General John Holmes' battle to rebuild Sierra Leone 15 years after a daring rescue

Fifteen years ago John Holmes led a daring mission in Sierra Leone, helping defeat murderous rebels who were threatening to over-run the country. Now he is back, with an even bigger goal. Peter Oborne reports

Peter Oborne
Wednesday 09 September 2015 14:27

We are driving through dense scrubland in one of the most remote corners of the world. Soon the scrub thickens to jungle, and we turn off along bumpy roads. I am travelling with Major General John Holmes, who was last in Sierra Leone 15 years ago when he masterminded one of the most celebrated operations in the history of the SAS. Officially known as Operation Barras, those involved referred to it as Operation Certain Death.

The objective was to rescue six British soldiers and a Sierra Leonean lieutenant who had been taken hostage by the West Side Boys, one of the murderous rebel groups that devastated Sierra Leone during the civil conflict of the 1990s. The soldiers were held deep in the Sierra Leone jungle, in the village of Gberi Bana, and the rescue attempt was unusually hazardous because the West Side Boys were trained fighters and well armed. Holmes oversaw the rescue. From a secret base in the Sierra Leone capital of Freetown, he and the SAS planners had examined their options, he explained.

They first pondered sending in troops by river, but this was impossible because there were too many sandbanks. The jungle was too thick for a land attack. In the end, they concluded that the only option was to send in the SAS using Chinook helicopters.

The village of Gberi Bana is so remote that locals claim not to have heard of it. Eventually we reach the banks of a river, where a fisherman tells us it is on the other side, about half a mile up stream. After some hard bargaining, he promises to take us across for 70,000 Leone (about £10). Having crossed the river we walk down jungle tracks until we reached the village where an elder, Gbessie Sesay, takes us to the hostage site.

Little seems to have changed since the rescue 15 years ago. Scores of bullet marks still cover the walls of buildings. The six British hostages had been confined to a tiny room, perhaps only 6ft wide. But conditions were far, far worse for the Sierra Leonean soldier, who survived for 16 days in a sewage pit outside the house, drinking stale urine to stay alive. The villagers told us that this pit had since been filled in because snakes bred there.

The operation was a success and the hostages were extracted after a fierce gunfight. One SAS soldier lost his life, along with 25 West Side Boys who were also killed, the remainder were driven from the village. I ask Gbessie Sesay if he has anything to say to the British who saved his village. I expected at least some > gratitude, so his answer surprises me: "We are very glad that the British got rid of the West Side Boys. But we are upset that the British destroyed our houses and never came back to help."

Today the home where the hostages were held belongs to Abdul Kamara, a rice farmer, his wife Mama Su, and their eight children. We could not find any villagers who had witnessed the operation because they had all fled deep in the jungle to avoid the rebels.

Holmes is back in Sierra Leone not to wage war but to help rebuild this devastated nation. This is an arduous task in a country shattered by the wars of the 1990s. Sierra Leone, which had been as prosperous as Singapore or Malaysia at the time of independence from Britain in 1961, is today among the poorest countries in the world, its six million inhabitants earning an average daily wage of less than $1. Just as Sierra Leone was showing signs of recovery after civil war, a fresh enemy struck. Last year Ebola closed the country down, ended economic activity, and drove away foreign investors. So Holmes's new mission is no less ambitious than the original one. He is one of a small group of partners who aim to restore large-scale rice production, ending the reliance on imports and enabling the small west African country to stand on its own feet.

Every one of the partners played a heroic role in saving Sierra Leone from total collapse in the face of rebel assaults in the 1990s. Joe Demby was vice-president during the military coup of 1997. After President Ahmad Kabbah fled to neighbouring Guinea, Demby remained, braving countless assaults on his base near the airport. It was he who gave authorisation on behalf of the official Sierra Leone government for Holmes's SAS forces to rescue the hostages. Another partner, Peter Penfold, was British high commissioner in Sierra Leone during this pivotal period. Back in Britain he was accused of getting too close to President Kabbah and the mercenary forces he used against the rebels – accusations that Penfold robustly denied. He was called before MPs, became the object of an official enquiry, and his foreign office career was finished.

