Liberia, said he hoped to broker a reconciliation between Mosquito and Sankoh. How many men had followed Mosquito? Had Martin Coker stayed with him, or had he been among the executed "conspirators"? The RUF did not say.

There were reports from Liberia that Mosquito would be offered -- or forced to accept -- a life in exile. But who would enforce such a deal? Reading the confused reports of his retreat from Buedu, I remembered that at several points during our long talks about his future, Mosquito had hinted that if he was forced to break openly with Sankoh, he would simply start his own, new revolutionary movement to carry on the violent struggle. Perhaps this was what he now intended. His countrymen will find out soon enough.



Among the Wounded

Some of Freetown's amputees live in a village of blue and white canvas shacks, not far from the center of town. The "Medecins Sans Frontieres Amputee and War Wounded Camp," as it calls itself on a sign scrawled near a busy road, holds 371 registered amputees and their families. Drainage ditches run among rows of tacked-together homes supplied by a patchwork of foreign charities. A primary school assembles each morning under an open thatched-roof gazebo. Up the slope, men are raising felled tree limbs to construct a new mosque.

It is an eerie, nervous time in Freetown. An uncertain peace has held just long enough that some rebels are beginning to drift out of the bush and back into the capital, looking for jobs or friends or just a break from sleeping on the ground. Sierra Leone is small enough and frightened enough that people keep track of strangers in their midst, and sometimes a neighborhood can identify returning rebels just as soon as they shuffle up the road. Then questions of justice and equity and international law acquire an immediacy not often felt in The Hague. Some of the returnees have been lynched or burned alive. More often the streets ring out with shouts or threats or spontaneous debates.

The appetite for peace runs so deep and so broad in Sierra Leone that it smothers all else. Even some who have been badly abused by the rebels are prepared to accept them into politics if it truly means peace. Ask about justice, and you hear about its impossibility -- no one can imagine how you could give evidence safely. The rebels are ministers now, they drive around town in new cars with sirens and armed escorts. They can snap their fingers and come and take you in the night. Who is going to testify against them? Such doubts flow from an accurate reading by ordinary Sierra Leoneans of their own powerlessness.

In the voices of the wounded pulses an impressive effort to close off the past. To do so requires a resilience that no outsider can readily imagine. Listening and listening, you begin to feel that the survivors of such an invasion map not only a random distribution of luck, but also a selection of a certain kind of emotional muscle.

And yet there are those who atrophy, even now, even in the snug village of blue and white canvas shacks, where Alpha and Amadu Jalloh, two brothers with two complementary arms, share a room behind a flap and drift off to town most days to hustle and trade in a loose network of shops run by their diminished family.

It is Alpha everybody worries about. He sickens easily, he won't often leave the amputees' camp. You walk with him around town and you discover that when a 22-year-old with girlfriends and gold watches and a reputation in the neighborhood has his arm chopped off while lying face down in the road, he loses something other than a useful limb. He becomes a spectacle, a source of political meaning, an object of pity, an object of disgust.

"Look at what the bastards did!" onlookers call out in anger as we walk along the road where the rebels had escorted him the year before.

Alpha is staring at the eroded red clay.

"Right now, walking with you, I feel ashamed," he tells me. "I have no fitness. They are pitying me."

They are, of course. If he sits in the cashier's chair at his sister-in-law's vegetable stall, customers will simply walk up to him and hand him money -- not for vegetables, but for him. It infuriates him.

"I would rather have died than be living like this," he says softly.

We reach the school gate where Tommy stood a year earlier. Alpha points out the spots where the line formed, where the boys lay down, where the axe fell.

He doubles over. He is not feeling well. We need to go back down the hill. We need to take him to the doctor.

"My arm hurts," Alpha says.

Steve Coll is The Post's managing editor. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article at www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline on Monday at 1 p.m.