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By Kim Kostyal

Special to washingtonpost.com

Sierra Leone was founded in the 18th century as a safe haven for freed slaves. At the close of the 20th century, its people are enduring horrors at the hands of their countrymen and bearing scars from a civil war of atrocities perpetrated by an army of thugs and desperadoes.

Revolutionary United Front (RUF) leader Foday Sankoh, mastermind of the terrorist campaign, says he took up arms to free his country from the string of corrupt governments that has ruled Sierra Leone since 1961, when it gained its independence from Britain. Beyond this explanation, he has no ideology to offer, making his revolution appear to be little more than a power grab, influenced and supported by Charles Taylor, president of Liberia. Indeed, the RUF has incorporated some of Taylor's tactics in its campaign of terror, such as forcing children into service and drugging them to make them commit atrocities.

Convicted of treason and sentenced to death last October, Sankoh was freed to attend peace talks in Togo. This came after RUF's brutal attacks in January on Freetown, Sierra Leone's capital, forced President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah's government to relent. In a desperate peace accord signed in Lome, Togo, on July 7, Sankoh's rebel fighters were granted amnesty from war crimes, including mutilations that have crippled thousands of civilians haunting the nation's streets and amputee camps. Rebel leader Sankoh is to assume the role of vice president as well as supervisor of sales of the country's vast diamond reserves–the very reserves he drew upon to help finance his campaign of fear. Yet many accept the peace accord, which places their oppressors in joint power with President Kabbah's legitimate government, in order to rebuild their lives and diffuse the fear and violence that have overshadowed them for eight years.

Legitimate but fragile, Kabbah's power has been challenged repeatedly. In 1997, one year after Kabbah's election to office, the Sierra Leone army staged a military coup and joined forces with the RUF. Kabbah's exiled government was restored the next year by the Nigerian-led Economic Community Monitoring Group (ECOMOG). The ECOMOG force drove the RUF rebels out of Freetown after their January attack on the city. But beyond the ECOMOG force, Kabbah has no army of his own and even the ECOMOG force is pulling out.

The West encouraged the Kabbah government to accept peace at the current asking price of rebel amnesty. By most accounts, Sierra Leone is of little strategic interest to the West.

After luxuriating for months in a five-star hotel in nearby Togo, Sankoh has just returned to his homeland. Now it remains to be seen whether the legitimate government and the warring rebels will come together in a lasting peace.

 



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