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Peace at last in Sierra Leone?

Many have disarmed since a May 15 peace deal, but diamonds form stumbling block.

By Greg Campbell Special to The Christian Science Monitor / July 13, 2001



DARU, SIERRA LEONE

Only a few months ago, Bila Lahaji and Bukari Borbor would have shot the people they now call neighbors and friends.

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In the spring, the two men, members of a burlap-and-amulet clad sect of warriors, were part of a pro-government militia fighting in Sierra Leone's decade-old war.

Today, however, Mr. Lahaji and Mr. Borbor live alongside their former enemies in a village of ex-combatants. They have disarmed under a new peace agreement brokered among the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels, the civil defense forces (CDF), and the Sierra Leone government on May 15.

"We are now brothers," says Lahaji, a blacksmith who fought with the CDF for eight months. "We saw that there were no differences between us."

Despite a string of failed peace measures, the latest attempt to stop the fighting is encouraging even to the most cynical observers.

An obstacle, however, is the diamond-rich Kono District in the east. UN-supervised disarmament began there July 2, but has stalled because both of the warring sides want to lay claim to the gem-producing areas; about 5,500 fighters are believed to remain there.

Since 1991, an estimated 75,000 people have died in the civil war, fought largely over control of the diamond fields. About 20,000 people have been mutilated in RUF attacks that have left victims - mostly civilians - without arms, legs, ears, or lips.

According to Margaret Novicki, spokeswoman for the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL), from May 18 to July 3, almost 2,100 RUF rebels and almost 4,300 CDF fighters turned in their weapons.

The RUF has released nearly 1,000 children forced into combat to UNICEF and Save the Children since May 25.

Although no one is sure exactly how many guerrillas remain fighting in the country's jungles, Ms. Novicki says the number of surrendered fighters exceeds even optimistic estimates.

Mr. Lahaji and Mr. Borbor are among 3,000 residents of a "peace village," a symmetrical grid of newly built mud-and-thatch huts on the outskirts of a disarmament camp in Daru, east-central Sierra Leone. The residents are roughly divided between former CDF fighters and former RUF rebels, all of them waiting until it's safe to return to their pre-war homes. Last week the Sierra Leone government opened two more camps for disarming combatants, for a total of five.

"Read my lips," says former RUF Col. Mohammed Fafanah, a camp resident, as he embraces a CDF captain standing beside him. "This is everlasting peace."

Often, former combatants have as much trouble explaining their fervor for peace as they do explaining the reasons for the fighting. Many simply followed orders to disarm. Others are weary of battle. Some explanations are more mystical. "Everything is the work of Satan," says RUF Lt. Mammy Massaquoi. "We can't understand why brother should fight brother."

Even in the RUF eastern stronghold of Kailahun, which was virtually surrounded by CDF fighters in early June, RUF commanders there were surprised when a jungle skirmish resulted in an on-the-spot cease-fire negotiated by men on the front lines.

But Kailahun is still plagued with skirmishes between RUF and CDF fighters. And tension remains elsewhere. In late June, at the Port Loko peace camp, angry ex-combatants disgruntled with conditions there briefly detained journalists and aid workers who were attempting to leave the compound.

Disarmed fighters can stay for up to six weeks at the camps, which offer skills and career training in hopes that they can find work once they leave. At the end of their stay, they're given the equivalent of $15 for transportation.

UNAMSIL previously rewarded soldiers with $300 for turning in their weapons, but cut the amount when it became clear that some recipients were using the money to buy more weapons.

Some here aren't sure $15 is an appropriate incentive for a teenage colonel to lay down his weapons. "For someone who is a general or a major in the bush, you feel like you're somebody," says UN soldier Lt. Charles Bendemah, the camp adjutant in Daru. "Then they see the conditions in the camp, and in here they're just like everyone else."

Given recent history, it's difficult to imagine that lasting peace could actually be on the horizon in this West African nation of 5 million, where civilians became the targets of vicious attacks, often carried out under the influence of cocaine and other drugs. In 1999, the RUF staged an assault on the capital, Freetown, code-named Operation No Living Thing, that left approximately 6,000 people dead.

The controversial July 1999 Lome Peace Accord, a sweeping treaty that would have granted amnesty for war crimes and place now-imprisoned RUF leader Foday Sankoh in a government post overseeing diamond production, was repeatedly violated by the RUF.

Hopes that UNAMSIL's deployment in Sierra Leone would usher in peace were dashed when RUF soldiers took 500 peacekeepers hostage in May 2000. They were rescued during a military assault later that fall.

For former RUF Maj. Daniel Kallon, fighting in the jungle since 1997 has exacted a toll. He spent his days commanding an RUF battalion of 50 men and women, smoking marijuana, struggling with malaria, and ambushing government patrols. When the disarmament agreement was signed in Freetown, he ordered his men to unload their weapons and walk into Daru. Only eight complied, he says, and they fear retribution from their ex-comrades.

"This is my country, and I want to make use of it now and make a better life," Mr. Kallon says.

"When we were fighting, we were enemies, but now all of us are brothers," he says. "We are one, and there is no need to fight again."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor