Freetown emerges from the shadow of death

Click to follow
Life is returning to normal in the Sierra Leone capital, says Ed McLoughlin in Freetown

With its easy-going Creole culture and pleasantly seedy, balcony- lined streets, Freetown has long been known as the New Orleans of Africa. Now, following the flight of Major Johnny Paul Koroma and his street gang junta, it feels like New Orleans during Mardi Gras.

A week after the first Nigerian peace-keeping troops fought their way into the town centre something approaching normal life has returned to the chaotic streets of Sierra Leone's capital. Colourfully dressed women haggle on the pavements over cloths spread with lollipops, razor blades or rice, while a scattering of watchful pale faces marks the return of the first Lebanese traders after eight months in exile.

Only the unusually low number of cars and the occasional heat of burnt rubble testify to the nightmare which Freetown has lived since Koroma and his fellow junior officers seized power from elected President Ahmad Kabbah in May last year. The cars were mostly stolen early on, while the houses were burnt more recently, destroyed by vindictive junta fighters after the Nigerians began advancing on Freetown two weeks ago.

"They just went around attacking people and burning houses," said Henry Conteh, a Freetown businessman. "They said if the AFRC [Armed Forces Ruling Council] can't have Freetown then nobody's going to have Freetown."

Conteh was hitching near a Nigerian checkpoint on Main Motor Road: although once prosperous, he too lost his car to the junta fighters.

The general looting of vehicles had ruined his business selling spares. But, he admitted, he felt great. "I am so pleased this thing is over. For so long now we have lived in the valley of the shadow of death." One of the few remaining embassy officials in town put it another way: "People are so glad these days, you know what they are all saying? They are saying to each other happy new year. Happy new year and a Merry Christmas."

There have been bloodier regimes in Africa than Koroma's eight-month- old military junta, but few, if any, have touched it for naked cynicism and greed. Having ousted President Kabbah less than a year after his election, Koroma and his cohorts let it be known that, like an earlier junta of junior officers led by Captain Valentine Strasser, who all did well out of a palace coup in 1992, they felt entitled to enrich themselves for a while at the expense of their already-beggared country.

Sierra Leone's internationally respected ambassador to the UN tried to negotiate with the junta shortly after the coup and emerged, dismayed, to tell journalists that the soldiers' main demand seemed to be a large sum of money - later reported to be pounds 30m.

"And," he added, "they want 18 months in office to loot further. That is all they want to do. It is just shameful."

Even more shocking to many was the merger between Sierra Leone's army and the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF) announced shortly after the coup. This confirmed what many ordinary people had long been alleging: that the bloody civil war which had killed over 20,000 people (nearly all civilians) since 1991 and displaced a third of the 4.5 million population had all along been conducted at the combatants' mutual convenience, to give both sets of gunmen an opportunity to pillage to their hearts' content.

"We saw them all going around Freetown, stealing and killing and raping women," said Abduli Bah, once a favourite driver for visiting journalists, now bereft without his (stolen) car. "We saw that there was no difference between the RUF and the Sierra Leone army. The only thing was that amongst themselves the RUF maybe had more discipline."

Nigeria's supposedly spontaneous liberation of the embargoed city, officially sparked off by a minor clash at the nearby air-strip of Hastings two weeks ago, was met by cheering crowds. A week later groups of children are still cheering at passing military convoys.

The main route of advance from the Nigerian enclave at Hastings shows signs of only the lightest combat. Colonel Maxwell Khobe, commander of the Freetown brigade of Ecomog, a Nigerian-dominated multi-national West African peacekeeping force in Liberia and Sierra Leone, said that the RUF and Sierra Leone Army had proved unwilling to resist organised opposition.

"The rebels didn't fight even when they were better armed and in better bunkers," he told The Independent yesterday. "We are now moving to clear them out of the countryside."

Despite reports of renewed rebel raids in the central regions around Bo and Kenema the Nigerians say they can finish "mopping up" soon. Several senior junta leaders have already fallen into Ecomog hands and are being held in Freetown until President Kabbah returns to office, possibly some time next week. Koroma himself remains at large, however. According to Colonel Khobe, he was last heard of on Thursday when he unsuccessfully tried to fly from a northern air-strip into neighbouring Liberia.

At least 200 people are believed to have died in the fighting in Freetown alone, although some of these were junta fighters or sympathisers caught and lynched by townspeople. Several hundred more surrendered or were captured.

For the Nigerian officers involved in planning and executing "Opera Sand Storm" last week the public welcome must have come as a pleasant change. Feared and disliked at home as agents of General Sani Abacha's repressive military government, Nigeria's soldiers are banned from travelling in most Western countries, including Britain. The November 1995 execution of dissident writer Ken Saro-Wiwa shocked the international community into imposing limited sanctions against Nigeria.

But the people of Freetown, delighted to be rid of Koroma and his gun- toting thugs, are not inclined to look too hard at their liberators' credentials.