Attempt to Starve Out Opposition May Hamper Hopes for Peace

Ongoing peace talks between the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), the de facto rulers of Sierra Leone, and ousted President Tejan Kabbah may not end the civil war raging in the nation's interior. Villagers in the Sewa River valley, homeland of the Mende tribe, insist that even Mr. Kabbah cannot quiet the lingering animosity arising from alleged AFRC atrocities committed this summer.

The stumbling block to peace can easily be found 120 miles northeast of Freetown. Some 28 bodies litter the road to Pundaro. All wear the shredded uniforms of AFRC soldiers. The villagers of Pundaro contend that because they support Kabbah, they drew the wrath of the AFRC troops, who attacked the village three times this summer.

"Without Kabbah, this country will become another Somalia or Rwanda or Burundi. And no one will remember the Mende then," says local Chief Idrissa Abdulai Folco.

Local farmers say that the Komajors, traditional defenders of Mende tribal lands, killed the soldiers last month in a battle that consolidated Komajor control of the Sewa River Valley.

Because the AFRC cannot defeat the Komajors militarily, the farmers reason, the junta is trying to starve them into submission. They point to AFRC checkpoints, which bar all food and medicine shipments into Mende territory and charge the AFRC with systematically planning to exterminate the Mende people.

Until last year, such claims were unthinkable in Sierra Leone, an impoverished West African nation whose 4.2 million people have endured three coups in five years. The Komajors, a secret society of Mende warriors, fought alongside the Army. Together they defended the Menema District from the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), a guerrilla band notorious for sacking Mende towns and executing civilians. By 1996, when Kabbah was elected, six years of civil war had claimed more than 20,000 lives, and a million refugees had fled the country. Kabbah urged the Komajors and military to finish off the RUF. Poorly paid and exhausted by a neverending jungle war, the Army simply quit fighting. Last spring, when whole units began to mutiny and loot Mende villages, the Komajors found themselves battling two enemies at once. After a May 25 military coup toppled Kabbah, the RUF rebels united with the Army in a common struggle against the Komajors in the east and Nigerian-led peacekeepers in the southwest.

"The Komajors were not here to defend us when they came the first time," says resident Sheku Lombie, remembering the events of Aug. 16. "The Army surprised us.... They shot us with antiaircraft guns. We ran into the bush and watched them ... [as] they set fire to our houses. On Sept. 19, they returned. Eight Komajors fought against 200 soldiers. This time they did not get to our village.... When they came back on Sept. 23, all the Komajors were waiting for them. They never reached the Komajor checkpoint." Throughout Sierra Leone, AFRC soldiers talk about the Komajors - jungle hunters, who, swaddled in burlap rags and armed with machetes and shotguns, will fling themselves at machine-gun nests with abandon. Spangled with amulets, Komajors overrun AFRC positions, convinced that their prayers and trinkets will deflect bullets and make jets fall from the sky.

TODAY, most of Pundaro lies in ashes. Cassava greens spring up where huts once stood. The charred walls and zinc roofs of deserted houses are pocked by antiaircraft bullets. Only the AFRC uses antiaircraft guns, villagers say, and they tend to shoot civilians before plowing up their rice crops. By destroying the paddies, the AFRC have effectively denied the Mende their main source of food. Weakened and gaunt, Pundaro's farmers survive on jungle yams.

Throughout the Sewa River Valley, civilians describe similar AFRC atrocities. But most damaging, they say, is the AFRC policy of seizing all food and medicine shipments entering Mende territories. "The AFRC will starve them all until no one supports the Komajors," explains "A.B.," a bush driver from Bo. "Or until all the Mende are dead. Everyone in Sierra Leone supports the Komajors, but we cannot send them rice."

Abu Hungbai, a teacher in Konta, south of Pundaro, drinks rain water to escape his hunger pangs. He has not eaten in three days. "They are trying to starve us to death. All of us. Because we support Kabbah and democracy. They know they cannot defeat the Komajors, so they will starve us. This is just like Bosnia, and no one helps us. The Nigerians do not help us. The Americans do not help up. Only the Komajors help us."

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