Except during the midnight-to-dawn curfew, the capital of beleaguered Sierra Leone still bustles and churns. But the war that has consumed most of this impoverished West African nation of 4.2 million people has finally come to Freetown. And life here has indelibly changed.
Since the May 25 coup that ousted democratically elected President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, 50,000 soldiers loyal to Maj. Johnny Paul Karomah's Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) clog the streets.
Citizens wake up each morning to troops, some as young as seven years old, AK-47s slung across their backs, milling around. The daily newspapers, still largely uncensored, carry reports of soldiers looting businesses and robbing residents at gunpoint. But the AFRC cautions the capital's 500,000 residents to get used to the garrison. "To us now," warns Alieu Kamara, press officer of the junta, "this is the front line."
But relief may be in sight for the capital's beleaguered residents: Last week, the junta, at the urging of the federation of West African nations, ECOWAS, agreed to step down and turn the government back over to President Kabbah next April.
Despite the agreement, the Nigerian-led peacekeeping force, ECOMOG, will continue to blockade Freetown Harbor in an effort to topple the junta. It is this blockade that places the capital on the front lines. Early last month, more than 50 civilians were killed when Nigerian gunners attempting to stop two freighters steaming across Destruction Bay overshot their positions. On a recent Wednesday morning, two ECOMOG jets flown from Liberia struck Clinetown, a neighborhood on the west end of Freetown. Six residents are believed to have perished in the raid, and 61 were wounded.
Beggared by the blockade
By closing the harbor, ECOMOG has devastated the city's economy without firing a shot. Inflation has risen 300 percent since the coup. The National Power Authority, starved for oil, cannot operate its machinery, and electricity is rationed. Most neighborhoods snatch only a few hours of power every three or four days.
Citizens fret most about rising food prices. Ishmael Dyfan, spokesman for the Life Flour Company, admits that Sierra Leone has less than three weeks of flour left. When prices first rose, Freetown's poorest citizens switched to bulgar wheat, a chaff usually packaged as livestock fodder. But supplies soon disappeared: A cup of bulgar now fetches 150 Leones, too expensive for the poor.
The average breadwinner in Freetown earns less than 19,000 Leones per month, of which at least 5,000 goes for rent. Wages have fallen since inflation shot up, and now even those with jobs can barely afford rice. Since most Western corporations, businesses, and embassies remain closed, however, most people remain unemployed. And residents can't rely on their savings: All but one of the banks remain closed, and accounts have been frozen.
The ranks of sidewalk beggars, most of them children, are growing. "The children are always the first to suffer," says Joseph Samu, the registrar of FAMINE, a local relief agency. "In Sierra Leone, parents make children drink sugar water to fill their stomachs. Some children go three days with no food, only water."
After the coup, army troops and the convicts they freed from prison looted Freetown's shops, causing most Lebanese businessmen, the mainstay of the economy, to flee the country. Some government employees haven't received a paycheck since the coup. Teachers, however, wouldn't return to class even if the junta paid them: They've vowed to boycott their classrooms until the AFRC collapses.
Hope for peace?
Other citizens worry that even if Kabbah returns, the war will not end. They cite comments made by prominent officers that stand in contrast to conciliatory gestures made recently during peace talks.
Earlier this month, Lt. Col. Gibril Massaquri, a spokesman for the rebels, branded Kabbah "a criminal." "You do not understand," he said, "Kabbah is irrelevant. We will kill him if he comes back. I hate him. The people hate him."
All the people may not agree. As a teenage boy in a bombed-out house in Freetown said, "Unless Kabbah comes back, there will be no peace."