'Sierra Leone is like a tinderbox. It will only take one spark'

It should have been a success story. But four years after Tony Blair hailed Britain's role in ending a brutal civil war, this small country is back on the brink
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The Independent Online

Sweat drips off the ceiling of a seedy Freetown nightclub. The neon strip lighting illuminates a crowded dance floor where beautiful young Sierra Leoneon women gyrate against the pot bellies of middle-aged white men. A former British paratrooper propping up the bar drunkenly boasts he has just closed a mining deal worth hundreds of millions of dollars by beating up a local chief, putting a gun to his head and threatening to shoot if he doesn't sign the document.

Outside, 19-year-old Joseph hops towards new arrivals, one hand clutching a series of bead necklaces to sell, the other holding a crutch. The stump that was his left leg before it was chopped off with a blunt machete barely pokes out from below his shorts. He rarely makes enough money to feed himself, let alone his 15-year-old sister.

Sierra Leone was supposed to be a "nation-building" success story. The intervention of British troops in May 2000 brought an end to a bloody civil war that saw up to 500,000 people - one tenth of the population - murdered, maimed or raped. It was one of Tony Blair's first military campaigns, and one that was widely seen as having a positive effect.

Within six months of British paratroopers and special forces arriving in Freetown, the rebel groups had agreed to a ceasefire.

Mr Blair's connection to Sierra Leone was personal. On a triumphant visit to Freetown in 2002, Mr Blair recalled how his father had once taught Freetown's university. "And I remember him telling me what a wonderful country it was and how warm and friendly the people were," he told cheering crowds. Posters greeting him read: "We welcome you excellency the peace maker, we love and respect you, trust and support you." Elections were held, a truth and reconciliation commission established, and thousands of child soldiers who had fought in the notorious "Small Boys Unit" were disarmed.

A special UN tribunal was set up to try the ringleaders, and Charles Taylor, the one-time warlord held responsible for many of the indiscriminate killings, amputations and rapes that typified Sierra Leone's civil war, is now behind bars, awaiting trial at the International Criminal Court in the Hague.

Mr Blair praised the country's progress. "I'll always remember driving through the villages near Freetown in Sierra Leone seeing the people rejoicing - many of them amputees through the brutality from which they had been liberated - and their joy at being free to debate, argue and vote as they wished," he said.

But four years after Sierra Leone's President, Ahmad Kabbah, declared the civil war over, this small country of five million people on the west African coast is no success. It remains the second poorest country in the world, a place where more children die before they reach the age of five than anywhere else. Much of the capital, Freetown, has been without electricity for two years, and without a proper water supply for even longer.

Angry and disillusioned young men sit in the shade drinking ataya, a mild stimulant spiced with gunpowder. They talk of feeling let down by their government, of missing out on education and jobs. And some, with a look of nostalgia in their eyes, talk almost fondly of the "good old days", when they roamed Sierra Leone's lush countryside armed to the teeth and high on drugs, chopping off limbs and raping women and girls for fun.

"We are on the edge," said Abdul, a young electrical appliances importer living in Freetown who did not want to give his last name for fear of retribution. "This country is like a tinder box, it will only take one spark."

It was a view echoed three hours' drive away in the Port Loko district in the north. Dr Victor Matt-Lebby, who trained at Leeds University but came back to help rebuild his country, said: "Before the war there was a lot of disenchantment among young people. They were just sitting around idly. It was a time-bomb waiting to go off. Now the same thing is happening again. If the youth problem is not addressed this place will go up in flames in the twinkle of an eye." Dr Matt-Lebby's wife went into labour when fighting broke out in Freetown in 1997. Unable to get to a hospital, their baby daughter died after six hours.

The next six months could be crucial. Elections are due to be held in June and the governing Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP) is widely expected to win comfortably. By law, President Kabbah has to step down, so his number two, Vice-President Solomon Berewa, will be the SLPP's candidate. But in a country where coups have been more frequent than democratic elections, there is an air of uneasiness when talk turns to the poll.

The possibility of a coup was raised in newspapers last week when a young army private, Abdul Sesay, was arrested following the theft of an arms cache. Sesay, somehow, later escaped.

The trial of Sam Hinga Norman, one of the nine men facing justice at the UN Special Court in Freetown, could also prove explosive. To some, Norman is a hero. He was responsible for the Kamajor, a militia defence force that fought the rebels. Norman was the country's deputy defence minister. His boss, President Kabbah, has not been indicted. Prosecutors insist there was not enough evidence linking him with any of the atrocities carried out by the Kamajor. The summing up in Norman's case takes place tomorrow and the verdict is likely before the elections. Norman still has supporters in Freetown and a guilty verdict may bring them out on to the streets.

Those who are able to leave Freetown are beginning to pack their bags. One businessman who has lived in Sierra Leone all his life said the combination of official corruption and the fear of unrest meant it was no longer worth staying in the country of his birth. Such was his dread of reprisals that he refused to give even his first name.

