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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
Sport
Floyd Mayweather will relinquish his five world titles after beating Manny Pacquiao
boxing
Arts and Entertainment
tvGame of Thrones season 5 ep 4, review - WARNING: contains major spoiliers!
News
Tottenham legend Jimmy Greaves has defended fans use of the word 'Yid'
people
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
The Ridiculous Six has been produced by Adam Sandler, who also stars in it
filmNew controversy after nine Native American actors walked off set
Life and Style
Google celebrates Bartolomeo Cristofori's 360th birthday
techGoogle Doodle to the rescue
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living