Sierra Leone dissolves into anarchy

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The Independent Online
Clutching a crumpled photograph to his breast, Mohammed breaks off his tale and his voice falters. "These people are out of control," he said, "They will do anything. They have unleashed a terror on this country which knows no bounds." He had been relating how in the early hours of 24 December about 20 men, wearing army uniform, came to his dwelling at Ngodama Camp, a refugee settlement in Bo District. It is home to 80,000 people, displaced in four years of war. Scores of civilians were killed in the attack and half of the camp was burnt down. Then, almost in disbelief, he points to the photograph of the smiling woman and six children. "This is my family. Three of my children were shot dead ... My wife, father and uncle," he continues, with a look of haunting despair in his eyes, "well, they were all beheaded."

Similar tales are told by hundreds of people pouring into Freetown, the capital, every day as Sierra Leone follows the fate of its neighbour Liberia. In almost every case the attackers are described as men in uniform but most people are unsure whether they are rebels, government troops or bandit gangs. There are horrific tales of execution, torture and mutilation and frequent reports of cannibalism.

The civilians arrive in Freetown frightened and confused, clutching their possessions as if they were life itself. All are fleeing the so-called "rebel war" in the provinces, a conflict which has already killed thousands of innocent civilians. Now it hasescalated out of control and Sierra Leone is imploding in chaos. Foreigners are scrambling to escape and the government, the military junta called the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC), has virtually admitted defeat. On Thursday the 29-year-oldhead of state, Captain Valentine Strasser, ordered the mobilisation of all available police and troops to control the fighting, which is now moving in the direction of the capital city. Its citizens were urged by state radio "to have sticks and stones and machetes ready to face the phantom enemy".

Only the hostage-taking of foreigners has attracted the attention of the rest of the world to the catastrophe. Over half the country lies in ruins and the whole of Sierra Leone is unsafe and vulnerable to attack except for the peninsula where the capitalis situated. Attacks on Freetown are expected at any moment. Elsewhere, towns previously safe from the rebels have seen ferocious attacks, leaving a bloody trail of death and destruction.

"This is an extremely volatile situation and too much for an inexperienced leader like Strasser," David Tam-Baryoh, former editor of Freetown's Concord Times, said. "The government is no longer cohesive. The country is on the brink of collapse."

In a small bar in the hills above Kissy, Freetown, 18-year-old Aminata, told her story. She came to the capital with her two sisters on 17 January after her village, Bandajuma, five miles from Bo, was attacked and burnt down on 28 December. She was held captive by the rebels - men, she said, wearing Sierra Leone army uniform and carrying army ID cards - for three days before she managed to escape. She was raped repeatedly by five men, and flogged. "They told me I would be killed if I refused to join them and become a rebel," she recounted. "I agreed, I couldn't do anything else. I saw them slaughtering children, cutting open the stomachs of pregnant women, decapitating men and young boys. These people are crazy; there is nothing they won't do."

The "rebel war" began in 1991 when an armed political group, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), led by a former soldier called Foday Sankoh, invaded from neighbouring Liberia with the backing of Charles Taylor, the Liberian rebel leader. Fighting continued after the NPRC came to power following the coup in April 1992. "We just don't know what is going to happen next," a Red Cross official said in Freetown. "It is unimaginable what is going on here. People are suffering terribly. Something more must be done to avert an even greater humanitarian crisis."

Many Sierra Leoneans in Freetown or trekking into the capital believe that the attacks are carried out by government troops, but there are several theories about the motives and purpose. One school of thought is that the "rebel war" is entirely government-sponsored - barring the odd splinter groups of bandits and civilians - with the aim of delaying the country's return to democratic rule.

Captain Strasser says the country is spending 75 per cent of the nation's resources on the war, but critics, especially in financial circles, doubt the figure. The same critics highlight the pattern of earlier attacks, many of which took place at gold and diamond mines, allowing the "rebels" to loot extensively.

Another theory is that indisciplined soldiers have become rebels to protest against the flagrant abuse of power and extravagant living of the NPRC. In August last year, the army Chief of Staff, Brigadier Kellie-Conteh, admitted that 20 per cent of his soldiers were disloyal. Many soldiers have been arrested, convicted and executed. Captain Karefa Kagbo, a senior NPRC official, admitted in a statement on New Year's Day, that there are "moles" within the NPRC.

"Whatever the interpretation given to this war, Sierra Leoneans believe they know the identity of their enemy: the NPRC and the Sierra Leone army," said Alimay Conteh, a journalist in Freetown. "The fact is, mass murderers are on the loose and the scale of their crimes staggers the human imagination."

Sierra Leone, a colony established for black people who fought on the side of the British in the American War of Independence, became a model colony in the 19th century and a strategic refuelling station on the sea route around Africa. Freetown looks like a small English port and the surrounding area is redolent with English names such as Hastings, Waterloo and Leicester. Sierra Leone is richly endowed with natural resources but since independence has become increasingly corrupt and impoverished. It is now among the poorest countries in the world. The confusing almost aimless war, spreading more like an infectious disease than a military plan, is completing its ruination.

"The war is nothing but a well orchestrated plan by factions within the army for economic gain and political power," said Feyi Ogunade, a Sierra Leonean journalist and political analyst based in London. The immediate fear, Mr Ogunade goes on, is that thesituation could fast degenerate into an ethnic conflict. Much of the war, until now, has been located in the south-east of the country which is populated by the Mende people. The RUF leader, Foday Sankoh, is a Temne. "If the conflict gets out of controlthen people may begin to think this is a war between the Mende and Temne. If that happens then we will have an even greater blood bath" Mr Ogunade said.

The raid on Kambia last Tuesday, 50 miles north of Freetown, leaves only the western area around the capital untouched. One million people are now displaced because of the conflict and, as the war escalates, thousands of refugees are fleeing into Liberiaand Guinea. Diplomats, businessmen and some aid agencies, are pulling out of the country and abandoning it to chaos. There is little chance of rescue; the issue has not yet even been raised at the United Nations.