The saviour returns to Sierra Leone

General Sir David Richards was so appalled by the violence he witnessed in Freetown 10 years ago that he resolved to drive out rebel forces with or without Tony Blair's backing. Kim Sengupta joins him as he revisits the scene of his greatest triumph

As Brigadier David Richards approached Freetown across Man O'War Bay, the water seemed to be full of logs. It was only when the dinghy got closer that he realised they were bodies, and that many of them were children. Beyond the floating corpses lay the smouldering capital of Sierra Leone. When he stepped ashore, he witnessed terrified refugees streaming into the destroyed streets, blood-stained hospital corridors packed with the injured, and more and more dead bodies, victims of the rebel attack codenamed "Operation No Living Thing", which was edging ever closer to the capital. But perhaps the most shocking sight of all was the amputees: young and old, their limbs hacked off with machetes, they were the grisly totem of this particularly savage civil war, fuelled by the lust for "blood diamonds".

Brigadier Richards decided that he could not abandon this society. He would have to return with troops and fight a war. He knew that that his government back in London was unlikely to be in favour of this, which meant he would have to disobey orders. Ten years later, the military man – now General Sir David Richards and head of the British Army – this week returned to Sierra Leone. "It is the best thing I have ever done in the British Army," he said, standing beside the jetty where he had first landed. "I have no regrets, none at all. You can't look at a little kid with his hand chopped off and just walk away. You have to sometimes make this choice, do what you think is right, even if people above you don't approve."

A decade later, Sierra Leone remains one of the poorest countries in the world, ranking only above desert Niger in the UN Human Development index. The mortality rate for mothers at childbirth – one in eight – is the highest in Africa; and the chorus of complaint about corruption grows ever louder. But it is at peace. For that, the people of this West African nation are grateful, and they acknowledge the part played by Britain – and Gen Richards. "Welcome home, Sir. It's been a long time – too long," said Abdullah Fahi, a man working on the jetty.

Another man, Bai Koroma, hobbled over on his crutches and hugged the British officer, whom he had last met when semi-paralysed after the tendons of both his legs had been severed by a drunken militiaman. Gen Richards' return a decade later was a surprise to Mr Koroma – he had simply been waiting for a ferry when the British party arrived. "He helped me set up my business," Mr Koroma explained, pointing at a basket of trinkets. "Life is not easy, but we have a chance now, at least we are not afraid every day as we were at the time. I lost members of my family, my friends; too many, too many."

When he arrived in 2000, the war had been going on for nine years. Gen Richards had a force of 800 waiting on ships just off-shore. The strict instructions from the government were to use the troops to evacuate British nationals and then leave – preferably within 10 days. Sierra Leone's then President, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, had his bags packed, with a helicopter standing by to whisk him and his family to safety.

But Gen Richards had other ideas. Unescorted, the British officer knocked on the door, and told President Kabbah he would not be needing the aircraft because the rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), who were marauding their way towards the capital, would be defeated. The British officer had decided to use the pretext of the evacuation to organise a fighting coalition to take on the RUF rebels, backed by Charles Taylor, then President of neighbouring Liberia, who wanted control of Africa's most lucrative diamond mines.

Without the consent of the Blair government, Gen Richards promised Mr Kabbah that Britain would supply arms, ammunition and helicopters to Sierra Leonean forces to launch a fight-back against the rebels. "London wanted me to get the British nationals out and then bugger off. But the kind of personnel and weapons you would need to carry out an evacuation in a conflict zone was much the same as a small-scale military operation to push back the rebels," Gen Richards said. "And luckily we were a long way away."

He was economical with what he told Whitehall, but Gen Richards was open with British and UN officials on the ground in Sierra Leone and the media. "I used them," he explained. "I wanted to get the message to Downing Street of what was happening, instead of the sanitised version some officials were producing."

The graphic reporting of atrocities helped swing support for intervention, and also helped Gen Richards get £20m from Clare Short at the Department for International Development for the reconstruction projects which, he believed, were ultimately far more important than military action. But not everyone back in London approved. There were private briefings against Gen Richards, demands that he should be recalled and sacked. A request by President Kabbah that he should be seconded to become the temporary head of the Sierra Leone armed forces and train them was rejected by the Ministry of Defence, without being referred to the Cabinet.

Brigadier Komba Mondeh, an officer in the Sierra Leone army, muses on how the story might have ended. "It worked out for Gen Richards because we won the war," he said. "If it had gone wrong, if a helicopter had gone down with 10 British soldiers killed, then they would have taken him back to Britain in handcuffs, and chopped him off at the knees.."

A stark illustration of what could have gone so wrong came in August 2000, when 11 members of the Royal Irish Regiment were captured by a militia, the West Side Boys, in the hills outside Freetown. They were eventually freed in an SAS-led operation three weeks later, in which one British soldier died. All the Sierra Leone factions involved in the conflict committed abuses, but the RUF rebels and the West Side Boys were particularly savage. The Milton Margai School for the Blind took in some of their victims, children who had had acid poured into their eyes. Gen Richards visited the school at the time of the fighting and he and his family have retained links with the institution. They have raised funds, and one of his daughters, Joanna, has spent time teaching there.

The blind children face an uncertain future after they leave the school. Unemployment is sky-high in Sierra Leone. Zaina, 14, who lives with her mother and six brothers and sisters in a nearby village, knows she will have to help support her family but hasn't quite worked out how. "I wanted to be a religious singer when I grew up. But I don't know how much money that can make. I will have to find another job, but it is not easy if you cannot see. But other people have lost arms, legs, they work, so I cannot give up."

Ten years ago, at an amputee centre in Freetown, I met Lamin Jusu Jarka. "Do you see what I can do?" he asked me, holding up two metal claws where his hands had once been. "They thought by doing this they would make me helpless, but I have learnt to do all kinds of things." Laboriously, and with not a little pride, he produced a bucket and mop and cleaned the floor of the medical clinic. "They thought they would destroy my mind, but I have learnt to write again. Watch." He took a pen, removed the top, wrote a message in a book and signed it.

Mr Jarka had been the chief security guard at the Freetown branch of Barclays Bank when the RUF tried to take his 14-year-old daughter, Hannah. He helped her escape, but paid the price: his hands were forced against a mango tree, and the "Commanding Officer" of the "Cut Hands Brigade", a grinning boy barely in his teens, brought down the axe. Now Mr Jarka runs a market stall in the centre of town, selling household goods. "We have survived – that's the main thing. But we have got problems. There are a lot of kids who are unemployed, they are into drugs and people can take advantage of idle minds. I remember the faces of the RUF who cut me and thinking how young some of them were. They had become infected by hate and that is what we must guard against."

At the height of the war, I also met Kwame Conteh, then 15, who had fled from the control of an RUF commander and trekked 54 miles through the jungle to escape. When the conflict was over, he returned to his village but soon discovered he could not return to his old life. "I was eight years old when I was taken away and 16 when I got back. A lot of bad things had been done to my neighbours and they would not accept me because I had become part of that group. I did not do anything to them, but it is true that I was forced to hurt people and burn their homes," he said. "My parents thought I would be harmed so we moved here – to Freetown." Even in peace, times are tough. "We lost our land, we have very little now," Conteh said. "I don't know what will happen in the future, but nothing can be as bad as the past."

Life and death: The facts

An estimated 50,000 people out of a population of six million died in the civil war, which raged from 1991 to 2002.

Today, the West African nation is still the second-poorest in the world. One in eight mothers dies in childbirth – the highest mortality rate on the continent.

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