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Sierra Leone

II. Dawa:
A Borderless World

Story by Steve Coll
Photographs by Michel duCille

At the spot on the world's maps
where northwestern Liberia officially ends


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

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.

General Sam "Mosquito" Bockarie masterminds the Revolutionary United Front's military tactics.
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.

RUF soldier
An RUF soldier in Magburaka.
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.

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