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Sierra Leone

VII. Magburaka:
Toward Politics

Story by Steve Coll
Photographs by Michel duCille

Secret societies in painted faces, the
graying pooh-bahs of a paramount chieftaincy,


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

the women's league, children, traders and notables of every stripe—out they poured by the thousands into dusty streets under a brutal sun, swaying and singing and shouting joyously that the Big Man had come to town.

"Peace!" he promised when he climbed from a shiny car.

"Revolution!" they cried, knowing the drill.

It was the nearest thing to normalcy we had seen in our travels through rural Sierra Leone—a holiday festival masquerading as a political rally in Magburaka. To the pent-up, school-less, war-weary citizenry of Makeni District, just a few hours drive from Freetown, it hardly mattered who was the guest of honor. The party was the thing, and just about any Big Man would do. But as it happened, our slog across RUF territory had led us finally to the rebels' boss of bosses, "The Leader," as even General Mosquito called him, former television cameraman Foday Sankoh.

Shaking his ample belly as he danced and weaved through the throng, Sankoh seemed a fuzzy and wizardly man, mild and eccentric. "No more war," he told the young RUF combatants who had lined up to greet him in an honor guard, symbolically taking assault rifles out of the boys' hands. "No more war."

RUF leader Foday Sankoh promises his war-weary supporters at a political rally in Magburaka that he will embrace the Lome peace accord.
When Gadhafi organized the RUF, Sankoh was apparently the most credible dissident he could attract to his desert guerrilla school. He must have seemed an unlikely cult revolutionary. A poorly educated farmer's son, Sankoh had enlisted in the army in 1956 and never rose above the rank of corporal. His superiors sent him to Scotland for training as a cameraman, then assigned him to Sierra Leonean national television. One day in 1969 he went to cover a mutiny in an army barracks. Instead of reporting on the uprising, he decided to join; he was jailed for five years when the coup failed. Freetown's hulking concrete prison became "my first university in politics," Sankoh said, where he "read about all revolution—in the U.S., China, elsewhere." Upon release, he traveled east to the rain forest and "used my camera, my photography, as a front to organize."

He fought in the bush during the early years of the war, but after 1996 languished in custody or exile until the Lome accord was signed last July. Sankoh ceded the battlefield to Mosquito. Tensions between the two men ran high. In Buedu, Mosquito complained to us bitterly that Sankoh was rushing too quickly to embrace peace, that he was selling out the RUF combatants to an uncertain future. The two men had spent very little time in each other's company during the last several years and each clearly worried that the other might attempt an arrest or assassination.

Foday Sankoh has expressed a desire to run for president of Sierra Leone – a move supported by the United States and the United Nation.
"He is my son," Sankoh said of Mosquito. "Why should Mosquito have in mind any plan to overthrow the RUF? He would destroy himself."

The United States and the United Nations have invested considerable hope in Sankoh. They rely on his assertion that he wants to enter politics and run for Sierra Leone's presidency. The Clinton administration's special envoy to Africa, Jesse Jackson, helped persuade Sankoh to embrace the Lome deal. When the negotiations reached a critical stage, President Clinton called him—Sankoh has been dining out on the conversation ever since. "What rebel leader gets called by the president of the United States?" he asked. "I only got that call because I fought in the bush for so many years."

Not to mention the amputations and kidnappings. Here, too, Sankoh went further than Mosquito. He sometimes apologized in public for wartime atrocities and begged public forgiveness for excesses committed by the RUF. While he said his enemies staged amputations in order to blame the RUF, he was also careful to argue that all of the most offensive atrocities occurred only after 1996—a period when he was no longer leading the RUF in the field. When government militias began the amputations and blamed the RUF, he said, they created a "political-propaganda machine" that turned opinion against the rebels.

"But the people know the truth of what happened."

That may be so. The question is whether it will matter.

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