The Path to Peace
Sierra Leone emerges from 10 years of brutal
by Greg Campbell
In These Times magazine, July 2002
Like many others whose arms were amputated by the drugged
teen-age rebels of the Revolutionary United Front, Ismael Dalramy
pleaded with his captors to kill him when he saw the fate that
awaited him in 1996. But like the others in the small West African
nation of Sierra Leone, his desperate plea was ignored-and the
blade of a crudely made ax was slammed through the bones of his
Dalramy became one of thousands of amputation victims, walking
symbols not only of the RUF's depravity, but of the message they
wanted to spread to their countrymen: that people without hands
couldn't use them to cast votes against the rebels.
On May 14, 2002, Dalramy and hundreds of others like him,
proved the RUF wrong during an election that was every bit as
tense and dramatic as the war it sought to officially end.
Sierra Leone should have been the Saudi Arabia of West Africa,
with its vast wealth of diamonds, gold, bauxite and rutile. While
Freetown was a fairly modern city, most upcountry cities and villages
were linked only by crumbling blacktop roads or rutted mud paths.
Health care, educational facilities and utilities were woefully
inadequate there. When it first invaded from Liberia in 1991,
the RUF tapped into rampant upcountry disenfranchisement with
the government in Freetown, which many believed had plundered
the country's wealth at the expense of the 85 percent of the population
that lived in the bush.
Since 1991, Sierra Leone has been a killing field the size
of South Carolina. RUF rebels battled government soldiers, indigenous
militias, mercenary armies, regional security forces and U.N.
peacekeepers for control of the country, which sends $25 million
to $125 million worth of gemstones per year into the maw of the
international diamond industry.
When the United Nations finally disarmed the rebels and declared
the war over in January of this year, Sierra Leone was little
more than smoking, bone-filled corpse of a nation populated with
mutilated civilians and some 50,000 recently disarmed and unemployed
guerrilla fighters. The battered nation seemed only a thin excuse
away from yet another plunge into anarchy and slaughter. The recipe
for this disaster seemed to be the elections themselves, an ominous
final showdown between three of the various factions that have
tom the country apart since the beginning of the war.
Among those vying for leadership of the country were Ahmad
Tejan Kabbah, the man elected president in 1996, whose call for
his countrymen to "join hands for the future" spurred
the RUF to sharpen their blades and deliver bags of amputated
human limbs to the presidential palace in Freetown; Johnny Paul
"J.P." Koroma, a junta leader who overthrew Kabbah in
an apocalyptic 1997 coup alongside the RUF; and the RUF itself,
under the flag of its fledgling political wing, the Revolutionary
United Front Party (RUFP). Even the party's campaign slogan was
a thinly veiled threat: "Only the RUFP can ensure peace."
The RUF has been wildly unpredictable in its previous approaches
to peace. Every previous deal or agreement had gone down in a
hail of gunfire, and it seemed Sierra Leone's war might not end
until everyone was dead. Even the controversial 1999 Lome peace
accord, in which the rebel leaders were granted government posts,
oversight of the diamond mines and amnesty for war crimes-everything
they ever wanted-was a flaming disaster. Historically, the RUF
preferred to keep on fighting rather than face war crimes charges;
one reason the Lome accord got nowhere was that U.N. Secretary-General
Kofi Annan signed an amendment to the agreement stating that he
didn't approve offering the rebels amnesty. Most of the RUF force
refused to disarm, and eventually the rebels took more than 500
U.N. peacekeepers hostage in late 1999.
Throughout the summer of 2001, while many of its members were
still armed and in control of the jungle diamond mines, the RUFP
campaigned for votes and support throughout Freetown, home to
many of its victims. Even in the Doctors Without Borders camp
for amputees and war wounded, where limbless civilians like Ismael
Dalramy lived in squalor, RUFP campaign posters littered the concrete
walls. It was difficult for those without hands to rip them down
and trash them.
Yet through a combination of terror and a lack of tangible
results from other political parties, the RUF seemed to be morphing
from one of the world's most degenerate fighting forces into a
legitimate political movement. The RUFP's primary obstacle was
the lack of a candidate. The rebellion's founder and titular leader,
former army corporal Foday Sankoh, was in prison facing murder
charges, and the RUF leadership had tried everything from a prison
break to the threat of warfare to get him released. Acting RUF
leader Issa Sessay argued for Sankoh's freedom, claiming that
only "Pa Sankoh" could convince his drugged child-soldiers
to lay down their weapons and give up their lives of pillage to
work odd jobs.
Without Sankoh's help, the disarmament program administered
by the U.N. Mission in Sierra Leone had taken weapons away from
47,000 soldiers by January, from both RUF and their indigenous-militia
enemies, the Kamajors. Twenty-five thousand weapons were destroyed,
and the war was declared over. But the months between then and
the May elections represented a dangerous vacuum of idleness and
uncertainty: A U.N.-administered reintegration program, which
sought to teach former fighters skills such as masonry and carpentry,
was $7 million short. Most of those who'd been disarmed were left
to kick around the country with nothing to do-an unstable population
that the RUF could quickly rally to take up arms if they decided
to scuttle the peace process.
There was no lack of excuses for the RUF to choose this course.
The United Nations and the Sierra Leone government weren't budging
on the issue of releasing Sankoh (and, in fact, had barred him
from being a candidate because he wasn't registered to vote).