"It is sad that it has come to this," he said, "but things are worse now than they were before the war. The economy has got worse for us, not better. It is just not safe to work here any more. My family has already left and I will not be far behind them."

For the majority of Freetown's one million-strong population, leaving is not an option. Instead they will try to scratch a living in Freetown's bustling markets. Under large yellow, green, red and blue umbrellas women sell peanuts and dried fish, loaves of bread and roughly peeled oranges. Paintbrushes sit next to a tower of engine parts. Cow skins are sold next to a man with half a dozen mobile phone chargers. But the vast majority of traders are women. The men tend to spend their days sitting in groups watching the world go by.

At night, Freetown's clubs are filled with expats and locals. Prostitutes sit at the bar, occasionally venturing on to the dance floor when a suitable target appears. A former British soldier who returned to Sierra Leone moans about the country he has made home. "I've got to get out. It's terrible here." He takes another slug of Star, a local brew. "The money is great though." He will admit only to doing "this and that, you know, mining".

Mining, and in particular diamonds, is Sierra Leone's biggest industry. Reliable figures for diamond exports are hard to find, but following the end of the war the country joined the Kimberley Process, the globally recognised system of regulation that is supposed to ensure that so-called "blood diamonds", which have fuelled so many of west Africa's conflicts, are not smuggled out illegally. Local diamond experts claim exports are starting to fall again, signalling a revival in smuggling across Sierra Leone's porous borders.

Diamonds alone, though, will not see conflict return. The last war was not just about control of resources. The long-standing one-party state fell apart, the education system collapsed and agricultural output fell dramatically. Radicalised young men, angry at the lack of opportunities, became easy prey for rebel leaders such as Taylor who persuaded them to take up arms.

Much of the killing was carried out by children who were abducted and forced to fight. Some of them have been given a fresh start, and they are determined to make the most of it.

Saidu Sesay, tape measure hanging around his neck, is training to become a tailor. He boasts he will be able to make 60,000 Leones (£10.50) a day once he sets up his business. His teacher at the rehabilitation centre for child soldiers outside Freetown reckons £1.50 is a more likely figure. There are 150 children here, all of whom were turned away by their communities after the war.

Saidu, now 18, was eight years old when he was abducted by the RUF. "I was given a gun and made to fight," he said simply. "One commander told me if I didn't fight he would kill me." For more than three years he fought alongside 160 other boys. Even at the age of eight, Saidu amputated his victims.

"That happened, that happened," he said. "I was not proud but I did it. I was shooting people, bombing houses. That happened. Now I pray to Almighty God that I will not do it again."

He is unlikely to. Saidu has had opportunities that many of his former colleagues can only dream of. For most one-time child soldiers, disarmament programmes did little for them. In a country where the education system collapsed long ago, opportunities are all too rare.

But the disarmament programme has also caused resentment. Victims of violence have not received reparations, while the perpetrators, in many eyes, have been rewarded for their actions. Both live side by side. Some amputees talk of revenge. "I see the people who did this to me," said Joseph, pointing to his left stump. "Why has nothing happened to them?''

For some, though, there is still hope. A massive programme to vaccinate all under-fives against measles and to provide them with a free mosquito net to prevent malaria is underway. Nearly one million bednets, sprayed with insecticide, have been handed out by the ministry of health and the Sierra Leone Red Cross. More than 4,000 volunteers have been trained to help mothers protect their children from malaria, a disease that kills more people in Africa than HIV/Aids.

"Our generation can change things," said Mariama Kemoh, a 25-year-old trainee nurse, who was administering vitamin A drops for babies. "Life is not easy here. There is no magic wand. But is up to our efforts. One day things will change for us. I believe that strongly."

Sierra Leone: the statistics

Population: 5.3 million (UN, 2005)

Capital: Freetown

Area: 27,699 square miles

President: Ahmad Tejan Kabbah

Major languages: English, Krio (Creole language derived from English) and a range of African languages

Major religions: Islam, indigenous beliefs, Christianity

History: The name Sierra Leone comes from the Portuguese name for the country, Serra Leoa, which means "Lioness Mountain". A centre of the slave trade in the 18th century, the capital Freetown was founded in 1792 by the Sierra Leone Company as a home for black Britons who had fought for the British during the American war of independence. Freetown became a British crown colony in 1808 and Sierra Leone gained independence in 1961

Life expectancy: 39 years (men), 42 years (women) (UN)

Monetary unit: Leone (1 = $1)

Main exports: Diamonds, rutile (titanium dioxide, used in paints, plastics and as gemstones), cocoa, coffee, fish

GNI per capita: $220

Climate: Tropical. The summer rainy season runs from May until December

Terrain: Coastal belt of mangrove swamps; wooded hill country; upland plateau; mountains in the east

Natural resources: Diamonds, beryl, titanium ore, bauxite, gold, chromite

Natural hazards: Harmattan dust storms from the Sahara

Billy Head