On a hot and humid spring day, gunshots rang out inside Freetown's notorious Pademba Road Prison. Fear swept through the city. Terrified people dropped whatever they were doing and fled in all directions.
The prison houses some of the most violent members of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). The Front is an array of butchers who have preyed on Sierra Leoneans for more than a decade, building a rag-tag army from the profits of an illegal diamond trade.
In this incident, a handful of prisoners ambushed guards who were searching cells for weapons. Additional guards subdued the prisoners, but people on the outside feared a rebel prison break. Inevitably, thoughts turned to January 6, 1999, and the invasion of Freetown by the RUF. In the middle of that night, the rebels marched into the city, waking people and chanting that peace had arrived. Jubilant residents jammed into the streets, but it was a trick. The rebels used civilians as human shields, firing on government and United Nations forces from Nigeria.
In the battle that followed, an estimated 5,000 people were killed by the RUF. The rebels murdered those accused of being collaborators of the elected government. They killed others just for the joy of killing. Hundreds - many of them children - had their limbs chopped off.
Some people believe the rebels have super-human powers. "They are like demons and can fight for days without sleep," says a hotel receptionist. "They have no blood. They take drugs all the time and that makes them crazy."
Now, more than two years after the brutal invasion, the rebels have been pushed back to the north and east, where they control parts of the diamond trade. Still, throughout the country, fear is ever present.
Nearly ten years of civil war have ravaged Sierra Leone, a country of 4.7-million located on the south coast of West Africa.
Today, Freetown - a city of 500,000 - is battered and broken. Crumbling ruins of war, awash in the red dust of the dry season, are visible in damaged buildings and corroding vehicles. Grand homes once inhabited by the British sit in disarray. Fourah Bay College, founded in 1827 and sitting on a peak overlooking the city, was once regarded as the best university in the British African colonies, attracting professionals from throughout the region. Now it is heavily damaged, its classrooms gutted by rebels.
The "official" signs point to a slightly improved economy. Government revenues from diamond exports are up dramatically. The local currency, leones, has gained in value against the U.S. dollar. Nevertheless, those people who have jobs are reluctant to build new homes or buy cars, for fear that all could collapse around them. Behind the scenes, the wealthy and powerful Lebanese who control much of the economy are not yet ready to reinvest in the country.
The slight improvement in the economy is at least partly due to the huge presence of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Locals say that every second vehicle on the street is owned by an NGO - if this is an exaggeration, it's only a slight one.
About 150 now operate in Sierra Leone, and more arrive every week. The cash-poor government resents the money and power wielded by these organizations. Many poorly paid civil servants desert their jobs to work for NGOs. And, while many have proven track records, others are fly-by-night operations, and their integrity is questioned. The Standard Times newspaper says that some NGOs have no offices or programs. The paper questions whether many of the activities will really benefit Sierra Leone, and says "White coloured nationals from different European countries have also flocked in like wild sheep in a vast virgin field ready to discover fresh greens."
Freetown is awash with opinions of the rebels strengths - or weaknesses. While hundreds of rebels have turned in their weapons, as many as 15,000 are still on the loose. A ceasefire has been in place for several months. Peace negotiations with the rebels have been on and off for months. Meanwhile, rebels are battling the army of neighbouring Guinea.
The Revolutionary United Front controls large parts of the north and east, terrorizing civilians and - much to the anger of environmentalists - killing endangered animals for food and sport. Among those hunted are the Diana money, the red colobus monkey, and the black-and-white colobus monkey. People in these regions have been deprived of humanitarian assistance for more than ten months. In a rebel stronghold, nutritional evaluation of children under the age of five revealed that one in four is suffering from acute malnutrition.
The UN, Britain and, to a lesser extent, the United States are strengthening the UN's peacekeeping force and the Sierra Leone Army (SLA). Nevertheless, locals worry about the ability of Sierra Leonean teenage boys, who are given a six-week military crash course and expected to be fighting-fit soldiers.
The last several years have shaken the political and social confidence of the country. Many people regard the elected government of Tejan Kabbah to be well-intentioned but weak. More fundamentally, they privately question the morality and vitality of their own society. There is a sense of despair as people watch their former neighbours - and, in some cases, friends - become murderers and rapists.
A national election that was to be held early this year has been postponed, largely because hundreds of thousands of people behind rebel lines are disenfranchised. Many people feel that little is to be gained at this time from holding an election.
Almost every family has been touched by the violence. Asked about their memories, they speak in a low, detached manner. "Sometimes in my dreams, the visions are horrifying," says a colleague. "I lost my parents in the north, and I've not been able to go back."
The healing isn't aided by the desperate living conditions facing most people. The poverty is overwhelming. Many create their own small jobs so they can eke out a living, often selling wares on the street. Most of those who have jobs work long hours for little pay.
Food is available. The sea is a ready source of fish. Street hawkers carry everything from rice to fruit and vegetables. But they are expensive. Two small children, one pushed in a wheelchair by the other, stop a woman and buy one egg, carefully taking it in their hands and carrying it away.
Initially, poverty led many disillusioned young men and boys to first join the RUF. Now, the rebels recruit using force and the promise of liquor, drugs and money. Some 3,100 Freetown children who went missing during the January 6 invasion have still not been found. Townspeople assume that most are still with the rebels.
If Sierra Leone is to throw off its poverty, fear and desperation, much will depend on the British, who once again wield power here. There are positive signs: a large garrison these outside forces and advisors is being built on the edge of the city, and the local British commander recently reassured people that they will leave "when the war is either won or resolved on favourable terms." It may seem like a return to colonialism. Even so, almost everyone agrees, the upside is that, as long as the British military forces and their helicopter gunships are here, the rebels won't be returning to Freetown.
Nick Fillmore is Director of Development with Toronto-based Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE). This organization has established a program to assist the rebuilding of the media in Sierra Leone following nearly ten years of war and crisis. He was a journalist with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for nearly twenty years, working with programs such as The National TV News, CBC Radios Sunday Morning and Newsworld. Fillmore is one of the founders of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression and the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ).
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