Adding insult to this injury, from the RUF's perspective, was
the U.N. Special Court for Sierra Leone. A hybrid war crimes tribunal
that blends local and international laws, the Special Court was
given an especially lean budget-$60 million for three years-meaning
that prosecutors would not have the luxury of chasing the conflict's
"little fish," as they had in Bosnia. They'd have to
strike at the main players-and the likely first candidate for
prosecution is Sankoh.
There were other problems for the RUFP leading up to the elections.
The organization that for years had funded its warfare with diamond
sales was practically broke. The party's leaders asked the United
Nations to establish a political trust fund in its name, a provision
of the Lome accords. Even though that agreement was defunct, U.N.
officials astutely agreed to do so. A refusal would have risked
the RUF turning its back on the elections. The rebels hustled
an unknown candidate named Pallo Bangura onto the ballot. His
platform consisted of a single plank: that he knew nothing of
the RUF's decade of human rights violations.
In what he refers to as his "other life," Johnny
Paul "J.P" Koroma and the mutinous former army soldiers
of his Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) sacked Freetown
along with the RUF . On May 25, 1997, the two groups combined
forces to overrun the capital and send recently elected President
Kabbah into exile in neighboring Guinea. The coup was the bloody
end of a peace deal signed between Kabbah and the RUF, and seemed
to be conducted as much against the city's civilian population
as against the freely elected government. Bodies rotted in the
streets and rolled in the surf of Freetown's white-sand beaches.
Fighters high on marijuana and dressed in women's wigs stolen
from downtown stores chased Nigerian peacekeepers serving ECOMOG-a
regional security force-to the beach district, and then slaughtered
them. ECOMOG responded by using jet fighters and artillery to
shoot at civilian targets in the city.
Like the RUF and its leaders, Koroma was interested in stuffing
his pockets with diamonds. In exchange for aiding in the RUF's
capture of Freetown, Koroma was given a cut of the goods-but he
was unhappy with his percentage. When ECOMOG finally reclaimed
Freetown months later, Koroma was evacuated with the help of the
RUF. As they were helping him flee into Liberia, they discovered
a large cache of rebel diamonds in his pockets-which they seized.
He crossed the border at gunpoint, told never to return.
Hated by both the RUF and the government, it's somewhat astonishing
that Koroma reappeared in Freetown last year. Gone from his side
was "Hiroshima Bomb," Koroma's skirt-and-bowler-clad
bodyguard who liked to wear necklaces made of machine-gun bullets.
In his place were more subdued-looking security guards, wearing
suits and sunglasses. Koroma claimed to have found God and believed
he was the one person who could heal Sierra Leone.
Then there was Kabbah, who had been elected president the
last time Sierra Leone voted in 1996. He too had his flaws. While
exiled to Guinea, he'd attempted to evade U.N. sanctions on weapons
sales to Sierra Leone, using diamond-mining concessions to bargain
with a British-based mercenary corporation for 35 tons of Bulgarian
weapons. And once reinstated in March 1998, he embarked on a paranoid
roundup of suspected coup plotters. Nevertheless, given the rest
of the contenders-who also included five other little-known candidates
from established mainstream parties-Kabbah represented the country's
best hope. Not only was he clearly favored by voters, but he had
the support of U.N. administrators and foreign leaders.
The final ingredient in the elections was the voters. In an
amazing display of courage and resilience, 2.27 million people
out of an estimated population of 5 million were registered to
vote just five months after the end of the war. With tens of thousands
of refugees still stranded in neighboring countries and many upcountry
villages and towns utterly destroyed, the figure astonished seasoned
U.N. election monitors.
Kabbah won in a landslide, taking 70 percent of the vote.
Koroma came in a distant third, with just 6 percent. The RUFP
vote collapsed throughout the country, not even winning enough
to be statistically significant. Blame for the RUFP's sad showing
was put on infighting, disorganization and lack of money. But
the voters clearly rejected the party's claim that it was acting
in the best interest of the citizens it had terrorized and murdered.
It's too soon to say if the fate of the RUF and the RUFP was
decided at the ballot box, but signs are pointing in that direction.
Sankoh remains in jail. Bangura officially conceded defeat a week
after the ballots were finally counted and certified. In the eastern
RUF stronghold of Kailahun, commanders handed over a slew of communications
equipment, stating they no longer needed "items of war."
High-ranking RUFP members are jumping to other parties.
The critical question now is what President Kabbah will do
with his victory. Diamond-mining is once again in the hands of
the government. But without a good-faith effort to spread the
wealth beyond Freetown and into the provinces-which face years
of postwar rebuilding-the feelings of disenfranchisement will
surface anew. Kabbah must display the courage and resilience of
those who returned him to office if the peace so fleetingly tasted
in the past six months is to hold.
A U.N. monitor told reporters it was "nothing short of
a miracle" that the election was conducted without violence.
More astonishing still is the fact that, although thousands were
mutilated or killed for daring to show up during the last election,
some 80 percent of those registered cast a ballot. Like others
without hands, Ismael Dalramy marked a ballot with his toe. G
Greg Campbell is a freelance journalist and author of Blood
Diamonds: Tracing the Deadly Path of the World's Most Precious
Stones, to be released in September. He spent two months in Sierra
Leone in late 2001. Campbell lives in Colorado.