Trading grievance for peace

SUN JOURNAL

Sierra Leone: After nearly 11 years of civil war, the government has welcomed former combatants into the political process.

May 15, 2002|By Stephan Faris | Stephan Faris,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ALLEN TOWN, Sierra Leone - The walls are back up again and the roof patched over, but a nearby mango tree still carries a reminder of when James Kamara's house was destroyed. The imbedded casing of a rocket- propelled grenade remains from 1999, the last time the rebel army overran his village.

On one of the few manageable paths into the capital, Freetown, this farming and logging community has endured so many attacks that local police struggle to remember which destruction matches which invasion.

Nearly 11 years of civil war and ethnic fighting ended in January, and yesterday the people of this West African country went to the polls to cast their vote for a peaceful future.

Candidates from nine parties are running for president, and 11 parties are represented in the race for 112 seats in Parliament. Former rebels are taking part - voting and running - in contrast with the last election in 1996, when they resisted the idea and attacked citizens who went to the polls, chopping off hands and feet as punishment.

Evidence and memories of those violent days remain. Houses pocked by bullets punctuate fields where farmers use the hulks of burnt-out cars as barrier fences. In the assault that destroyed Kamara's home, hundreds of civilians were used as human shields by rebels retreating from Freetown, according to Human Rights Watch.

Now, many of the maimed and dispossessed appear willing to trade their right to anger for an end to fighting.

United Nations peacekeepers brought a halt to the brutal civil war, disarmed the combatants and paved the way for elections. And the government has encouraged Sierra Leoneans to consider this an occasion for reconciliation rather than revenge, welcoming the former combatants into the political process.

Two of the parties in the election came from among rebels who, according to Human Rights Watch, chopped off the hands of civilians and systematically terrorized the countryside.

It is difficult to put that aside. Standing next to his mango tree, Kamara, 49, considers the possibility.

"Yes, we are going to forgive," he says. "But how are we going to forget?"

Two years ago, elections would have been impossible. The United Nations had 11,000 soldiers in the country, but rebels controlled most of the countryside. In May 2000, the rebels came close enough to Freetown that embassies evacuated their citizens.

But after hundreds of U.N. soldiers were taken hostage that month, the United Nations strengthened its mandate and beefed up its forces. The United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) now includes 17,500 soldiers.

The pace has been dizzying, especially in recent months. The United Nations completed its disarmament program in January. The state of emergency and curfew were lifted soon after. Foday Sankoh, the leader of the Revolutionary United Front, Sierra Leone's most famous rebel group, is in jail. New political parties have been formed.

"Today, there is no part of this country that UNAMSIL is not comfortable with," says the force commander, Lt. Gen. Daniel Opande of Kenya.

His soldiers are so ubiquitous that children in Allen Town greet a visitor with cries of "Unamsil, Unamsil."

With Freetown bristling with sandbagged checkpoints, the prospects were strong for Sierra Leone's first violence-free elections, something for which both former rebel groups ask a share of the credit.

Presidential candidate Johnny Paul Koroma, whose 1997 coup against incumbent President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah led to some of the worst atrocities in Freetown, paints himself as having saved the country from the Revolutionary United Front.

The Front - which has transformed itself into the Revolutionary United Front Party - claims, in turn, that it was its efforts that brought about the peace.

"If we hadn't negotiated, we would still be killing each other today," says Pallo Bangura, an academic turned presidential candidate.

Even the residents of a U.N. camp for those wounded during the war in Grafton, a village up the hill from Allen Town, welcome the rebels' participation.

Alusaine Mansaray, the gray-bearded village chairman, worries instead about what would have happened had the rebels been excluded and decided to go back to fighting.

"Now, the field is open," he says. "So if they fall now, they will fall completely. And they won't be able to blame anyone."

No matter how recent their injuries, the camp's residents say they are willing to trade grievance for peace. Brima Kamara, 27, remembers to the hour when a bullet that he says was shot by rebel soldiers crippled his leg.

Yet, he says, he would welcome either rebel candidate to visit the camp and present his platform - even though he hears that the Revolutionary United Front Party has told people that it will return to chopping off limbs if it loses.

"We can see that if we don't forgive, this country will never have any peace," he says.

But peace in Sierra Leone relies on more than simply forgiveness. The country remains among the poorest in the world, according to the United Nations, and there is little sign that the causes that led to the civil war - crippling corruption and nepotism - have been truly addressed.

Fighting in neighboring Liberia continues to destabilize the region. It would not be difficult, says Opande, for former rebels or any others dissatisfied with a new regime to take up arms again.

"Even if we believe that we have disarmed the ex-combatants 99.9 percent, there's every possibility that weapons can be brought into the country if somebody desires," he says.

Nonetheless, in Allen Town the mood remains one of hope, if tempered with a hint of wariness.

"It is over," James Kamara says. "I hope it is over. We are tired of war." He waves to his home, the unfinished mud brick, the patchwork of zinc roofing. "But I don't trust them. They are chameleons. One day they are like this. The next day ... "

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