Noose of terror closes on capital of Sierra Leone

David Orr writes from Goderich that the rebel insurgency has reached villages on the outskirts of Freetown
When he came home the other day, a letter was waiting for Al Hassan Cole, headman of Goderich, a fishing village seven sandy, palm-fringed miles from the Sierra Leonean capital of Freetown. It came from a unit of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels who gave their address simply as: "Up the Hill."

It began: "Dear Sir, We here [sic] from you the headman and your members in the commity [sic] that you want NPRC (THE GOVERNMENT) to rule for 20 years ... We want you dead or alive ... Weather [sic] you live here or find another place we will find you and your commity members". The message, signed by "Commando Rambo", added that the rebels would be coming to the village sometime in the next few days.

Until the beginning of this year, few inhabitants of Freetown and its environs dreamed that the rebels would be coming to the village soon. But in recent months, the RUF has intensified its insurgency campaign against the military regime, the National Provisional Ruling Council. Not only have they struck at mines and other vital economic installations, they have started attacking villages on the outskirts of the capital.

To appreciate the impact of such a letter, one must be aware of the kinds of atrocities committed in this civil war, now in its fourth year. In villages raided by the rebels, civilians are found with their hands cut off, their eyes gouged out; pregnant women have had their bellies slit open; and, in the central hospital in Freetown are men and women who have been shot at close range in the genitals.

All iniquities cannot be blamed on the rebels: the army is equally adept at parading severed heads and skulls. The youthful junta of 29-year-old Captain Valentine Strasser seized power in 1992 with the promise that the rebel menace would be summarily dispatched. It still dismisses the RUF as a terrorist organisation with no popular support and no political agenda. To a large extent, this is true: the rebels routinely terrorise civilian settlements, looting supplies, abducting young men to serve in their ranks, and killing at random. If some people are critical of the government, none in the capital or government-held towns are supportive - at least openly - of the rebels. Beyond its avowed aim of toppling the government, the RUF seems to have little to offer.

None the less, the government has completely underestimated the resolve and resources of Colonel Foday Sankoh, the enigmatic leader of the RUF. The economy has been brought to its knees; all roads in the interior are unsafe; and hundreds of thousands of civilians are crowding into the capital and other towns for protection.

The two great unknowns are the relative strength of the rebels and the loyalty of the army. The NPRC admits that some soldiers have already been executed for collaboration with the enemy. Government troops occasionally join rebels in looting sprees: rumours of so-called "sobels" (soldiers by day/rebels by night) are less easy to confirm. If reports of army demoralisation are true, it does not show in the panache of the soldiers training at 7th Battalion Headquarters just beyond the village where Mr Cole got his letter of hate.

There is no doubt that many rebel recruits are conscripted against their will in attacks on isolated communities. In a cell, at Cockerill Barracks Army headquarters, lie 22 young rebel suspects, many no more than 15 or 16 years of age. They rub their bellies to indicate hunger at a stranger's approach, but otherwise seem in good health. It is teenagers like these, say the international aid agencies, who have been indoctrinated in the art of butchery and mutilation.

Even government troops are afraid of the child-soldiers who, they claim, show neither fear of bullets nor respect for human life. Social workers trying to rehabilitate captured guerrillas in Freetown confirm that the unformed minds of the teenage conscripts know few moral boundaries.

What then must be the fear of a village like Goderich when a threat of imminent attack is issued by the rebels? The headman, Mr Cole, sits on a rock and watches the evening surf crashing on to the beach where fishermen mend their nets. "There were 15,000 people here before we got the threat," he says. "Already, nearly two thousand people have left. We can no longer sell fish to the interior. Life is very difficult."

More soldiers have been sent to protect Goderich. But the remaining inhabitants wait anxiously as the deadline approaches: even if they are not attacked this week, they know they cannot sleep easily until the war is over.

n Last night government and rebel troops were fighting for control of Pa Loko village just 18 miles (29km) south-east of the capital, and the closest the civil war has come to Freetown.