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
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
Arts and Entertainment
tvChristmas special reviewed
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald in the Doctor Who Christmas special
tvForget the rumours that Clara Oswald would be quitting the Tardis
Arts and Entertainment
Japanese artist Megumi Igarashi showing a small mascot shaped like a vagina
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: Stanley Tucci, Sophie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvSo Sky Atlantic arrived in Iceland to film their new and supposedly snow-bound series 'Fortitude'...
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen delivers her Christmas message
newsTwitter reacts to Her Majesty's Christmas Message
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

£70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all