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Disgruntled rebels threaten Sierra Leone's fragile peace

A power-sharing peace agreement was signed in July, but the rebels and thier victims are having trouble reconciling after years of civil war.

By Corinna SchulerSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / September 20, 1999


In the days when golden beaches attracted plane loads of European tourists to these African shores, the Mammy Yoko Hotel was a playground for the rich.

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Today, after eight years of civil war, the stripped-bare hotel houses only seething rebel soldiers - one of the biggest threats to this country's fragile peace.

Most of the 580 men now sleeping seven to a room on cement floors here are former army soldiers who overthrew Sierra Leone's democratically elected government in 1997 and joined Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels in a brutal bush war.

A peace pact that was signed in July imposes a power-sharing agreement between the president and the former RUF leader. It also promised amnesty for all the rebel soldiers. The two former enemies seem to have reconciled. But on the streets of Freetown, maimed war victims are still trying to come to terms with rebels in their midst.

After peace was reached in July, ex-soldiers began returning to the capital to sign up for a promised reintegration program. They expected housing, job training, and salaries. Some wanted to redeploy in Sierra Leone's new defense force.

So far, they have not been allowed to leave this decrepit hotel, stripped - right down to the toilet bowls - during a rebel looting campaign two years ago.

"Why have they dumped us in here?" asks Ibrahim Kamara, one of the rebel soldiers. Mr. Kamara, nicknamed American, has been here for six weeks: "We don't get any medical, no good food, no salary, no blankets.... We are like prisoners."

"We will leave, we will desert," says another. Others threaten to report their suffering to comrades in the bush. "We will tell them never to come out."

The problem is that the United Nations observer mission in Sierra Leone does not have the resources it needs to get a critical Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration program under way. The plan calls for the opening of 11 so-called DDR camps - where rebel soldiers can relinquish weapons for food, shelter, and medical care. So far, only one has begun to receive rebel soldiers.

The delay spells danger. Tens of thousands of armed rebels still control most of the country. Until they are out of the bush, few civilians feel safe. The soldiers at Mammy Yoko may have surrendered voluntarily - but not one of them brought a gun. While some say they relinquished AK-47s to peacekeepers, a few readily admit they buried them as security just in case the war resumes.

UN aid workers on the ground here say the UN Security Council has been slow to respond. It took more than one month just to approve the dispatch of 210 monitors (far fewer than the 700 Sierra Leone's beleaguered government requested). And the rebels, who spent years fighting, are refusing to hand their weapons over to "the enemy" unless the UN blue helmets are on the ground.

Moreover, the RUF seems determined to hang on to its most powerful bargaining chip: thousands of child soldiers and girl sex slaves. As far back as May, the RUF agreed to the "immediate" release of all abductees and noncombatants who remain behind rebel lines. To date, they have freed just 345. When a team of UN observers attempted to secure a release of child abductees last month, a faction of dissatisfied soldiers took British officers hostage. They were later released.

Food-aid trucks still have not been able to reach many northern regions of the country, despite the RUF's agreement to allow them safe passage.