Return of the rebels

The war in Sierra Leone has claimed 50,000 lives and ruined countless others. So why is the leader whose forces have torn the country apart being returned to power? And why is the British Government backing the deal?

Mariatu Kamara is 13 years old, and a farmer's daughter. Three- and-a-half months ago she was raped, and now she is pregnant. When her child is born, she will not be able to hold it. She does not have hands with which to beg for food, let alone feed herself. After the crazed teenager who came to her village had raped her, his rebel friends hacked off her hands with a machete.

Foday Sankoh is the rebels' leader. It was he who orchestrated the random brutality that has left some 10,000 people in Sierra Leone limbless - or "useless", as they say here. Tens of thousands more are dead, half a million homeless, after the insurrection that for 10 years has torn the country apart. Now it seems that Sankoh's reward for destroying this emerging West African democracy is an amnesty and a place in government - under a peace deal signed in Togo on 7 July that Britain, the former colonial power, is actively promoting.

The lost eyes in Mariatu's childish face are as eloquent a testimony to the horror she has experienced as the stumps resting on her tummy. All around her in the amputees' camp in Freetown, Sierra Leone's capital, maimed adults are in despair at the debased peace to which they are now being forced to submit.

But Mariatu knows only that a blur of tears washed over her life the morning that she and her 14-year-old sister, Adamasay, walked back to Magboru, their village near Port Loko, after searching for fruit in the bush. "We could see the rebels were there, so we ran away," she remembers. "But another group found us. They said they were Ecomog [mostly Nigerian peacekeepers], so we thought we were safe. They tied our hands behind our backs and led us to Magboru."

As a friend lifts Mariatu on to a fence to sit, Adamasay, who also has no hands, continues the story: "In the village, which had eight houses, there was shouting and screaming all day. The rebels wanted food. They shot many men. They forced the women and the old people into the huts, then burnt them down. For some reason they chose two men and the two of us to watch it all. We thought we were going to be taken away by them as prisoners.

"But they changed their minds. In the afternoon, after they had put a black powder in our mouths which made us light-headed, they led the two men and me to the cotton tree. This is where they cut our hands, against the trunk. No water came from my eyes [I did not cry] when they cut my hands."

It was getting dark and Adamasay could not see her sister any more. Her own left hand had been completely severed. Her right hand hung by the skin on her arm. She ran away.

Meanwhile, Mariatu was being raped. "He was a young boy, a little older than me," she recalls. "I knew that he was going to use me when he pulled off my wrap and pushed me on to the ground. Afterwards he called his friends and they cut my hands off. By then, there was no one left in the village. I walked to Port Loko. Some Ecomog soldiers felt sympathy for me and they brought me to Freetown [35 miles away]."

Mariatu was at last reunited with members of her family as they arrived at Murray Town amputee camp in the west end of Freetown at the beginning of May. Adamasay was brought in by a Ghanaian Ecomog contingent whose medics had removed her dangling right hand and bandaged her stumps. The girls' parents, Mariatu and Ali, and their eldest sister, 17-year-old Kadiatu, arrived too, unharmed. But their elder brother, Santigie, has disappeared entirely.

Here, in a tarpaulin city built with the help of foreign aid workers, they can start to rebuild their lives. But looking into the future is as painful as remembering the past. Their village has been burnt down. Subsistence farming does not allow the time or the resources to look after those who cannot fend for themselves. Mariatu will have her baby without taking an HIV test - because, as the adults around her insist, "in Africa, you never know which new child is going to become a president".

And now, to add to the anguish, Mariatu and Adamasay and the hundreds of thousands like them whose lives have been devastated by the conflict are being asked simply to forgive their tormentors. Under the terms of the new peace deal, Sierra Leone - which is the size of Scotland and has four million people - will keep the democratically elected Ahmed Tejan Kabbah on as president, in an extraordinary, forced cohabitation with Sankoh's Revolutionary United Front (RUF). Kabbah, a respected former United Nations official, was elected by the people in March 1996. The slogan then was "the future is in your hands" - which is why Sankoh's men cut them off. "Go and ask Tejan Kabbah for a hand," the rebels screamed at the amputees.

