Frontline: Freetown: Curfew time in `a world of tin roofs'

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The Independent Online
EVERY DAY at 7.30pm, the capital of Sierra Leone becomes frantic. There are dinners to eat and friends to run home - all in the half hour before the road-block sand bags go up and freedom of movement becomes reserved to well-connected prostitutes and a few privileged military who know that night's curfew password.

Nights in Africa are blacker than in Europe - the lack of electric light sees to that. And night-time road-blocks in Freetown are terrifying because it is under cover of darkness that rebels are most likely to move their weapons around.

For journalists, curfews are a mixed blessing. Very little is likely to happen once everyone is off the streets. But reporting any incident that does take place requires you to hijack a prostitute or senior army officer.

Captain Garba, a Nigerian peace-keeper who was driving home on his own the other day, came to the rescue of two colleagues and myself. It was around 8.30pm and we must have looked ridiculous -three white figures in the African night, frantically waving our notebooks.

Fortunately, he stopped and agreed to take us back to the Cape Sierra Hotel. He drove slowly and stopped often, the vanity light switched on to illuminate our faces. We weaved through the sand bags at half a dozen road-blocks, cutting the engine each time to listen for a distant voice inquiring "who goes there?". Capt Garba replied "friend", gave his name and the password, "seat". It is in situations like these that soldiers get jittery and bullets go astray. I felt safe in the back seat, cowering behind Capt Garba.

Despite the ongoing curfew, a peace deal which aims to end eight years of fighting and coups has helped restore a sense of stability to Freetown. By day, normal life has resumed and the road-blocks, manned by the Sierra Leone Army (SLA), are fairly relaxed. Women sell cooked groundnuts from trays on their heads and rastafarians loaf around providing a Caribbean echo to this city established for freed slaves.

As befits a city centre landmark, there is a traffic jam around the 500- year-old cotton tree on Siaka Stevens Street and hawkers have so enlivened the pavements that you hardly notice the bullet holes and burnt-out buildings left by the rebels in January.

Graham Greene would be as happy here now as in the "world of tin roofs, of vultures clanging down" that he described in the early Forties. And he would relish the curfew sleaze at the Cape Sierra. At night the cast of men draped around prostitutes includes rebel leaders, with names such as Superman and Five-Five, foreign diamond dealers boasting about their profits, British officers brought in to train the SLA, mercenaries from around the world, Nigerian peace-keepers and aid agency representatives.

Long after 7.30pm, those prostitutes who have failed to glean the curfew password and a lift home, beg the remaining patrons for a bed for the night - no strings attached.