On the Edge of Chaos

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The attacks were fast and furious. Early last week rebel soldiers from Sierra Leone's Revolutionary United Front swooped on United Nations staff in the central towns of Makeni and Magburaka and in Kailahun in the east. They destroyed disarmament camps, rounded up the staff and marched them off to R.U.F. strongholds. The rebels said they acted because U.N. peacekeepers were forcibly and illegally disarming R.U.F. fighters a claim denied by the U.N. Whatever the case, the attacks and kidnapings continued and by week's end 10 people four Kenyan soldiers serving as peacekeepers and six rebels had been killed and nearly 300 U.N. staff had been taken hostage, including 200 Zambian soldiers sent in as reinforcements after the original kidnapings. The R.U.F. were also reportedly using hijacked U.N. armored personnel carriers.
Even as this tiny West African nation was again on the edge of chaos, the U.N. moved closer to facing a greater peacekeeping challenge in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The global body seems ready to venture into yet another bloody African imbroglio from which it will undoubtedly find it hard to extricate itself cleanly. But last week U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan concentrated on Sierra Leone, calling for the immediate deployment of a rapid-reaction force to bolster the 8,400 U.N. troops already there. He also demanded rebel leader Foday Sankoh, whose Freetown house was surrounded by U.N. soldiers, end his "flagrant violation" of last year's peace accord. "The situation is very fluid and very delicate," said a U.N. spokeswoman.

There is nothing delicate about the r.u.f. At least 50,000 people were killed during the country's eight-year civil war; rebels, some as young as 10, tortured and mutilated an estimated 100,000 more. A peace deal signed by the government and the R.U.F. last July required the rebels to surrender their weapons in exchange for four cabinet seats in a government of national unity. But the agreement has been shaky from the start. Within weeks of the signing, rebel soldiers from the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council, which fought alongside the larger r.u.f. but was not included in the peace deal, kidnaped 30 U.N. officials, journalists and peacekeepers, and more than 200 women and children. All were eventually released but kidnapings, rapes and occasional clashes with U.N. soldiers have continued.

Many Sierra Leoneans resent the blanket amnesty given to Sankoh and his fighters, who still control half the country by force of arms. Sankoh and his men have also tightened their grip on the country's diamond wealth since the peace deal was signed. It was the illegal diamond trade that financed the rebellion in Sierra Leone; millions of dollars worth of diamonds were smuggled out of the country every day, mostly to neighboring Liberia and then on to overseas markets. Average Sierra Leoneans want to get on with the job of rebuilding their country; instead they face more fighting. A symbol of recovery had been a polio immunization campaign that reached 98% of children. The third and final round of vaccinations, scheduled for later this month, has now been put off until June.

The U.N. entered this maelstrom determined to avoid a repetition of its failures in Somalia, Rwanda and Angola. Even before last week's crisis it had announced plans for an extra 5,000 troops, which would make the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) the largest peacekeeping force in the world. Up to now the U.N. has had the aid of the Nigerian-led West African intervention force that helped end the war, while it oversaw the disarming of soldiers and rebels and monitored the cease-fire. But about half the West Africans pulled out last week as planned (two battalions have been folded into the peacekeeping troops), leaving the U.N. even more vulnerable.

How will the U.N. do its job if it can't even protect its own soldiers? U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Richard Holbrooke may well have asked himself that question as he met with Democratic Republic of Congo President Laurent Kabila in Kinshasa last week to discuss plans to send some 5,000 U.N. troops to monitor a tottering peace deal there. The war pits Angola- and Zimbabwe-backed D.R.C. government troops against Rwanda- and Uganda-backed rebel groups, though allies also fight each other, as happened last Friday when Ugandan troops attacked Rwandan soldiers in the eastern city of Kisangani. Holbrooke says the situation is far too complex to do much more than try to negotiate among the warring parties. But as events in Sierra Leone have shown, peacekeeping in Africa is far more dangerous than peacemaking.

With reporting by William Dowell/New York