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A Nightcap in the Killing Zone

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TIME Daily: How did you manage to get into Freetown after the city had mostly fallen to the rebels?

Ed Barnes: By the time I arrived in the region there was only a small section of Freetown left in the hands of the government and its Nigerian allies. The only way in was through a single Nigerian ECOMOG helicopter that was still flying in. I had to bribe my way onto the last flight of the day. As we flew over the sea, you could see dozens of corpses floating in the bay, and the city burning in the distance.

I arrived at the Cap Sierra hotel to find an almost surreal scene at the bar. At one end, you had the mercenaries, some of them legendary figure from Africa's wars, back from a day of making war and downing beers and singing "Goodnight, Irene." At the other end were the government people, not sure if they'd live till morning. And in between, a tiny band of journalists. Outside, the city was on fire, and the few people that managed to straggle through the Nigerian lines that stood between us and the rebels bore horrific tales of torture and mutilation. It was absolute chaos, and everybody was shocked at the level of discipline and training the rebels had shown to fight their way into the city. So there we were, drinking at the bar, eating eggs and avoiding Freetown's usually delicious seafood because we had seen the bodies in the water and knew what the fish were eating, and hoping that the wall of Nigerian soldiers between ourselves and the rebels would hold.

TD: Did you sleep that night?

EB: No, I stayed up the whole night filing. I was the only American journalist there, and there were four others from other countries. At least 10 journalists had already been killed, and most reporters had left the scene.

TD: Did you manage to get out on the streets by daylight?

EB: Yes, but only by accompanying an ECOMOG patrol that was fighting its way back into downtown. It was too risky to move around alone. After a couple of days the Nigerian troops got their act together and began to retake the city, street by street, in one of the most brutal campaigns I've ever seen. The problem was that nobody knew who the rebels were. Many of them had sneaked into the city unarmed, by joining refugee columns. Then they'd collected weapons that had been stashed in Freetown and simply went berserk. At a certain point the ECOMOG forces appeared to be ready to kill any teenage boys they found on the street, suspecting they might be rebels. ECOMOG essentially demolished the city block by block, because the rebels were everywhere. It was hand-to-hand fighting, and both sides were taking heavy casualties. It eventually took almost a month to clear the city.

TD: That chaos is being repeated now, because there are a number of disparate armed groups fighting the rebels; but without a single coherent command structure, they seem prone to get in each other's way.

EB: Yes, ranged against the rebels now you have a small government army, the Kamajor militiamen, the various U.N. detachments, some Nigerian army units and a detachment of British paratroopers. The big surprise is that Colonel Koroma has switched sides this time, and is fighting to defend the government. But the problem is there may be doubts over how long he'll stay aboard if the other side appears to get the upper hand and he's offered a deal. So it's total chaos: The U.N. doesn't even know where its own people are, the government troops are untrustworthy and Koroma could always turn. The Kamajor are the only ones who'll stand and fight. They're a fierce warrior tribe who believe their rituals make them impervious to bullets, and there are credible reports that they eat body parts of slain enemies in the belief that this makes them invincible.

TD: What is your strongest memory of the battle for Freetown?

EB: Broken bodies everywhere. At first people would try and throw the corpses in the water, but eventually there were too many and they simply started piling them up. You'd walk down the street and see these piles and piles of bodies, bearing the marks of unspeakable brutalities. People whose hands had been tied behind their backs and had then been shot at close range with a grenade launcher, leaving only a torso. The stench of the bodies, and the sight of bodies, and parts of bodies littering the streets, and the smell of fear on the troops. Those memories stay with you for a long time. You come out in a daze, and it's really hard to leave a story like that unfinished.

TD: How did the Nigerians who were protecting you feel about the West's attitude to the problem?

EB: Remember, the Nigerians went in because they were in a difficult situation domestically. They wanted to be seen to be doing a good job and make themselves indispensable to the international community partly as a way of deflecting criticism of their military dictatorship. Once they held free elections, they moved pretty quickly to get their troops out of there. What I remember is that the Nigerian military commanders in Freetown were extremely angry at the West, because they lacked the equipment they needed to do the job the West wanted them to do. They needed helicopter gunships, but the West would only offer non-lethal aid, so they were very bitter about being sent to do a job without being given the tools they needed.

TD: What about the mercenaries you saw at the bar — what were they doing there, and are there still any involved in the conflict?

EB: Unable to defend itself against the rebels initially, the elected government had hired mercenaries to fight the rebels, and, in particular, to protect the diamond fields. Part of the mercenaries' price was that they wanted a slice of the diamond industry themselves as part of their payment. And that's something the West found objectionable. So part of the condition for foreign assistance through the U.N. and the World Bank was that the government had to get rid of the mercenaries. The problem is that once the mercenaries withdrew, the rebels quickly overran the diamond fields and that changed the nature of the war. Once they controlled the diamonds, the rebels had a major source of income with which they could acquire weaponry and build themselves up into a serious force. As late as 1997, the British government came under fierce domestic criticism over accusations that it had given a nod and wink to the elected government of Sierra Leone's practice of using the services of a British mercenary firm. Now, though, there are rumors that the government wants to bring back Executive Outcome, the South African mercenary firm that had protected the diamond fields. There are also rumors that there may be Russian or Ukrainian mercenaries training the rebels.

TD: Why has the political settlement failed?

EB: It was a doomed peace agreement from the outset. Everybody knew that bringing Foday Sankoh and other rebel leaders into the government was a recipe for disaster. But even though Sankoh and his men had committed horrendous crimes, people in Sierra Leone were so traumatized by war that they were prepared to give up justice in order to secure peace. They'd have accepted the deal, if it was workable. The reason it wasn't, though, was because of the diamonds. This is not a civil war in the true sense. Sankoh doesn't represent the poor, or have any coherent political program. This is just a grab for control of the diamond fields by a despised army whose only agenda is making its leaders wealthy. I talked to a number of captured rebels, and they had no political ideology; they were simply teenagers who'd been kidnapped, drugged, often forced to kill or rape their loved ones to cut off their path back to rejoining society.

But the fact that the settlement was pushed through must also be seen in light of Kosovo. Once the U.S. was intervening so heavily in Kosovo, it was difficult for President Clinton to be seen to be turning his back on a disaster of this magnitude. So Washington began pushing for this peace process that wasn't particularly well thought out and solved no problem. But it kept the issue off Washington's agenda for a year, which was what they wanted. Rather than try and solve the problem, Washington simply wanted it to go away. The U.N. was incredibly na´ve to play along, because it never commits peacekeeping troops unless there's a viable peace treaty in place. But it was obvious to all that this was the phoniest peace deal ever.

TD: Soon after leaving Freetown, you went to Kosovo. Did you find yourself making comparisons?

EB: Oh, there was no comparison. Sierra Leone was far, far worse than Kosovo by any measure of human suffering. It was the most dangerous, bloodthirsty killing zone I've ever been in.