Foday Sankoh, 65, who led one of West Africa's most feared and ruthless rebel groups and was awaiting trial for crimes against humanity, died July 29 in a hospital in Freetown, Sierra Leone, after a stroke.
Sankoh, a bearded, semi-literate former soldier and photographer, was founder of Sierra Leone's Revolutionary United Front. He had been in prison for three years and was indicted last March by the United Nations-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone on charges of mass murder, rape, abduction, use of child soldiers and sexual slavery.
Sankoh's RUF, with the backing of Charles Taylor in neighboring Liberia, launched Sierra Leone's brutal civil war in March 1991. Taylor, who remained a close ally of Sankoh, is also under indictment by the special court and faces the same charges. Taylor is battling a spreading insurgency in Liberia that threatens to topple his government.
Sankoh mesmerized and terrorized his largely illiterate, young soldiers with roaring speeches promising to end the nation's endemic corruption, while at the same time executing anyone who challenged his authority and amassing a personal fortune.
His troops gained international notoriety for their signature atrocity -- hacking off the arms, legs, lips and ears of civilians. The rebel force abducted thousands of children and turned them into soldiers and carried out a systematic campaign of rape in the areas they controlled. Sankoh was in prison when the civil war formally ended in 2002. About 50,000 people were killed and more than 1 million displaced, and the nation's infrastructure was destroyed.
In a statement, Desmond de Silva, the special court's deputy prosecutor, said Sankoh "has been granted the peaceful end that he denied so many others," and said other cases before the court would show Sankoh's involvement in "the most evil of deeds that have left a legacy of horror in the minds and memories of those who survive him."
Sankoh joined the army in 1956 and left 15 years later as a corporal. He then joined an anti-government student movement while working as a photographer. His involvement with the students earned him an invitation to Libya in the mid-1980s, and he was trained at one of Moammar Gaddafi's camps for fledgling revolutionary movements on the continent. While there, he met and befriended Taylor and others who would lead Africa's insurrections.
At least a decade older than most of his contemporaries, Sankoh was widely known as "Pa" or "Papi." Sankoh and Taylor returned to West Africa in 1989. Sankoh helped Taylor launch the Liberian civil war on Christmas Eve 1989. In return for the aid, Taylor helped train and arm the RUF. Taylor's troops accompanied the RUF rebels when they invaded Sierra Leone from Taylor-held territory in Liberia, and Taylor allowed the RUF to transport weapons, ammunition, food and medical supplies through his theater of operations.
The two remained close, but while Taylor's revolution gained ground, Sankoh's movement in Sierra Leone made little progress. But that changed dramatically when Taylor gained control of most of Liberia in 1996. Taylor employed South African mercenaries to train the RUF and bought the rebels communications equipment and modern weapons. The objective was to capture Sierra Leone's rich diamond fields.
Within a few months, the investment paid off. The RUF made significant gains, including control of the most lucrative diamond mines. Taylor handled the marketing of the millions of dollars' worth of precious stones, while Sankoh was responsible for the mining operations. As RUF control spread, so did reports of widespread atrocities. When the RUF troops attacked a town, they usually razed it, burning schools, hospitals and homes. Those captured were forced to work as slaves for the RUF, and women were often forced into sexual slavery.
Sankoh was arrested in Nigeria in 1997 but was freed in 1999 to participate in peace talks with the government that were backed by the United States and the United Nations. The ensuing peace agreement granted the RUF senior cabinet positions in exchange for promises to demobilize. Sankoh was made head of the nation's diamond mines and given the rank of vice president. The United Nations deployed thousands of peacekeepers to monitor the agreements.
With the RUF's unchallenged control of the diamond fields, the precious stones flowed out through Taylor and weapons flowed in through Monrovia. But in April 2000, the RUF, which had refused to lay down it weapons, took about 500 U.N. peacekeepers hostage and executed several of them.
When an angry mob marched on Sankoh's heavily guarded home to demand the peacekeepers' freedom, RUF guards opened fire, killing 12 people. Sankoh fled but was captured a week later when he crept back to his home to try to recover a large packet of diamonds he had left behind. With his arrest, the RUF disintegrated. While it ran candidates in the 2002 legislative elections, the group won no seats.
In his last public appearances before the court a year ago, Sankoh was rambling and unkempt, his hair matted into white dreadlocks.
"I'm a god," Sankoh told the court in one of his last appearances. "I am the inner god. I am the leader of Sierra Leone."