Tribal militias mass for war

Sierra Leone's native warriors are mobilising to confront the military junta. Michael Ashworth in Freetown reports
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The Independent Online
Civil war threatens to sweep Sierra Leone as tribal militias mobilise against the country's military junta. The militias, known as the Kamajors, can count on more than 17,000 fighters, and control much of the south and east of the country.

The army ousted Sierra Leone's elected president on 25 May. Despite the military intervention of Nigeria, Major Johnny Paul Koroma, the coup leader says he has no intention of surrendering power to President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah. But now the militias are on the move.

Skirmishes around Bo, the second largest town in Sierra Leone, have drawn troops away from the capital and into the interior. At present, the army holds the town but the militias are gearing up for an assault on army positions.

An air of tension hangs over the motley group of soldiers that man the checkpoints on the edge of Kamajor-controlled territory. They huddle in small groups in the shade, smoking cigarettes and talking in subdued voices. Corporal "M16" wants to exchange two grenades for cigarettes, while his commanding officer implores him to take up his "deployment position".

A pick-up truck mounted with a .50 calibre machinegun and laden with soldiers bounces up a dirt track towards the checkpoint. As the car turns a corner the man behind the machinegun loses his balance and topples over, his helmet bouncing off the truck and on to the road.

"We are professional soldiers who have done a good job in bringing peace to our country by joining with our rebel brothers," says "M16", wearing flip-flops and a yellow duster as a neck scarf. The day before, this contingent was ambushed by the Kamajors; but none of the soldiers seems to want to talk about it.

Ten miles down the road towards the Kamajor-controlled town of Kenema is another checkpoint manned by a uniform, but outlandish, group of men. More than 200 warriors from the Boama chiefdom straddle the road, their grim faces streaked with war paint, their hessian overalls adorned with myriad mirrors and colourful tribal fetishes.

Slung on their backs are rocket-propelled grenades and Kalashnikovs; their waist-belts glint with daggers, machetes and cutlasses. Unlike their army counterparts 10 miles away, they are in a jubilant but blood-thirsty mood. "Tell them [the army] to be afraid, very afraid, we are coming for them soon," said Alonsus Wanga. He holds a bone fragment wrapped in silver foil which, he says, "throbs" when his enemies are near. Thankfully, for the moment it is quiet.

Historically the Kamajors evolved as the first line of defence against the RUF, the revolutionary movement that has plagued Sierra Leone since 1991. With the assistance of a foreign security company, the Kamajors managed to bring the rebels to heel last year, which allowed for free elections and a peace accord signed in Abidjan last November. The recent coup by the army and the invitation to their supposed enemies, the RUF, to join them in government, has infuriated this formidable force, which is threatening to march on the capital, Freetown.

Their strong animistic and superstitious beliefs have bound them into a highly effective force that presents the most immediate threat to the junta and makes them a powerful ally of the Kabbah government in exile.

"We want democracy in this country. We want Kabbah to return. These military guys and rebels are criminals and we will fight to save our land," says the chief of the Boama Kamajors, Hassan Sallu. He holds up a buck horn that is supposed to provide a protective shield to people in the area.

According to one nervous army sergeant in Bo: "They do not know the meaning of tactical withdrawal. They fight to the last man". The RUF is also fearful of them, having suffered numerous defeats in the past year.

The Kamajors believe, as do many of their enemies and followers, that they are endowed with magical powers. "They can become invisible when they want to, and bullets sometimes bounce off them," says Mollai Bangula, a taxi-driver from Freetown. Chief Hassan, or as he is more commonly known, "the Chief Tough Guy", goes into battle with no weapon but his hand, which, he claims, "I just point at my enemies and they are destroyed".

Their superstitions have sometimes caused events to backfire. In one skirmish with the Kamajors last year, the RUF forced a group of naked women to run at them, knowing that the Kamajor consider such a sight to be bad luck. The Kamajors immediately took to their heels, allowing the RUF to escape.

But in general, they have proven to be highly effective and determined bush fighters. They were far more effective than the army in turfing out rebels and they enjoy widespread grass-roots support. Their cries for the return of the Kabbah government are echoed both in and out of the country. With troops of the regional peacekeeping force ECOMOG reluctant to intervene in Sierra Leone, the Kamajors are the only group prepared to oust the junta by force.

Although the militias could be used as leverage in negotiations, they could also precipitate a bloody civil war. In this instance they have sided with the ousted president, but they are a law unto themselves and the growing militarisation of tribal groups does not bode well for the future.

Meanwhile, in Freetown, the haemorrhage of money and investment from the country, coupled with the refusal of public and private sector workers to return to work, is putting increasing financial pressure on a junta that can only guarantee loyalty if it continues to pay its troops.

The alliance between the army and rebels stands firm, but a few soldiers are now expressing reservations about working with their former enemies. As the money runs out, these reservations will harden.