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A nation sinks into savagery

Racked by a five-year civil war, Sierra Leone is now the scene of new, barely imaginable outrages, reports David Orr in Bo
Sierra Leone, the setting for one of Africa's most brutal civil wars, has in recent weeks experienced new levels of depravity which have left human rights monitors shaking their heads in disbelief. The atrocities are all the more perplexing in that they have been carried out after the signing of a ceasefire between the recently elected civilian government and the rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF).

The scene for the latest outrages in the five-year old civil war is the district around the central town of Magburaka. In recent raids by RUF guerillas, four pregnant women were brutally raped. Four women who refused the sexual demands of the rebels had their vaginas and rectums sewn up with fishing line. Using needles for the making of rice bags, the guerillas then proceeded to close the rectums of four men. The attackers also clamped padlocks on the mouths of two men and on the vagina of a woman.

The victims are now recovering in the Wilberforce military hospital in the capital, Freetown. What occasioned such degeneracy on the part of the rebels is unclear. Those inhabitants who had their mouths padlocked were accused of revealing RUF positions to the government forces.

"We have documented horrific human rights abuses here", said Tessa Kordeczka of Amnesty International, which has just completed a mission to Sierra Leone. "But what happened at Magburaka defies understanding. These are the most gross atrocities imaginable. There can be no reason for such gratuitous cruelty apart from inspiring terror in the civilian population".

Terror has been the RUF's principal weapon in its struggle to overthrow the government of Sierra Leone, a nation of some four million people which gained its independence from Britain in 1961. Launched in 1991 with backing from Charles Taylor's National Patriotic Front of Liberia, the RUF embarked on a Taylor-style campaign from its bases in eastern Sierra Leone: terrorising communities, looting supplies, taking hostages and attacking mines which are the country's economic lifeblood.

After the overthrow of Major-General Joseph Momoh in 1992, the RUF continued its war against the military government of his usurper, the youthful Captain Valentine Strasser. Despite a pledge to wipe out the RUF, Strasser made little headway against the rebels who by this time last year had advanced to within 25 miles of the capital.

The first intimations of peace came after Strasser was himself overthrown by Brigadier-General Julius Bio in February of this year. Bio promised elections which were held in February and March, and a ceasefire was agreed with the RUF's enigmatic leader, Colonel Foday Sankoh.

An extension to the ceasefire was signed when Sankoh met the newly elected civilian president, Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, in Ivory Coast last month. The two sides agreed to work towards disarmament and demobilisation. While this ceasefire continues to hold, the rebels, who remain in the bush and have yet to lay down arms, persist in looting villages for food and committing atrocities against civilians.

Not surprisingly, many people who have been displaced by the fighting - about one million people, a quarter of the population - are afraid to return to their homes. Frequently, they have no homes to go back to. Travelling north from Bo, Sierra Leone's second town, one passes village after village burned to the ground.

Palewahun, a collection of wattle-and-daub houses by the roadside, was once home to 18 families. But, like many settlements in the area, it was attacked earlier this year and is now deserted, its roofless huts blackened by smoke. More than a dozen people were put to death by the rebels in this village.

"My brother and uncle were killed in Palewahun", says Joseph Lamboi, one of hundreds of local people now encamped in the bush. "The rebels took our seeds so now we have nothing to plant. We live on bush yams and the cassava which we planted last year".

Mr Lamboi and his fellow-villagers have heard of the ceasefire but they do not trust the RUF. They say they will wait for real peace before they start rebuilding their homes. In the meantime, they will have to rely on the groundnuts, seed rice and tools supplied to them by the aid agency, Care.

It is in the villages around Bo that some of the worst atrocities have been committed. Among the thousands of displaced people now living in camps in the town are more than 50 men, women and children who have had limbs hacked off by machete-wielding rebels.

James Eissah had gone in search of food for his family when he fell into RUF hands last December. Having first threatened to kill him, the rebels dragged him into the bush at gunpoint and ordered him to sit down.

"They told me to put my right arm on the ground", says the former trader. "Then they said they were going to give me a message to bring to Bo. They cut off my arm with one stroke and left me".

Originally displaced in 1991 and again early last year, Mr Eissah is now living with his wife and four children in a camp run by the aid agency, Medecins Sans Frontieres. Like the other amputees, he has little chance of finding work in a war-torn country where even the able-bodied are forced to beg in their tens of thousands.

Some of those mutilated by the RUF have had both arms amputated. The youngest victim in the camp is a seven-year old boy whose leg was hacked off.

The RUF is not the first guerrilla movement on the continent to employ horrific methods of intimidation against the civilian population. The Mozambican rebel movement, Renamo, waged a protracted campaign of terror against the populace until the signing of a peace accord with the Mozambican government in 1994.

But the RUF cannot, any more than can Renamo, be considered a classic liberation movement. Despite Sankoh's claims to the contrary, the RUF enjoys little popular support and has no coherent political agenda. However, like Renamo, it has succeeded in bringing the country to its knees and the government to the negotiating table.

Its tactics, if gruesome, achieved the ends of wrecking the economy, creating widespread instability and, in effect, rendering Sierra Leone ungovernable. Until recently, all the interior was unreachable except by helicopter and both sides were parading the severed heads of their foes at roadblocks.

"For some, Sankoh is a sort of Robin Hood figure", says one Western diplomat in Freetown. "He might have no discernible ideology apart from vague utterances about a more equitable distribution of wealth, free health, free education and so on. But he runs a slick operation and has gained a foothold in the poorer parts where people feel life has little future."

Where the RUF goes from here is uncertain. Despite agreeing to a ceasefire, Sankoh refuses to recognise the democratically elected government. So far, there is little evidence that the RUF will make the transition from guerrilla movement to political party. And, until the rebels have laid down their arms, there can be no peace in this blighted land.