This is a nation of husbands who have seen their wives executed and their children's hands chopped off

Alex Duval Smith, one of the few journalists in Sierra Leone since Freetown was invaded, hears the tales of horror from the victims of a senseless war

SPENT CARTRIDGES litter the entrance to Freetown's Connaught Hospital. They make a clinking sound as you walk. Inside, bodies litter the floor. Alive, or dying from machete or bullet wounds, the bodies groan.

Children call out "mamma" and women plead "sister" - the sight of a white woman denotes hope. And as I hold my pen to my notebook and look into a pair of pleading eyes, I realise that it is not a hand that is being held up to me, but a bloody bandaged stump on the end of a newly mutilated arm.

They arrived here by the truckload in the early hours of yesterday - children and women, mostly, from the poor districts of eastern Freetown. They are the victims of retreating killers in a country that is high on the adrenalin of violence.

The Nigerian-led intervention force, Ecomog, has just retaken most of the capital city from the Revolutionary United Front rebels, who are fighting to remove the democratic government of President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah.

The rebels - they are known as such but are merely a ragbag of poisoned men - have been mutilating Sierra Leonean peasants for 18 months. But never until now have the citizens in Freetown been given the "long or short-sleeve" treatment - the choice of where your arm will be severed. The RUF knows only how to destroy, so as it flees it destroys whatever it can.

Andrew Caulker, aged 29, from Wellington, eastern Freetown, lies on one of the Connaught's rare hospital tables, his head bandaged. "I am a Jehovah's Witness, perhaps that is why they put a machete in my head and my arm," he said.

No one here understands what - apart from drugs and depravity - motivates the killers, many of them said to be children, to butcher their victims.

Mohammed Fofana, from Kissy, eastern Freetown, arrived with his four- year-old son, Abdul. "They came the day before yesterday. They killed my wife, Masiril Jabbie, by shooting her in the head and they shot Abdul in the thigh.

"Later they came back and burnt the house down. They said it was because we were supporters of Ecomog. I do not support anyone. I just want to save my life," said Mr Fofana.

Troops from Ecomog - the 15,000-strong West African intervention force - were bringing in injured people by the truckload yesterday, as they secured pockets of eastern Freetown. Major Kaya Tanko, heading the Ecomog strike force, said: "We have secured 50 per cent of the eastern end of the city but our problem is the hills above Kissy. The rebels are hiding there. They come down at night to attack civilians and loot and burn their homes."

The Connaught Hospital yesterday received medical supplies - thought to be from a 3.3 tonne shipment from Britain - including saline drips, antibiotics and bandages.

Dr Jibao Sandy - one of 20 physicians treating the thousands of injured - said: "We need more of everything. We also need doctors. We are doing bullet extractions on the spot. We do not even have enough antibiotics and bandages. We have not slept for two days.

"For two weeks before that, we worked for the rebels, at gunpoint. When they invaded Freetown on 6 January, they killed all the existing patients to make room for their own injured," said Dr Sandy.

In this sick conflict, the world is standing by, and the Royal Navy frigate HMS Norfolk, moored in Aberdeen Bay, is the most visible example.

The Royal Marines come ashore from time to time to assess what is going on in this diamond-rich former British colony. But they have decided to let Nigeria, aided by white mercenaries and the pro- Kabbah Kamajor militia, "finish the job" of flushing the rebels out of Freetown.

"Normally, in war, you give the enemy an escape route," a Royal Marine commando observed yesterday. "The Nigerians are not doing that," he added with apparent approval.

Today, a transport plane from the Department for International Development is due to arrive in Lungi, north of Freetown, with a cargo of unspecified aid.

What is not needed, despite reports to the contrary, is food. Rice and greens are on sale in the streets of Freetown. Even fish is returning - despite an Ecomog ban imposed due to fears of rebel arms shipments.

What is needed, however, is medicine and surgeons. Most of the world's charities, including the Red Cross and Medecins Sans Frontieres have fallen out with Ecomog after it accused them of lending communications equipment to the rebels. There are no foreign doctors in town and the British shipment of medical supplies appears to have been virtually used up.

Most of all though, Sierra Leone needs the world to remember - for a long time to come - that this is a nation of husbands who have seen their wives executed in front of them and their children's hands chopped off.

Two doors up from the Connaught, the nurses' school has been transformed into a mortuary or, rather, a body dump. It is full - 1,140 bodies had been delivered when the counting stopped four days ago.

Yesterday, by the door - amid an overwhelming stench of butchery - lay the bloated corpse of a headless man whose legs had been gnawed to the bone, presumably by dogs and vultures.

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