IN THE MIDST of many horror stories this decade, the unfortunate African nation of Sierra Leone won a place of its own. Rebels there made a habit of chopping off the limbs of their prisoners, in a civil war that dragged on and on as the United States and other nations essentially stood by. A July 7 peace accord was supposed to begin a "healing" process. But it took three months for rebel leader Foday Sankoh and former junta chief Johnny Paul Koroma to return to that country.

Now they are back home luxuriating in the accolades of their supporters, but the leaders of a rebel force that delighted in mutilating captured children and filling the country with orphans have decided to postpone for a while longer the formation of a national unity government. People of Sierra Leone and of other countries have every right to be wary.

Ostensibly, the rebels want more time to consult among themselves on the nomination of individuals to participate at the ministerial level in the new government of President Ahmad Kabbah. The consultation will be conducted under the auspices of a congress of the rebels' Revolutionary United Front, which expects to transform itself into a political party. That makes the so-called people's congress no less the work of men who slaughtered the innocent and won a voice in the government only through the power of the gun and machete.

There are more urgent tasks confronting the people of Sierra Leone than to stand by as Mr. Sankoh's rebels and members of Mr. Koroma's former junta decide who among their gang will get first dibs at the spoils of war. The desperately poor and ravaged country faces the daunting task of launching a recovery and development program. Disarmament, an essential step in the peace accord, has yet to take place due to the long absence of the two men. The elected government, which must accommodate the thugs, is at a standstill.

The rest of the world, meanwhile, wins itself no glory in all this. That the rebels are able to muscle their way into a power-sharing arrangement reflects a terrible failure on the part of nations that had the resources -- but not the will -- to stop them. Now, as aid money pours into Kosovo, countries have pledged almost nothing to help Sierra Leone, U.N. human rights chief Mary Robinson pointed out during a recent visit to The Post.

"Not that I begrudge Kosovo," she said, "but the differences are really, really striking. It's not an ideal world at all."