A rebel leader of rag-tag terrorists

To followers, Foday Sankoh was 'Papa.' To thousands of victims, he will

From the jungles of Sierra Leone he fought an eight-year civil war that turned boys into barbaric warriors. He tended a garden, held morning communal prayers in his camp, and was revered by his followers. Most of his soldiers called him "Papa."

But to the millions who have been victimized by his troops, Foday Sankoh is responsible for a reign of terror in this west African country - sending soldiers to loot, rape, mutilate, and massacre members of their own communities.

Now this rebel leader is to become part of Sierra Leone's government. As part of the peace agreement signed in July, Mr. Sankoh will assume the role of vice president, ironically, in charge of the country's bountiful diamond reserves that helped fund his campaign of terror.

Who is this man, and why did he wreak such havoc on his homeland?

He claims he only wants to free his people from a corrupt series of governments that have ruled since Sierra Leone gained its independence from Britain in 1961.

"Poverty, and corruption, tribalism, nepotism, etc., etc., and the vices of capitalism," he told The New York Times in an interview this summer. "The vices of injustice, what you call injustice, you know, all these things. That is why I took up arms."

His vague explanation aside, Sankoh has been elusive. During the entire war he was never photographed and rarely interviewed. Details of his life are sketchy at best.

Sankoh grew up in Sierra Leone under British colonial masters, whom he says he resents because of his impoverished childhood. He was able to attend primary school only, and then he joined the British colonial army. After six years, he reached the rank of corporal.

In the early 1960s, he served as part of a peacekeeping force in Zaire (now Congo) during its early days of independence from Belgium.

It was there possibly, one former US official suggests, that Sankoh may have picked up some of the brutal methods later employed in Sierra Leone. "Belgium was rough on the Congolese," he says. "If they didn't produce enough rubber or do the right thing, their hands were cut off."

Back in Sierra Leone, in 1971, he was sent to prison for his participation in an attempted coup. By the time he got out in 1976, talk of revolution was the fashion in Freetown. Student radicals and unemployed youths had joined forces to protest against an oppressive and corrupt one-party government.

Sankoh joined in. He reportedly went to Libya for training in the "art of revolution." There, he met another warlord, Charles Taylor - the man who would later become president of Liberia and a key backer of Sankoh's Revolutionary United Front (RUF).

In 1991, Sankoh took up arms - without the intellectuals in Freetown who insisted that the RUF should develop a political agenda before it tried to overthrow a government. He led a small band of fighters on raids in eastern towns with some success.

"Sankoh and his faction never engaged in ideological discussion," says Ibrahim Abdullah, a historian from Sierra Leone who was part of the original student movement and has met Sankoh in person. "He did not have the wherewithal to engage in such debate.... His idea of revolution was simply to seize power by any conceivable means."

Unable to win support from the peasant population, Sankoh's RUF recruited its rank-and-file members from an endless pool of impoverished youths.

"This is a movement of riffraff," explains Professor Abdullah, now at the University of Western Cape in South Africa. "The RUF built itself up on thieves, street touts, rogues, criminal thugs, dropouts, the dregs of society."

For five years, Sankoh's RUF burned villages, indentured young men, raped women, mutilated thousands, and uprooted nearly a million people from their homes.

Sankoh agreed to peace with President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah in 1996. But the deal came undone after Sankoh was arrested in Nigeria in 1997 on arms-trafficking charges. Sierra Leone's Army staged a military coup that topped Mr. Kabbah's government and asked the RUF to join them in sharing power.

Kabbah was restored to power in 1998 by a peacekeeping force led by Nigeria. But soon after, details of brutality began emerging. Civilians with amputated limbs told how Sankoh's rebels committed their brutal acts.

Sankoh was convicted of treason last October and sentenced to death. But after his incarceration, his rebels stepped up their attacks. When they mounted their horrific assault on Freetown last January, the defeated government had no choice but to allow Sankoh out of prison for peace talks in nearby Togo.

Sankoh negotiated the controversial power-sharing arrangement for himself while living in a 36-story hotel with a TV, two VCRs, a refrigerator, and a room where he readily engaged journalists and diplomats in polite conversation.

"We were negotiating from a position of weakness," says Kadi Sesay, head of Sierra Leone's Commission for Democracy and Human Rights. "The rebels were not going to sign that deal without an amnesty. If we had not insisted, Sierra Leone would still be at war."

Today, Sankoh's advance team of rebel commanders is in Freetown to prepare for his homecoming. They've given themselves comic-book nicknames like Superman, Leather Boots, Sgt. Burn House, and Capt. Blood. They wear high-top sneakers and reflective sunglasses. They live fraternity style, in the seedy Vancy Ville Guest House, blasting stereos in dingy rooms and drinking beer before noon.

This guest house is just blocks away from an amputee camp where hundreds testify that the rebels severed their limbs with machetes. And yet every commander at Vancy Ville steadfastly denies participation in any atrocities. "It's all lies," says S.B. Khanu, a former soldier who calls himself Brig. 55.... We didn't do those atrocities."

It seems though that Sankoh is reluctant to leave his life of luxury and return to his war-ravaged country - and his Cabinet post. Government officials are nervous that the fragile peace will soon fall apart if the elusive Sankoh does not show up.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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