Street Life: Freetown: Mercenaries, prostitutes and other hotel guests

WHEN THINGS are really bad - when the power station has been bombed, the telephone exchange has been machine-gunned and half the population has gone into exile - there are still hotel guests.

At the Cape Sierra in Freetown - a flaking concrete complex where you pay a $500 deposit at check-in in case you die before check-out - the only new guests are journalists, mercenaries and prostitutes.

We make an extremely homogeneous professional threesome. Journalists who want to get about quickly travel with prostitutes. The four-wheel- drive vehicle that comes to collect the women servicing Ecomog - the West African intervention force fighting the rebels here - is never stopped at roadblocks.

Journalists who want reliable information get it at the Cape Sierra bar, from the mercenaries. So do the Royal Marines. They fly in periodically from HMS Norfolk for beers with Neil (South African), Fred (Fijian), J- J (French) and Mathieu (French) - all working for Ecomog.

Fred, 58, took seven prostitutes up to his room the other night. There is also a certain amount of business between prostitutes and journalists - the adrenalin of dicing with death seems to make everyone hungry, thirsty and rampant.

Rose Marie, Agence France Presse's energetic reporter, indulged two of those urges a few days ago. After three weeks of prawns with rice - usually the only dish available at the Cape Sierra - she hired Angel, one of the prostitutes, to cook delicious spicy chicken for half a dozen of us. She also sent Mathieu out for some Beaujolais. He flies surveillance missions in the Sierra Leone Air Force's only plane, a clapped-out Partenavia Viator. We think he got the bottles in Conakry, the capital of Guinea, 20 minutes away, but of course he cannot reveal where he went.

The Cape Sierra, on a peninsula bordered by deserted white-sand beaches, which are said to be the best in Africa, also has a few other guests. Nigerian soldiers from Ecomog - extremely young and terribly jittery - sleep on every landing, their FN30 rifles cocked for action. Sleep-walkers beware.

The routine rape, mutilations, abductions, haphazard shooting and people begging for help seem to escape Andrej. Like something that the Cold War left behind, he describes himself as "Russian in theory"; he was born in Belarus but he has not been back for years and cannot see himself ever leaving Sierra Leone.

Andrej owns and occupies the hotel's defunct business centre, a darkened basement room full of state-of-the-art computers, all of them useless in the present climate.

On Sunday, the most amazing thing happened. A man called Jimmy turned up and said he was the hotel's tennis coach. Would I like a game? I declined, not because I did not bring my tennis gear - not even trainers - but because the prospect of playing in Freetown seemed unutterably bizarre.

Later, the sight of Jimmy and Don, the American manager of the hotel, marching off to the court in white shorts and socks filled me with more hope than has any other single sight in the past week. It seemed so normal - like stopping the First World War at tea time.

This is a story that has reduced most of us to tears. There are experienced war correspondents here - from Reuters Television, BBC, Le Figaro and others - but none of us has been immune in the face of sniper fire and the horrible sight of men, women and children whose hands have been cut off by machette-wielding rebels in east Freetown. Most of us knew Myles Tierney, the Associated Press television news producer who was shot dead two weeks ago in an Ecomog convoy.

There is great solace, therefore, in times spent at the bar with the seemingly Teflon- coated mercenaries and their female hangers-on. Last Friday was the second birthday of Fred's daughter, Fi, so he stuck two candles to the bar and shared out a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label.

Any outsider would probably find the sight of us all sad and pathetic. But amid the unbelievable realities of a brutal war such as this, the bar of the Cape Sierra feels like the only place in the world where we can talk about what we have experienced.

There is, of course, much banter. J-J, who is 40, says he is getting too old for this game. Mathieu, on the other hand, is 26 and likes being a mercenary. But in the 10 months he has been working for Ecomog, he has not been paid. "I am going to have to move on. I was paid at the beginning but I'm owed $25,000. Besides, I'm tired of flying a rotten plane."

Fred, known as "the-Fijian" has no doubts. "I used to do this for money but now I do it for Africa. This continent has been fucked up by white men. This whole war is about control of diamonds. Who makes money from diamonds? White men."

When things are really bad, ordinariness itself - like a tennis match or a bottle of wine - seems unreal.

Alex Duval Smith