'UN troops are armed. Why did they run away?'

Sierra Leone: Residents of Freetown pour scorn on the peace-keepers' efforts and urge the return of uncompromising Nigerian soldiers
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For every pink curler that went into her hair at De Professional Salon in Freetown yesterday, Bintu Cokai got more and more wound up. "The United Nations must make up their minds - are they here to defend us or to hand over their weapons and vehicles to the rebels? Honestly, 500 grown men getting undressed for a bunch of rebels... what are we to make of that?" she fumed.

Her views sparked an explosion of opinionated chatter among the women in the small, dark, Kissy Road salon. "The UN came with weapons so why don't they fight?" shouted one woman as another, Florence Kagbo, tried to make herself heard. Mrs Kagbo had arrived in Freetown yesterday after fleeing a rebel attack on Port Loko, to the northwest.

"I saw the UN men run away from the rebels. What kind of protection is that for us?" she said. "When the Nigerian peace enforcers left last month and were replaced by Unamsil, the rebels told us that all they would have to do is kill a few whites, then the UN would leave, too. We need the Nigerians to come back."

Down the road in Kissy proper, a poor suburb which bore the brunt of the last attack on Freetown, on 6 January 1999, by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), Daniel Sesay also wanted the Nigerians back. "We want blacks to fight blacks. The Nigerians known how to treat these people. Put a white man out there, who does not know the bush, and he will be spotted immediately by the rebels. Blacks can be more tactical and can infiltrate the rebels," he said.

But Mr Sesay, a 25-year-old tailor of uniforms, and others gathered around a Kissy kiosk, drew comfort from the present holding situation - 800 British paratroops bolstering the UN contingent.

"The British say they are organising evacuations. Tony Blair says that because he cannot officially go to war. But we can see he has sent his very best men, lots of equipment and that eight ships are on the way. We can see very clearly that the English are not going to abandon us. After all, they are our colonial masters," said Pelus Kamara, a 47-year-old musician.

In the grand, western end of the city, Clive Dawson, from Sussex, was polishing off a bottle of white wine with his bank manager, Fredlyn Johnson. Mr Dawson, an engineer who has worked in Sierra Leone since 1975, said the British evacuation programme had sent disastrous signals and that London had a "moral duty" to save the country from a new round of machete hacking.

As the evacuation programme drew to a close yesterday, Mr Dawson said he was part of the majority of foreigners who have no intention of leaving. "As far as I am concerned, Freetown is the safest place in the world. Britain has invested far too much taxpayers' money here and the peacekeeping mission is the largest in UN history. They are not going to hand Freetown to the rebels. It would be too much of an embarrassment all round," he said.

Even as a fierce gunbattle took place yesterday afternoon just 18 miles from the capital, the people here were confident. Ibrahim Kamara, who runs a provisions shop, wished to temper the widespread criticism of the UN. "They did not have the mandate to do much. But we heard on the radio that this is going to change," he said.

He and others also pointed to the new, cohesive nature of the defenders of the elected Sierra Leone government. Not only has the government's army, the SLA, been bolstered by British training since the Lome peace accord with the rebels last July, but ragtag guerrillas have fallen into line with them.

At the house of Johnny Paul Koroma, a former coup leader who has now instructed "his boys" to back President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, the "bovver" boots, tight T-shirts, baggy jeans and dark shades were an awesome sight.

"Tyson" Turay, 29, was particularly proud of his shiny Uzi - the fold-up Israeli machine gun - resting on his pumped pectorals. Henry "Jean-Claude Van Damme" stroked an FN sniper rifle. He said that he had taken it from an arsenal at the house of the RUF leader, Foday Sankoh, who disappeared after a deadly shoot-out on Monday. "Any rebel who comes here is dead. We are the new masters of Sierra Leone," Mr Turay said.

Down the hill, a group of drugged-up Kamajors - who believe they cannot die and adorn their bodies with lucky charms - had just returned from the front at Newton, 45 minutes' drive away, where yesterday's heavy fighting took place.

"Warface" - who said any bullets fired in his direction turned to water - felt the Kamajors were the men to defend democracy. "Kamajors stands for 'Killing Armed Men After Joining Obnoxious Rebels - Seriously' so we know what we are doing. The British need to understand that we are the men to save this country. Just give us some ammunition," he said.

Freetown has come a long way since the doomed peace accord which, controversially, put Colonel Sankoh in government and handed the RUF amnesty. Buildings have been painted and the streets are teeming with traders - as if the people now resolutely want to create an environment which looks like a place where war is a distant memory.

Sandatu Bangura, 20, sells wraps next to a building in Kissy Road which was razed by the RUF in January last year. But she does not think about the horrors of the past.

"The RUF will not come back again. Our boys will not let them," she said as Mrs Cokai walked past with an elegant head of very curly hair.