In Sierra Leone Penfold's contribution to bringing peace turned him into a national hero. Walk down the street of a Sierra Leone town and you soon realise that this ex-diplomat is a celebrity. He is greeted with acclamation wherever he goes, and has been appointed a paramount chief, the most senior level of chieftainship in what is still a very traditional tribal society.

An identical honour was accorded to Tony Blair, who was prime minister when Operation Barras was launched. Mr Blair (who stood up for Peter Penfold when he came under fire in the media and was disowned by the Foreign Office) is also hugely popular there. I experience the full extent of British popularity when I accompany Demby, Holmes and Penfold to the scene of their first experiment in reclaiming land from the wild, a pilot scheme in Lugbu Chiefdom, some 40 miles from the regional capital of Bo, in the south of the country.

We drive through miles of jungle along bumpy roads until at length we reach an expanse of carefully cultivated field. About a hundred women are in a lone line removing weeds. As we approached we can hear them singing in a low melodious chant: "We are not afraid of the war, the war is over. We are not afraid of any individual. We are not afraid any more. Thank you for what you have done, General John. Thank you for what you have done Peter Penfold. Thank you Joe Demby", the women sang.

It is a powerful moment. British military intervention overseas has been discredited as a result of the twin catastrophes of Iraq and Afghanistan. But here is testimony that at least one British foreign intervention had done lasting good. The truth is that the SAS victory over the West Side Boys rescued Sierra Leone from a hell on earth. The most senior woman worker, Hosamatu, tells me of the horror she lived through as a young woman. When the rebels arrived she and her family fled terrified into the nearby bush.

It meant certain death to show themselves during the day because they knew the rebels who controlled the district would kill them. During the night her husband Alusine and others crept out to the family farm to try and collect food to fend off starvation. On one of these furtive expeditions Alusine was caught, accused of being a spy and hacked to death. His brother, Lansane, was with him. He too was murdered.

Several months were to pass before Hosamatu was able to reclaim the body of her husband, by which time only a pile of bones was left. With tears in her eyes she tells me how she placed them in one of the mass graves which today can be found all over Sierra Leone.

Everybody could recount experiences as terrible this, and some had been worse. In many villages the women were held as sex slaves, while young males were forcibly recruited into the rebel army. Many have never have been seen since. Whole families were wiped out. It was a time of limitless horror.

This dreadful background explains the epic importance of Operation Barras. The British military victory showed that the rebels, previously considered invincible, could be defeated. The SAS turned the tide and opened the way for the end of the conflict.

Now that peace has finally been secured, Sierra Leone urgently needs the investment that will bring the prosper- > ity and create the jobs that alone can guarantee the country long-term stability. That is why it is so important that Holmes's company Lion Mountains (its name is the English translation for Sierra Leone) succeeds.

In theory, establishing commercial agriculture in Sierra Leone should be easy. The country boasts an excellent climate, there is plenty of labour, and the soil is fertile. In practice it is very difficult because the country has complex systems of land ownership. This makes the restoration of commercial agriculture a sensitive task, involving delicate negotiations with landowners and, in particular, the 149 tribal chiefs who still wield huge power in rural areas.

I travel with the Lion Mountains' team to a meeting with paramount chief Professor Joseph Kangbai Macavoray III of Tikonko. The town still bears the scars of civil conflict, with many burnt and ruined houses. An elder, Georges Murray, recalls the terrible day that the rebels arrived: "It was on Christmas Day. We heard that the rebels were around. About 6pm we heard the firing of RPGs. We took to our heels and fled." He goes on to describe how the rebels killed his brother Solomon and his 18-year old son Christian. It was five years before he returned home. He takes me to see the mass grave near the marketplace, where many of the dead have been buried.

Chief Macavoray calls his elders together to meet us. Penfold, carrying his paramount chief's cane, tells them that "when the war ended we set out rebuilding Sierra Leone to take it back to the days when this country was a model for the world. It has been slow progress. The infrastructure was broken, schools damaged, farming had collapsed.

