The Path to Peace

Sierra Leone emerges from 10 years of brutal civil war

by Greg Campbell

In These Times magazine, July 2002


Like many others whose arms were amputated by the drugged teen-age rebels of the Revolutionary United Front, Ismael Dalramy pleaded with his captors to kill him when he saw the fate that awaited him in 1996. But like the others in the small West African nation of Sierra Leone, his desperate plea was ignored-and the blade of a crudely made ax was slammed through the bones of his arm.

Dalramy became one of thousands of amputation victims, walking symbols not only of the RUF's depravity, but of the message they wanted to spread to their countrymen: that people without hands couldn't use them to cast votes against the rebels.

On May 14, 2002, Dalramy and hundreds of others like him, proved the RUF wrong during an election that was every bit as tense and dramatic as the war it sought to officially end.

Sierra Leone should have been the Saudi Arabia of West Africa, with its vast wealth of diamonds, gold, bauxite and rutile. While Freetown was a fairly modern city, most upcountry cities and villages were linked only by crumbling blacktop roads or rutted mud paths. Health care, educational facilities and utilities were woefully inadequate there. When it first invaded from Liberia in 1991, the RUF tapped into rampant upcountry disenfranchisement with the government in Freetown, which many believed had plundered the country's wealth at the expense of the 85 percent of the population that lived in the bush.

Since 1991, Sierra Leone has been a killing field the size of South Carolina. RUF rebels battled government soldiers, indigenous militias, mercenary armies, regional security forces and U.N. peacekeepers for control of the country, which sends $25 million to $125 million worth of gemstones per year into the maw of the international diamond industry.

When the United Nations finally disarmed the rebels and declared the war over in January of this year, Sierra Leone was little more than smoking, bone-filled corpse of a nation populated with mutilated civilians and some 50,000 recently disarmed and unemployed guerrilla fighters. The battered nation seemed only a thin excuse away from yet another plunge into anarchy and slaughter. The recipe for this disaster seemed to be the elections themselves, an ominous final showdown between three of the various factions that have tom the country apart since the beginning of the war.

Among those vying for leadership of the country were Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, the man elected president in 1996, whose call for his countrymen to "join hands for the future" spurred the RUF to sharpen their blades and deliver bags of amputated human limbs to the presidential palace in Freetown; Johnny Paul "J.P." Koroma, a junta leader who overthrew Kabbah in an apocalyptic 1997 coup alongside the RUF; and the RUF itself, under the flag of its fledgling political wing, the Revolutionary United Front Party (RUFP). Even the party's campaign slogan was a thinly veiled threat: "Only the RUFP can ensure peace."

The RUF has been wildly unpredictable in its previous approaches to peace. Every previous deal or agreement had gone down in a hail of gunfire, and it seemed Sierra Leone's war might not end until everyone was dead. Even the controversial 1999 Lome peace accord, in which the rebel leaders were granted government posts, oversight of the diamond mines and amnesty for war crimes-everything they ever wanted-was a flaming disaster. Historically, the RUF preferred to keep on fighting rather than face war crimes charges; one reason the Lome accord got nowhere was that U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan signed an amendment to the agreement stating that he didn't approve offering the rebels amnesty. Most of the RUF force refused to disarm, and eventually the rebels took more than 500 U.N. peacekeepers hostage in late 1999.

Throughout the summer of 2001, while many of its members were still armed and in control of the jungle diamond mines, the RUFP campaigned for votes and support throughout Freetown, home to many of its victims. Even in the Doctors Without Borders camp for amputees and war wounded, where limbless civilians like Ismael Dalramy lived in squalor, RUFP campaign posters littered the concrete walls. It was difficult for those without hands to rip them down and trash them.

Yet through a combination of terror and a lack of tangible results from other political parties, the RUF seemed to be morphing from one of the world's most degenerate fighting forces into a legitimate political movement. The RUFP's primary obstacle was the lack of a candidate. The rebellion's founder and titular leader, former army corporal Foday Sankoh, was in prison facing murder charges, and the RUF leadership had tried everything from a prison break to the threat of warfare to get him released. Acting RUF leader Issa Sessay argued for Sankoh's freedom, claiming that only "Pa Sankoh" could convince his drugged child-soldiers to lay down their weapons and give up their lives of pillage to work odd jobs.

Without Sankoh's help, the disarmament program administered by the U.N. Mission in Sierra Leone had taken weapons away from 47,000 soldiers by January, from both RUF and their indigenous-militia enemies, the Kamajors. Twenty-five thousand weapons were destroyed, and the war was declared over. But the months between then and the May elections represented a dangerous vacuum of idleness and uncertainty: A U.N.-administered reintegration program, which sought to teach former fighters skills such as masonry and carpentry, was $7 million short. Most of those who'd been disarmed were left to kick around the country with nothing to do-an unstable population that the RUF could quickly rally to take up arms if they decided to scuttle the peace process.

