In Sierra Leone, rebels slowly trade in Kalashnikovs

Gibril Massaquoi fiddles with his heavy gold rings, one on each finger, as he ponders an uncertain future.

"We are prepared to give in our weapons, but we want something to do afterward," says Mr. Massaquoi, spokesman for the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), the rebel group that is disarming under a November cease-fire with the government. Nearby, a dozen ex-fighters sit around Massaquoi's porch looking bored, as a bevy of young girls paint their toenails. "We need schools. We need training. We need work opportunities.

"Why are aid organizations and the government scared to come here and help us?" Massaquoi adds.

The answer to many Sierra Leonians is obvious. During 10 years of civil war, in which RUF rebels fought for control of the government and lucrative diamond fields, the RUF was notorious for using crude amputations to control or punish people. By last November, some 50,000 people had died, another million were made homeless, and 5,000 children had been abducted to serve the rebels, often forced to carry out the worst atrocities.

Under the cease-fire agreement, the rebels agreed to lay down their AK-47s and Kalashnikovs in exchange for government job training, education, and reintegration into society. For the past year, rebel fighters have been turning their weapons in at demobilization camps throughout the country, run by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). There, they sign up for basic schooling or for vocational training in skills such as farming, auto mechanics, soapmaking, and carpentry - and are eligible for six-month stipends.

Yet, while six of the nation's 12 districts have fully disarmed, a large swath of the country has yet to see an aid worker.

"The NGOs are not yet ready to move into the interior, where they perceive there may still be a security threat to their personnel," says Charles Achodo, a World Bank consultant to the country's disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration committee. "In addition, there is a psychological problem here, with aid organizations prepared to work with victims, but uneasy about spending time and effort with those they see as the 'bad guys.' "

There are complaints about the slow pace of the reintegration programs. In October, demonstrations flared in the capital, Freetown, with soldiers-turned-civilians demanding promised allowance payments and training.

"If I take the gun away from someone, I need to give him another way to get food," says Massaquoi. The fighters "used to get food with arms. Now if they don't have any, they will turn to armed robbery or even return to fighting."

UN mission spokeswoman Margaret Novicki says 25,494 fighters - 9,499 rebels and 15,995 pro-government militiamen - have disarmed so far. But Mr. Achodo says only 12,000 have actually started school or apprenticeship programs.

This problem is being addressed, if slowly, says Achodo. "Basically, the NGOs know that we are all here to support peace- building, and to do so we must support this high-risk population group. It is a key to the whole."

For many Sierra Leonians, opening communities and schools to the very people who may have victimized local families is a tough leap to make. But the prevailing feeling, say many here, is the need to move on.

"Life here is very simple," says Edward Nahim, a psychiatrist working for the government. "Sierra Leonians want somewhere to sleep and something to eat. They do not have the luxury of seeking revenge or compensation. Everyone wants reintegration to succeed."

The larger obstacle has to do with the fact that there is very little structure into which to reintegrate. Ten years of war have ravaged this fertile land of diamonds and gold to such an extent, that Sierra Leone is ranked by the UN development index as the poorest country on earth. Per capita income is less than $150 a year, and only 15 percent of adults are literate.

Moreover, military discipline and morale have declined to such an extent that the troops have earned the nickname "sobels" - law-abiding soldiers by day, lawless rebels by night.

The British have brought in hundreds of troops to retrain and re-equip the Sierra Leone military and police forces, and have sent advisers to most government ministries.

"The international community needs to help restore normality," says Alan Jones, British High Commissioner in Sierra Leone. "It's a long haul."

In Massaquoi's bathroom, hung up alongside the drying T-shirts and underwear, are an ammunition belt and four AK-58s. A pile of rocket-propelled grenades and a few self-loading rifles are stacked beneath, next to a mound of yams. Outside, on the porch, the rebel spokesman speaks thoughtfully. "We are tired and willing to give up war," he says. "But we want a future. We insist."

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