Deer hunters join Africa's forgotten war

Karl Maier in Bo, Sierra Leone, reports on a conflict where the terror tactics of both government and rebel troops are forcing local people to defend themselves
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The Independent Online
Karimu Komora was once a hunter of deer and giant West African field rats, known as grasscutters, to help feed his family. Now, when he picks up his old rifle, he is after a different prey - the rebels of Sierra Leone's Revolutionary United Front.

The transformation of Mr Komora and 200 other volunteers from bush hunters to members of the Civilian Defence Committee reflects the desperation of the people of the southern Sierra Leone city of Bo who have been caught up in a four-year civil war between a ruthless rebel movement and demoralised government troops.

Many residents of Bo feel forgotten. "We civilians knew that to survive we had to stand and fight together," Mr Koroma said. "I am pleased to be fighting this war. I am defending my land."

Sierra Leone's trouble with what used to be a largely ceremonial army started under President Joseph Momoh's corrupt government in the late 1980s, when unemployed street kids and thugs were press-ganged into military service, given one month's training, and then sent off to fight the RUF rebels.

The troops at the front were poorly supplied and largely forgotten, leading to frustration that led to a coup in April 1992 by junior officers. This brought Captain Valentine Strasser, then 27, to power.

Captain Strasser's ruling National Provisional Ruling Council made the same mistake as its predecessor, however, enlisting children as young as 10 in the army and leaving far-flung outposts in poor conditions. Last year at least 300 soldiers in the central city of Makeni simply disappeared into the bush.

Suspicion is rife that these soldiers are involved in many of the attacks on civilians, including the only significant attack on Bo, which took place last December.

"While I was trying to get my family away, I noticed that the guys whom I was talking to in the morning were the same guys chasing me later in the day," said Solomon Brima, area co-ordinator of Catholic Relief Service.

"When the soldiers go to a village that has been attacked, they engage in looting," Mr Koroma said. "Sometimes they go and hit a village, and say it's the rebels so they can continue to steal. But there are no rebels around."

The army's performance is so poor that Captain Strasser has had to call in troops from Ghana, Guinea and Nigeria as well as mercenaries working for the South African company Executive Outcomes to defend the capital, Freetown. The government has even mobilised fighters from a Liberian militia, the United Liberation Movement, or Ulimo.

"Sierra Leoneans trust foreign armies more than their own," a Western aid worker in Freetown said. "If it were not for foreign troops, this government would not last two weeks."

The reason for that lack of trust can be found in the open-air markets in Bo and Freetown, where food aid supposedly stolen in rebel ambushes on the main highways has appeared for sale. Several hundred thousand war refugees in Bo have been almost cut off from international aid since the last big convoy was attacked in July.

According to the official version, the convoy of 75 trucks carrying rice and wheat was attacked by rebels about 75 miles outside Freetown. At least 100 civilians were killed, 37 trucks destroyed, and 6,000 bags of grain were looted. Within a day, however, bags of rice were on sale in the nearby town of Massiaka for half the price that could be had in Freetown, where the imported food had originally landed. Wheat turned up in Bo. When an official from one aid agency which originally provided the food went to complain to the local army garrison, the wheat immediately disappeared from the market.

"There is increasingly an economic aspect to this war," Mr Brima said. "I draw that conclusion from the ambushes, when you see the very wares taken from the vehicles appearing the local markets."

Angered by the army's failure to secure the roads, a group of traditional chiefs and international aid agencies has called for the suspension of food relief for Freetown until the government opens the highways to the south, where hundreds of thousands of people are on the brink of starvation.

The conflict, which has killed up to 50,000 people, has degenerated into the extreme brutality of the war in neighbouring Liberia. The RUF has been accused to cutting off ears and hands of its civilian victims. The Liberian Ulimo soldiers fighting with the government are particularly sadistic, as Mr Brima witnessed after a rebel attack on 13 August on the sprawling refugee camp at Gondama, about seven miles south of Bo.

"I went rushing out to the camp to help evacuate the wounded to the hospital, and a group of Ulimo soldiers had captured two rebels," he recalled.

''As I pulled up, they had one of them on the tarmac, and they took a cutlass and cut open his chest, and then ripped out his heart while he was still alive."

Such practices are common, according to Mr Koroma: "The Ulimo guys, when they find a rebel, sometimes they take off the head, they take the heart, and private parts," he said.

"They want the rebels to understand that they are bad people and that they do not fear them. Sometimes they chop off a guy's ears and put them in his mouth and make him chew it."