On Maneuvers with the World's Poorest Army

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British Army personnel train the SLA outside Freetown

The contrast could not be more marked: The British soldiers in creased, clean uniforms, smile at visitors and turn pink in the midday sun; their Sierra Leonean counterparts sport whatever fatigues are available, and they don't smile too much — but neither would you if you'd just returned from years fighting some of the toughest rebels in the world. And here, at the Benguema training center on the outskirts of the capital, Freetown, the soldiers' chiseled black faces are working up a serious sweat as they train under Britain's watchful eye.

Sierra Leone's former colonial masters sent troops to that troubled west African nation last year after Revolutionary United Front rebels broke a peace deal and took hostage hundreds of U.N. peacekeeping troops. The arrival of the British was applauded by Freetown citizens, who, for a few days, had believed that the RUF rebels were about to launch another of their murderous attacks on the city. The presence of a disciplined, well-trained Western force turned the mood within a week.

Initially Britain was there to evacuate its own nationals. Since then, though, some 600 soldiers have stayed on to train Sierra Leone's army. It's a huge challenge. "Some are bright; some can't read or write, some can't speak English," says Major Tim Radford, head of the senior leadership cadre at Benguema. "It's a mixed bag really."

Pointing to a diorama he and other Sierra Leonean soldiers have just built, Lt. John Kailie says, "This is a model." Villages are marked with scraps of paper, tracks are marked in chalk, twigs mark a river crossing. Like most of the troops in 5 Platoon, Kailie has only recently returned from three years of fighting rebels in the country's rugged north. Many of the men training today have not seen their families since 1998. They are battle-hardened, although often weakened by poor diet, and are keen to be based closer to home. They are also eager to learn. "We have received a lot of good spirit," says Lt. Demby Baimba. "Say for instance how to command your men. You have to care for your men, you have to understand that a soldier should only fight if he is sound. If he is sick, he can't make it. When we were in the bush, some commanders did not see this and it caused a morale problem. Some of the men took courage in palm wine to get away from their harsh realities. "

Mike Scarff, commander of the training company at Benguema agrees that leadership has been a problem. As has been "encouraging them to work as an effective, cohesive unit rather than a group of individuals." Fitness is also a worry. Official rations in the Sierra Leone army are a bread roll and coffee for breakfast and then some rice and beans in the later afternoon. That leaves the troops with "no reserves of energy" says Scarff.

Sierra Leone soldiers are also used to carrying semiautomatic AK-47s. They would shoot from the hip or hold the weapon away from the body and fire almost indiscriminately. Britain has supplied the army with 15,000 self-loading rifles and must now retrain the soldiers to use them. "We're trying to teach them that it's not so much the firepower they put down, it's the accuracy," says Sgt. Maj. Davey Averill, who oversees weapon handling. For the first week the Sierra Leone soldiers practice without bullets. "Some of them are struggling," says Averill. "They're not safe and we won't let them fire live rounds until they're safe." So the soldiers crawl around through the long grass at the edge of camp shouting "bang, bang" in imitation of gunfire.

"The tactics are different to the ones I used in the bush," says Edward Sonsima, who spent almost two years fighting the rebels. He explains that in a battle he and his fellow soldiers would find a sheltered spot and fire from there with no thought of moving. Sometimes they would be pinned down for hours. Now they are learning how to cover each other with fire and move forward to put pressure on the enemy to withdraw. "I can see how this would work," he says.

But while the Sierra Leonean troops still have much to learn, they also have experience that few British troops will ever know. "You can make plans like this, very beautiful," says Lt. Samuel Farmer, standing over a diorama he has just completed. "But when you are in the field sometimes they go asunder."

While British training may help improve their military, the Sierra Leone authorities may also need some help in their efforts to revive a once once-thriving tourism industry. The first thing they might look at are the formalities required of the departing visitor. It's not easy leaving Sierra Leone. Officially, at least. Though hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled without documents into neighboring countries during the worst fighting of the brutal civil war, the world's poorest country makes leaving through the front door a lot tougher. Here's what you have to do:

1) Within 72 hours before your departure, take your passport to Freetown's central police station to receive a slip of paper clearing you to leave the country. This process requires visiting numerous officials and can take up to three or four hours. Some people pay a local taxi driver or "fixer" to complete this part of the formalities for them.
2) The airport serving the capital Freetown sits on the opposite bank of the wide mouth of a river from the city. There is no bridge so departing visitors can take either the ferry or the helicopter. If you opt for the former (which costs just a few dollars) leave at least six hours before your flight. If you decide on the helicopter ($20) turn up four hours ahead at the heli-pad next to the United Nations headquarters in the Mammy Yoko hotel.
3) Get your name and passport number recorded by the police. Check in for the helicopter ride and then visit the sea-container that serves as an office for the Ministry of Mines. Here you will be asked whether you are smuggling any diamonds out of the country. Presuming the answer's no, get your name and passport number registered again.
4) Check your bags in and catch the helicopter to Lungi International Airport. It's a 20-minute ride and gives you a fantastic view of Freetown and some of Sierra Leone's glorious coastline.
5) After collecting your bags, push your way through the crowd of people into the check-in area of the airport. A man will check your passport and tickets at the door.
6) Open your bags for inspection. Get asked for a small donation by bag inspector.
7) Check in. Your name will be recorded in two separate books.
8) Fill out departure card. The first police officer you come to will inspect your passport and card and hand it to his boss. This is where your "permission to leave" slip from police HQ comes in. Hand it over. Passport stamped.
9) Final check. But wait! The first policeman forgot to stamp your boarding pass. Back to police check again and then back to final check.< br> 10) Congratulations. You made it!