Fear lays siege to Freetown

IN 1834 the administrators of the colony of Sierra Leone proposed the building of a wall 20 miles in length and 30 feet high across the peninsula on which the capital, Freetown, is situated. They believed that the fever we know as malaria - "bad air" - was caused by such, and that the wall would keep out the pestilential miasma which annually pervaded the town. The wall did not get built - at least not with earth, but there has always been a cultural and spiritual wall between Freetown and the rest of Sierra Leone. Freetown is a neat little English port with a Gothic cathedral and Classical law courts, set on the peninsula which forms the south side of the stupendous natural harbour. It was Britain's oldest and proudest colony in Africa. Behind it lies a hinterland regarded by the citizens of Freetown as full of disease and danger, once known, sinisterly, as "the interior".

Once again the people of Freetown are looking anxiously towards the interior. Terror lurks beyond the city. Few dare to travel the road inland. Refugees arrive daily, with horrific tales of sudden attacks by men in uniform, of ritualistic killings and mass murder.

The attacks began four years ago in the east, on the Liberian border, and many assumed they were no more than a spill-over from the Liberian chaos, but now they have engulfed most of the country. Thousands of people fled west into Guinea last month whena town just 80 miles from Freetown was attacked.

The terror is worse because in Freetown no one knows who the attackers are or what they want. The fear of "the interior" has a long history in Freetown. It was founded in 1787 for black former slaves in America who fought for the British in the War of Independence. When the British fled, they took their black allies to Halifax in Nova Scotia. But the far north proved too inhospitable and most of them came to London, where they became impoverished. A society was founded to buy land for them in Africa andthey returned to their continent of origin. Their descendants in Freetown are still known as the Nova Scotians.

But they never really reintegrated in Africa. They kept European names and customs and for nearly 200 years sent their children to be educated in England when they could afford it. Freetown still feels separate, and the coastal creoles still keep aloof from indigenous Africans. They tell tales of the Leopard Men and devil dancers, cults of killers and cannibals, who once terrorised parts of Sierra Leone.

That talk is spreading again as refugees' tales reach the capital. Some at least are true. The Independent on Sunday was given photographs last week of a naked man having his ears cut off and his throat cut. Another showed a mass grave in which a pack ofdogs was eating human bodies.

no one knows or understands who is carrying out these atrocities. They may be rebels of the Revolutionary United Front, a rebel movement whose leader, Foday Sankoh, has not been heard of for more than two years. They may be government soldiers who freelance as rebels - sobels as they are known. Or they may be bandits or deserters, who have uniforms and guns and hunt and kill people as a way of life. This is no coup or war of liberation or even a "tribal" struggle. Sierra Leone is being engulfed by havoc.

Valentin Strasser and the young officers who overthrew the government in 1992 thought they could defeat the rebels, clean up corruption and restore pride in the country. But they made little impact on the problems and were soon sucked into the disease they claimed to want to cure. Living in luxury in Freetown, they have neither the authority nor the experience to run such a complex country or fight a civil war. Now they are reaping the whirlwind. meanwhile Freetown listens to the stories of the refugees, waits and prays.