Fred Marafono: Soldier who served in the SAS and fought the rebels in Sierra Leone

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The Independent Online

Fred Marafono, SAS Squadron Sergeant Major and lion-hearted warrior, spent almost his entire adult life practising his superb military skills. He had the distinction of being selected for the best three times over: in 1964 he was one of the first Fijians to pass selection for the SAS; after extensive service, in 1985 he was asked by David Stirling, founder of the Special Air Service, to join the private security company he was starting up; and in 1995 he was recruited by Simon Mann for the élite South African private combat company, Executive Outcomes, to fight against rebel forces in Sierra Leone's vicious blood diamond wars.

In Sierra Leone he formed a lasting bonding with Chief Sam Hinga Norman, a champion of democracy. Marafono had an impressively versatile record in the country's drawn-out wars. He progressed from ground force commander to gunner in a support helicopter; and astonishingly, only three months short of his seventh decade of life, he was in a helicopter gunship supporting the SAS in their daring raid Operation Barras.

After learning the ropes in David Stirling's company he had a spell doing security work in the mining industry in Guyana, and this led in 1994 to his going to Sierra Leone with the company Golden Star Resources. A military government was in power at the time and unable to subdue a rebel grouping, the Revolutionary United Front, who were well armed on the proceeds of illicit diamond mining. Freetown was in danger of being surrounded, and in desperation the government brought in the experienced Executive Outcomes to do what it could not do, defeat the rebels in the field.

Marafono was made a ground force commander. The commander of Executive Outcomes' operations was Colonel Roelf van Heerden, who said, "Fred showed to me that he has no fear, and I had to ask him to take it slowly, as he was then very much older than my average guy." Simon Mann wrote to Marafono, "All reports are that you have done a great job, as I knew you would, and are the man for that job."

The rebels were forced into the bush, with conditions stable enough for the election of a democratic government. But after Executive Outcomes left the country a coup took place and the rebels regrouped, joining dissident army elements. With the president-in-exile, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, Chief Hinga Norman set up a civil defence force of warriors from different tribes. At a crucial first meeting with their chiefs, he introduced him, saying, "Fred is not a friend, Fred is a brother."

External support came from a regional military force led by Nigeria, landing at Lungi airport, and securing it. But they lacked logistical support to wage operations. Marafono joined two other former members of Executive Outcomes and crewed the helicopter that provided a vital air bridge with supplies and manpower from Liberia to the regional military group and the local warriors.

Day in, day out for months three men in a helicopter were the rebels' prime target. They took different routes, followed the course of rivers below tree-top height. Then, late in the day, the sun low in the sky, they would return to Liberia, relaxed, as Marafono said, "each with his own god." Britain then finally committed the SAS and the Parachute Regiment, storming the rebel West Side Boys' stronghold in Operation Barras; and Marafono, three months short of his sixtieth birthday, was overhead in a gunship manning the four-barrel Gatling gun. That raid ended the rebel wars.

Fred Marafono was born on the Fijian island of Rotuma. His father had served in the British army in Burma during the Second World War. Fred's early ambition was to study veterinary science, in Fiji and then college in Australia. But when the British army arrived on a recruiting drive, without telling his parents, he signed up.

Marafono earned no fortune fighting in Sierra Leone's blood diamond wars, but something more valuable: the respect of all who knew him. Colonel van Heerden said, "I will always remember him for what he stood for. He walked with pride." He had great integrity, and he was an emotional man, close to tears when talking of Chief Hinga Norman, who was indicted – unjustly, Marafono thought – for war crimes after the conflicts in Sierra Leone.

His commitment to his calling came at the cost of family life, and he never really retired. In 2011, he co-authored From SAS to Blood Diamond Wars, an account of those years. Then he was back on private security work in Central America, and fitted into his leave a talk in London to veterans of the Parachute Regiment, and most recently, at their training centre, to the West Yorkshire Police.

Kauata "Fred" Marafono, soldier: born Rotuma, Fiji 13 December 1940; MBE 1983; twice married (marriages dissolved; three sons, one daughter); died 27 March 2013.