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.
FREETOWN, SIERRA LEONE — 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.
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.
The once-thriving commercial district of Makeni had been cut off for seven months before a UN assessment team arrived in July to find people eating rats, snails, and larvae from compost heaps.
"In one town, there were almost no infant children left," says the World Food Program's Brian Gray, who routinely travels up country. "They had all died."
The UN development index has repeatedly ranked Sierra Leone as the poorest country on earth. But the saddest irony is that it has soil so fertile it could feed itself and export more. Its wealth of natural resources is unparalleled for a country with just 4.2 million people - gold, bauxite, cocoa, and high-grade diamonds that can be shoveled up by hand.
Analysts say the diamond trade is worth up to $300 million a year. No one knows how much the rebels smuggled out. But the profits permitted the RUF to arm itself with modern weaponry.
With assistance from rebel fighters in neighboring Liberia and nearby Burkina Faso, the RUF gained control of all the diamond-mining regions, and every legitimate mining company was forced to flee.
Today, some rebels have no interest in seeing the war end. Kamara says life without guns is proving difficult. At the Mammy Yoko, he has nothing. In the bush, these men looted village after village. They ate beef and pork. They had women on demand, diamonds in their pockets.
In a seedy office above the jam-packed market streets of central Freetown, a rebel soldier in sunglasses shows his latest find to a diamond dealer. He opens a pill box, carefully unwraps the paper inside, and places six rough rocks on the table.
"Some of these guys get rich overnight," says the dealer, squinting as he holds a diamond up to his magnifying glass.
Rebels simply take over a plot of land and, with shovels, crude sieves, and a basic water pump, dig for diamonds. The RUF leadership demanded soldiers turn in their finds - but many simply hid the loot.
But one rebel soldier now lying in a hospital bed, who claims he was tortured by government soldiers who wanted to know where he'd hidden his diamond stash, says, "No way. They are worth a lot of money."
Still, Mr. Sankoh, who as part of the new agreement will supervise diamond sales, has not returned to the country. Some diplomats suggest Sankoh is holding out for a victory parade, determined to ride into Freetown with bands of rebel soldiers. In a city packed with victims of rebel atrocities, such an undiplomatic strategy could quickly explode into renewed conflict.
"As long as he is still out there," says one government minister, "we can't be sure he's not up to mischief. "It is a big worry."
*Parts 1, 2, and 3 ran Sept. 15, 16, and 17, respectively.
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