"Then we faced another war. The Ebola War. We couldn't even see the enemy."Penfold goes on to explain that Lion Mountains is determined to bring prosperity to the rural areas so that young people would feel they had a future in their villages and not feel compelled to move to the cities. "It is a pleasure to be back," Holmes tells them. "I have not been in this country for 15 years. This time I wear a different hat. It is a real joy to come back and not be concerned with violence but with doing good."

The most important member of the Lion Mountains team is the head farmer. Michael Gericke has managed farms all over Africa ever since he was thrown off his Zimbabwe farm by Robert Mugabe's thugs 15 years ago. On the journey back to our hotel he explains his vision.

In five years he hopes to turn 14,000 hectares of Sierra Leone jungle over to rice cultivation, producing 84,000 tonnes of rice annually. Over the longer term the goal is to bring more than 50,000 hectares under cultivation.

Sierra Leone needs about 530,000 tonnes a year, compared to local production of some 200,000 tonnes. Lion Mountain aims to turn the country into a serious a rice exporter. "I am a firm believer that the only way that you can lift this country up is through commercial farming," Gericke says.

He explains that realising this ambition means more than just farming. It means building the infrastructure, including a network of roads and bridges, that will enable the produce to reach the market. He also aims to offer a marketing network for the thousands of small producers who at present cannot reach the major urban centres. Last November Gericke had already set up a rice-processing mill in Bo (the second city in Sierra Leone), which is comfortably the largest in the area.

Gericke takes me to a supermarket in Bo. All the rice on sale is imported from the Far East, while there are vegetables from Holland and Portugal. "This is an outrage in a country as fertile as Sierra Leone. We will change that," he insists. If Lion Mountains succeeds, it will completely transform the economy of Sierra Leone. At present the country has a GDP of barely $3bn. More than $300m of that – approximately 10 per cent – is spent importing rice, the staple diet. Lion Mountains' executive chairman Paddy Docherty spells out the sheer scale of the ambition: "We want to make Sierra Leone the Thailand of the Atlantic basin. The natural endowment in Sierra Leone is essentially perfect for making rice." He sees the emergence of rice production in Sierra Leone as part of a global trend in which African agriculture will be mobilised to meet the soaring demand for food.

Docherty states that investors are wary of putting funds into Sierra Leone because of its image as a war-torn state. "That perception is our biggest problem. I have actually met investors who have said: 'I have seen the film Blood Diamond [a violent movie about mercenaries], I know all about Sierra Leone." It's that stupid. In fact it is now incredibly peaceful and quiet. In terms of an operating environment it's actually terrific."

Half a century ago, Sierra Leone was one of the most important rice exporters in Africa. It can be again. When Ebola struck last year, many international businesses quit the country. Lion Mountains has stayed. This loyalty offers genuine grounds for hoping that Sierra Leone can have a prosperous and peaceful future.

It also offers a clue to the comparative success of the British intervention in Sierra Leone. Other interventions failed because – as in Afghanistan and Iraq – Britain and her allies pulled out of the country after achieving their initial objectives. By contrast, in Sierra Leone remarkable men like Peter Penfold and John Holmes have stayed with the country. They have realised that ending the war is not enough. Now is the time to build the peace. µ

Fifteen years ago John Holmes led a daring mission in Sierra Leone, helping defeat murderous rebels who were threatening to over-run the country. Now he is back, with an even bigger goal. Peter Oborne reports

The West Side Boys who kidnapped six British soldiers, pictured in 2000

A village near the Lion Mountains pilot project in Kaleh shows the damage caused by Sierra Leone's civil war


The women chanted 'Thank you for what you have done General John, thank you Peter Penfold'


Sierra Leone

Former high commissioner to Sierra Leone Peter Penfold talks to rice buyers at the Lion Mountains milling site in Bo

Sierra Leone


We want to make Sierra Leone the Thailand of the Atlantic Basin, it is perfect for making rice


Major-General John Holmes outside the house in Gberi Bana from where six British soldiers were rescued

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