Home   |   Register               Web Search: by Google
channel navigation
 The Day in Photos
 Top Story
 News Video/Audio
 The Week in Review
 On Assignment
 On the Lightbox
 Best of the Post
 Photos From:
   Live Online
 Tools & Resources
 Contact Us
 Related Links
On Assignment

Sierra Leone

V. Buedu to Koidu:
The Best Intentions

Story by Steve Coll
Photographs by Michel duCille

Freed blacks and white Christian abolitionists
in Britain and America created Sierra Leone


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

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.

This young child is being treated at the rebel-run hospital in Buede.
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.

The wife of a rebel officer cooks in a house taken over by rebels in Koidu.
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.

Previous Segment | Next Segment

Intro.    I    II    III    IV    V    VI    VII    VIII    IX

Home   |   Register               Web Search: by Google
channel navigation