FREETOWN, SIERRA LEONE — THE story of Sierra Leone's tragedy can be seen in the parade of foreign characters crossing paths on the tarmac of Freetown's Hastings Airport.
Guinean and Nigerian soldiers defend strategic installations from guerrillas because the local Army is too weak. South African mercenaries grow rich guarding the diamond mines of the elite. A Dutch nurse provides health care in towns with no doctors.
Sierra Leone is one of the world's potentially richest countries because of its diamond and mineral wealth. But four years of civil war and decades of colonialism and mismanagement have made this West African country uncomfortably reliant on foreigners.
"We cannot justify our enthusiasm for democracy if we are so dependent on others," says John Karefa-Smart, a former defense minister who now heads the opposition National United Peoples' Party. "We have foreign intervention in the economy and defense. We do not export anything so we must rely on foreign aid. We have tremendous resources, which are being wasted."
The economy is stalled as long as the shadowy Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels, who have been fighting since 1991, continue to terrorize the countryside. Just 90 miles outside Freetown, their ambushes on main roads have virtually paralyzed trade and farming.
This has scared off most investors except for the South African company Executive Outcomes, whose military-trained men provide security at the vital diamond mines, and train and advise the Army.
Foreigners have dominated the swampy, coastal country since it was colonized by Britain in the 19th century and settled by freed slaves returning from the Caribbean. Things got worse after independence in 1961. They deteriorated further under the military government, which came to power in a 1992 coup. Sierra Leone has devoted most of its resources to fighting the war, which has maimed thousands, displaced one-fourth of the population, and killed perhaps tens of thousands.
Making matters worse is that no one knows who exactly is responsible for atrocities that are rising. Is it the rebels? Undisciplined soldiers? Military officials eager to continue the war for their own gain? Or just bandits?
"It's probably all of them. But we really don't know what is going on," admits one of the many Western diplomats who do not leave the capital for security reasons.
What the diplomats are particularly confused about is what exactly RUF leader Foday Sankoh wants, having no clear stated ideology. They are not even sure whether he is still getting arms from next-door Liberia or Guinea.
The result has been devastating for major towns like Bo and Kenema, where residents are too afraid to stray beyond areas defended by Nigerian and Guinean soldiers. In Bo, civilians tired of the intimidation have formed armed self-defense units, which mount on poles the severed heads of suspected guerrillas.
Kenema, once a sleepy town of 20,000, is overwhelmed by 100,000 refugees fleeing from the interior. They cram into a sprawling refugee camp or the homes of relatives. Thousands were on the brink of starvation several months ago until international humanitarian organizations intervened.
Everyone tells a story of burned houses and fear. The rebels have adopted a vicious strategy of cutting off the hands of victims, to prevent them from voting in general elections due on Feb. 26.
"When the rebels attack, you don't even wait for your brother. You just run," says Augustine Musavandy, the refugee camp chief, who has lost half his family.
One who couldn't run was Momoh Konneh, who was shot in the legs. "There were more than 100 guerrillas carrying guns, knives, and machetes. I hid under my bed, but they kicked down the door. I only survived because they thought I died."
Such incidents are unlikely to end soon, diplomats believe.
They say the country's military rulers, many in their late 20s, lack the maturity to govern effectively. The diplomats believe President Valentine Strasser wants a handoff to civilian rule but other members of his government don't.
There is also the question of whether the elections will take place and how effective they would be if the RUF does not take part, says Herbert Kandeh, one of five members of the National Interim Electoral Commission.
Hopes are fading that the United Nations, overextended with costly missions in Rwanda, Angola, and Liberia, can mobilize more resources for Sierra Leone.
"The donor countries are not ready to offer the necessary financial assistance. The problem is, you have competition from around the world," said UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, during a recent visit.