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Sierra Leone

IV. Buedu:
At the Crossroads

Story by Steve Coll
Photographs by Michel duCille

On our final night at RUF headquarters,
we sat with Mosquito in a dark concrete room


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 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.' "

General Mosquito, once a beautician, has gained worldwide attention for his army's tactics.
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.

rebel soldiers
Young Muslim and Christian rebel soldiers pray together in the morning light at Buede.
"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.)

rebel soldiers
Young rebel soldiers recuperate at a hospital in Buede.
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."

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