There was no lack of excuses for the RUF to choose this course. The United Nations and the Sierra Leone government weren't budging on the issue of releasing Sankoh (and, in fact, had barred him from being a candidate because he wasn't registered to vote). Adding insult to this injury, from the RUF's perspective, was the U.N. Special Court for Sierra Leone. A hybrid war crimes tribunal that blends local and international laws, the Special Court was given an especially lean budget-$60 million for three years-meaning that prosecutors would not have the luxury of chasing the conflict's "little fish," as they had in Bosnia. They'd have to strike at the main players-and the likely first candidate for prosecution is Sankoh.

There were other problems for the RUFP leading up to the elections. The organization that for years had funded its warfare with diamond sales was practically broke. The party's leaders asked the United Nations to establish a political trust fund in its name, a provision of the Lome accords. Even though that agreement was defunct, U.N. officials astutely agreed to do so. A refusal would have risked the RUF turning its back on the elections. The rebels hustled an unknown candidate named Pallo Bangura onto the ballot. His platform consisted of a single plank: that he knew nothing of the RUF's decade of human rights violations.

In what he refers to as his "other life," Johnny Paul "J.P" Koroma and the mutinous former army soldiers of his Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) sacked Freetown along with the RUF . On May 25, 1997, the two groups combined forces to overrun the capital and send recently elected President Kabbah into exile in neighboring Guinea. The coup was the bloody end of a peace deal signed between Kabbah and the RUF, and seemed to be conducted as much against the city's civilian population as against the freely elected government. Bodies rotted in the streets and rolled in the surf of Freetown's white-sand beaches. Fighters high on marijuana and dressed in women's wigs stolen from downtown stores chased Nigerian peacekeepers serving ECOMOG-a regional security force-to the beach district, and then slaughtered them. ECOMOG responded by using jet fighters and artillery to shoot at civilian targets in the city.

Like the RUF and its leaders, Koroma was interested in stuffing his pockets with diamonds. In exchange for aiding in the RUF's capture of Freetown, Koroma was given a cut of the goods-but he was unhappy with his percentage. When ECOMOG finally reclaimed Freetown months later, Koroma was evacuated with the help of the RUF. As they were helping him flee into Liberia, they discovered a large cache of rebel diamonds in his pockets-which they seized. He crossed the border at gunpoint, told never to return.

Hated by both the RUF and the government, it's somewhat astonishing that Koroma reappeared in Freetown last year. Gone from his side was "Hiroshima Bomb," Koroma's skirt-and-bowler-clad bodyguard who liked to wear necklaces made of machine-gun bullets. In his place were more subdued-looking security guards, wearing suits and sunglasses. Koroma claimed to have found God and believed he was the one person who could heal Sierra Leone.

Then there was Kabbah, who had been elected president the last time Sierra Leone voted in 1996. He too had his flaws. While exiled to Guinea, he'd attempted to evade U.N. sanctions on weapons sales to Sierra Leone, using diamond-mining concessions to bargain with a British-based mercenary corporation for 35 tons of Bulgarian weapons. And once reinstated in March 1998, he embarked on a paranoid roundup of suspected coup plotters. Nevertheless, given the rest of the contenders-who also included five other little-known candidates from established mainstream parties-Kabbah represented the country's best hope. Not only was he clearly favored by voters, but he had the support of U.N. administrators and foreign leaders.

The final ingredient in the elections was the voters. In an amazing display of courage and resilience, 2.27 million people out of an estimated population of 5 million were registered to vote just five months after the end of the war. With tens of thousands of refugees still stranded in neighboring countries and many upcountry villages and towns utterly destroyed, the figure astonished seasoned U.N. election monitors.

Kabbah won in a landslide, taking 70 percent of the vote. Koroma came in a distant third, with just 6 percent. The RUFP vote collapsed throughout the country, not even winning enough to be statistically significant. Blame for the RUFP's sad showing was put on infighting, disorganization and lack of money. But the voters clearly rejected the party's claim that it was acting in the best interest of the citizens it had terrorized and murdered.

It's too soon to say if the fate of the RUF and the RUFP was decided at the ballot box, but signs are pointing in that direction. Sankoh remains in jail. Bangura officially conceded defeat a week after the ballots were finally counted and certified. In the eastern RUF stronghold of Kailahun, commanders handed over a slew of communications equipment, stating they no longer needed "items of war." High-ranking RUFP members are jumping to other parties.

The critical question now is what President Kabbah will do with his victory. Diamond-mining is once again in the hands of the government. But without a good-faith effort to spread the wealth beyond Freetown and into the provinces-which face years of postwar rebuilding-the feelings of disenfranchisement will surface anew. Kabbah must display the courage and resilience of those who returned him to office if the peace so fleetingly tasted in the past six months is to hold.

A U.N. monitor told reporters it was "nothing short of a miracle" that the election was conducted without violence. More astonishing still is the fact that, although thousands were mutilated or killed for daring to show up during the last election, some 80 percent of those registered cast a ballot. Like others without hands, Ismael Dalramy marked a ballot with his toe. G


Greg Campbell is a freelance journalist and author of Blood Diamonds: Tracing the Deadly Path of the World's Most Precious Stones, to be released in September. He spent two months in Sierra Leone in late 2001. Campbell lives in Colorado.

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