The RUF and its allies - Liberian bush fighters, guerrillas from Burkina Faso and other parties interested in Sierra Leone's enormous diamond wealth - have been fighting the central government for almost 10 years. Successive administrations have ignored rural needs, creating a disenfranchised generation from which the RUF has recruited its rebel force, including children as young as eight, and trained them into ruthlessness.

Now greed has beaten democracy and, in the new deal, Sankoh has obtained an assurance of amnesty for rebel war crimes, and the cancellation of his own death sentence. The RUF was awarded four cabinet posts, four deputy ministries and the vice-presidency of a newly formed National Commission for Reconstruction and Natural Resources, which will control the country's $250m diamond business.

Britain, which left Sierra Leone in 1961, has backed Kabbah for years, believing - naively perhaps - that democracy could prevail in the country. In 1997, the Sandline scandal came to light after it was revealed that British mercenaries had organised a 35-tonne arms shipment to forces loyal to Kabbah, in breach of an international embargo. Today, we still support Kabbah, and have spent about pounds 30m on Sierra Leone and Ecomog since he was restored to power after a coup in April 1998.

This week British troops arrived in Freetown, with a brief to turn RUF fighters into a respectable national army. UN military observers are arriving, too; they are expected to oversee the disarmament of the rebels and the Kamajors, loyal to Kabbah's government. There is even abstract talk of a truth commission, similar to South Africa's.

But human rights groups and even UN officials are fiercely critical of the amnesty that has been granted to Sankoh and his fighters, arguing that the situation here is very different from the one in South Africa. And Human Rights Watch, which has described the atrocities in Sierra Leone as "the worst we have seen anywhere in the world", has cited Rwanda and the former Republic of Yugoslavia as examples of the "terrible consequences of access to power by those who have committed gross violations of human rights".

Meanwhile, aid agencies are despairing. Nathalie Ernoux, of Action Contre La Faim, one of the few agencies to have travelled inland from Freetown into the RUF-held areas that represent two-thirds of the country, reports widespread malnutrition and even famine. "Two-thirds of the country have nothing," she says. "In Bo, Blama and Kenema we are seeing starving adults. That means that the children have died already. We fully expect, when we have access, to find areas in which there are no survivors under the age of two."

Chaos prevails. Sankoh's entourage is currently shuttling between Freetown and Liberia, but no one is sure when Sankoh himself will return. He is believed to be in the Cote d'Ivoire capital, Abidjan, and has twice in the last two weeks failed to turn up in Freetown, clearly because he fears for his safety once he is in the capital. The RUF is reported still to be holding 2,000 prisoners, as well as the thousands more, including child soldiers and porters, who were forced into their ranks.

A few Sierra Leoneans do believe in the idea of peace at any price. They hope that the Togo deal will not perpetuate a cycle of injustice and impunity, and are willing to discount the likelihood that giving power to those responsible for atrocities will incite other rebels to try their luck. "If Sankoh stood in an election today, he would probably win because people would be so scared of the trouble starting up again," said one man I spoke to.

It is clear that Britain and other members of the international community - whose coffers are certainly not bulging after the war in Kosovo - want the power-sharing compromise between democrat and brute to work. They argue that with the RUF controlling most of the country, including its mineral areas, and with Nigeria unwilling to spend any more on peacekeeping, there was no choice. (In fact, there was - a large deployment of international peace forces and a war crimes tribunal - but that would have been expensive.)

Meanwhile, back at Murray Town amputee camp, Abdul Sankoh, the 27-year- old in the next tent to Mariatu and Adamsay, sees no future. A primary school teacher from Masiaka, 47 miles north of Freetown, he also has no hands, and a huge scar around his disfigured mouth. "When they had cut off my hands I screamed, `Please kill me'. So they cut my mouth off. `That's what you get for talking,' they said.

"I have a wife and two children, and I am a useless man now. Kabbah and Sankoh made a deal for themselves, to share the foreign aid and the diamonds. They are not my government. If I met the man who did this to me, I would not kill him. Without hands, I cannot. I would just ask him to finish me off."

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