Sierra Leone: The path from pariah to peace

How one African country went from a bloody 10-year civil war to a stable democracy in just two years

A few days after New Year's 1999, the rebel group Revolutionary United Front (RUF), together with gangs of former government soldiers, staged the most violent attack yet on the capital, Freetown. The mission was code-named "Spare No Living Thing." Thousands of civilians were killed, raped, and mutilated with machetes. The sky filled with circling vultures, drawn to the blood.

That was when Baimba Bompa-Turay fled into the jungle.

"The war met me in 1999," he says from his bed at the Kissy mental hospital outside Freetown. His father was arrested. His sister was shot. "After that, I ran for dear life."

But he couldn't run far enough. In March of that year, Mr. Bompa-Turay was captured by the RUF and forced to join their ranks.

In the months and years that followed, the killings – some 50,000 in all – contin- ued. In May 2000, 500 UN peacekeepers were taken hostage by the RUF. The rebels seemed unstoppable.

"There was an overall feeling right then that we were a failure," admits Margaret Novicky, spokeswoman for the United Nations mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL). "We felt it was just a repeat of the UN failures in Rwanda and Somalia. In fact, some of us were ready to conclude that peacekeeping in general would always be a failure. Those were dark days."

Bompa-Turay spent those days doing "vicious things," he says. However, "I did not kill people." Then he reconsiders. "I killed enemies." How many? he is asked. "I lost count," he replies. Whole families burned inside houses while he and his friends shot at anyone who tried to escape. His commanders gave him drugs, cutting slits above his eyebrow or along his jaw line, rubbing in the cocaine. "We were invincible ... and we had no idea what we were doing," he says.

This was Sierra Leone just two years ago. For 10 years, rebels waged a scorched-earth campaign against corrupt leaders that they saw squandering the country's vast diamond wealth for their own benefit. Those same diamonds helped fund the rebels and fuel the war. Most international observers didn't see much hope for peace in this West African country.

But a mere two years after the last low point of May 2000, a peace agreement is in place, calm elections have been held, and the government has regained control of the country. Over 47,000 combatants have disarmed and begun rehabilitation programs, some 80,000 refugees have returned home, and tens of thousands more displaced people have been reunited with their families.

President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, elected in May, faces a tall order. The underlying causes for the civil war – unequal access to resources, abuse of power, and regional instability – continue to haunt Sierra Leone. Illegal diamond smuggling continues. Peace here is fragile.

Nonetheless, Sierra Leone is deemed a success story. Its transformation is a lesson in what can be accomplished with enough international attention, money, and goodwill.

"I did not get anything good from this war," says Bompa-Turay. "It was a just a waste of time. But I thought I would never escape it, and I did. We all did. I'm not sure how that happened, but I am thankful."

Beyond war fatigue

The lowest point for him personally, recalls Bompa-Turay, was when he was ordered to march into neighboring Guinea in September 2000. Ill-equipped and ill-prepared, the RUF sustained heavy casualties and was pushed out four months later.

"My friends, well, most of them, died in Guinea," says Bompa-Turay. "We had no food and no ammunition to fight with really." The reluctant rebel took a bullet in the leg and another in the shoulder. His best friend, 16-year-old Tupac, died in his arms.

Meanwhile, the RUF top dogs were also losing steam. The jailing of their revered leader, Foday Sankoh, a few months earlier, and the international sanctions placed on RUF's greatest outside supporter, Liberian President Charles Taylor, deprived the rebels of their main sources of strength and funding. "Some of us small people were always tired of the war," says Bompa-Turay. "But by then it seemed our commanders were a little tired, too."

War fatigue, however, cannot fully explain the coming of peace. Former RUF senior commander Eldred Collins, a slight man with a fearsome past, admits as much. "It would not have happened without all those outside pressures," he says, sipping tea during an interview at his home "We needed an arbitrator from outside to be insistent."

Recently released from a 16-month jail sentence for his role in the war, Mr. Collins is today one of the leaders of the RUFP, the rebel movement's political party. In the May elections the party fared miserably, failing to win even one seat in Parliament. "We are disappointed but it was expected," says Collins, gathering his baby daughter into his lap, "for these are early days for us politically." No matter what, he assures, there is no intention to return to armed struggle. "We are still trying to change the system but now we have a political platform and that's the way we will proceed," he says. "We have no choice."

Collins is hardly the only one to acknowledge the international community's role in securing the peace. The level, dedication, and nature of outside involvement in Sierra Leone is generally credited with being the most important ingredient in this country's successful transformation. At a cost of $700 million a year, the UN has maintained 17,400 peacekeeping troops from 31 countries here since 1999, making it the biggest UN mission in the world. Since the May elections, the UN has begun to scale back carefully. Earlier this month, because of what he called "steady and remarkable progress," UN Secretary-General Kofi Anan outlined a detailed plan for further reductions.

Help from former colonial power

Sierra Leone's former colonial power, Britain, continues to take an active, if more limited, role here. In July it withdrew many of its remaining troops, leaving just 100 soldiers here to train the Army and police, and to help rebuild civil society.

But it was not just the money and numbers of international troops that made a difference, say observers. It was the way they worked together.

"There were two tracks," says Ricken Patel, a political analyst at the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard University "The British played the more aggressive part – pressuring, coercing, and battling the rebels. The UN played its usual part of engagement." Oftentimes the UN will go into a conflict and use only the "engagement strategy," says Mr. Patel. "If the rebels think there is no cost for defecting from a peace process, they will act accordingly," he says.

In addition, the international intervention here looked at external factors. "Most civil wars in Africa are not civil – they're either proxy wars or involve significant foreign sponsorship. But the international community is often unwilling to go after the foreign sponsorship," says Patel. "The war in Sierra Leone cannot be extricated from the ones in Liberia and Guinea. Each of these countries is a different theater in the same war. And in this case the international community was willing to expose that."

Africa helping Africa

Often overlooked in Sierra Leone's transformation is the role played by other African nations. The Economic Organization of West African States (ECOWAS) engaged its military observer group, ECOMOG, in 1997, and later handed over to UNAMSIL in 2000. As the first troops to throw themselves into the fray, ECOMOG – made up of one battalion each from Ghana, Mali, and Guinea and 18 battalions from Nigeria – has been both criticized and celebrated. The troops were vilified in some human rights circles because of alleged wartime atrocities, but many Sierra Leoneans see them as saviors who put their own lives on the line.

"I have to admit," says Collins, "those Nigerians were the really tough adversaries. They wore us down in a big way." Since the departure of the ECOMOG, regional powers – Nigeria in particular – have remained committed to the Sierra Leone peace process.

The US and France, as well as others, seem ready to encourage and finance such regional intervention, in part because it saves them from having to send in their own troops, in part because there are potentially high rewards in getting Africans to police themselves. In 1995, the US began a program called "Africa Crisis Response Initiative," which aims to develop African peacekeeping capacity. "Operation Focus Relief" in 2000, meanwhile, specifically targeted West Africa, giving $90 million to train seven West African battalions, several of which were involved in Sierra Leone.

Julius Spencer, an affable TV producer whose media company is churning out a popular soap opera on peace and reconciliation, served as Sierra Leone's minister of information throughout the war. As he sees it, ending the fighting is just the first chapter of this success story. "To ensure this is a real transformation," he says, "we have to deal with the problems that brought on the war in the first place."

The only reason Spencer, a communications student in Sierra Leone in the mid-1980s, did not join the nascent RUF movement himself, he says, was that he did not know where to sign up. "We were all dissatisfied with the system. We all wanted to fight for something better," he says. "And unless we fix our system now, we will get another generation of fighters."

Corinne Dufka, director of Human Rights Watch in Sierra Leone, agrees. "If institutions are not strengthened, corruption addressed, and – critically – if opportunities for the people are not created here," she warns, "then Sierra Leone could descend back into war." In a country with tens of thousands of young men and women accustomed to war, this is always a very real possibility, she says.

Britain has placed technical assistants and advisers in most civil ministries and is leading efforts to retrain and restructure the police and Army.

"The British proved that they were not only willing to fight here, they were also ready to take the time and effort needed to reestablish institutions," says Ms. Dufka. "People might look at the Brits and say: They are being patronizing, it's 'neocolonialism.' But we don't take that view. Something had to be done to rebuild these institutions. There was a lot of rot and the situation called for a process of mentoring."

Removing the fuel for the war – the so-called "conflict diamonds" that have kept the rebels financed – has also been a priority. "The real reason we are concerned with the diamond sector is that the misuse of diamonds is a destabilizing factor," says Ian Stuart, secretary for development at the British High Commission in Sierra Leone. Britain has recently begun working with the Ministry of Mines to regulate the diamond sector, and law and order there is slowly being established. "We will never have peace here if we don't fix this," says Mr. Stuart.

Finally, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the special court to try the country's worst war criminals are also expected to play important part in healing old wounds here, says Tom Perriello, an American lawyer who helped start the Human Rights Clinic at Freetown's Fourah Bay College Law School – the first such clinic of its kind in Africa. Both institutions, he says, will counter the culture of impunity.

"In a country where tens of thousands of youth were involved in the worst sort of war crimes, it is not possible to prosecute them all," he says. "The primary role of the court is to build a national history and expose people to due process. This is important to a successful transition to peace."

Picking up the pieces

After the war, Bompa-Turay made his way home. He thought he was ok, but he was not. He could not sleep. He was addicted to drugs. One day, when a neighborhood girl began teasing him about something silly, he beat her up so badly she almost died.

"I had forgotten how to be normal," he says. "It is hard to come back."

At the mental hospital, Bompa-Turay joined hundreds of other combatants – from the rebel and government side alike – who all had been wrecked by drugs and trauma. Violent and abusive, they were shackled to their beds for weeks when they first arrived. Today, most of the patients have been discharged.

"I could still go back to school," says Bompa-Turay, hesitantly. The former top student at the Methodist Boys High School says he used to love studying history and government. Back then, he wanted to be a lawyer or a politician because, he says, "They speak so nicely and do such good things." Today, he is not sure he will be able to afford the time or find the means to aspire that high. "But I will do something good for sure," he says. "Sierra Leone," he concludes, "can be good, too. The atmosphere is steady. It's cool and calm. Good."

Beside a small garbage dump outside the hospital, the Church of Prophecy is hosting a wedding. The simple building, burned by the rebels, was rebuilt and painted a bright yellow. Festive flags are strung up for the occasion, and the congregation, overflowing out the back door, sways from one foot to another, in sync with a drum and tambourine beat. The young Bompa-Turay stands by the broken window of his dark room and watches the scene. "Good," he remarks to no one in particular.

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