The sparks of Sierra Leone's civil war lie buried in the rolling hills around the eastern town of Sefadu. Beneath the rich red earth lie hundreds of millions of dollars worth of high-grade diamonds. Whoever controls the diamond fields effectively controls Sierra Leone. For the past few years it has been warlord Foday Sankoh and his murderous rebel group, the Revolutionary United Front (R.U.F.), who have commanded that incredible wealth and held the country to ransom. But for how much longer? Sankoh himself is now being held, captured early last Wednesday while slipping back to his ransacked home in the capital, Freetown.
Whether the removal of Sankoh helps to bring the renewed war any closer to an end is unclear. So far, it has prompted jubilation in Freetown and discussion at the U.N. and in West Africa about how many more troops should be committed to help prop up shaky peace efforts in a country where the R.U.F. holds more than 250 U.N. personnel hostage.
Last week, though, a motley alliance of forces was pushing out of Freetown determined, according to diplomatic sources, to take control of the diamond region and defeat Sankoh's troops for good. The counterattack comes after the collapse of last year's peace deal between the rebels and the government. That agreement, which many observers say was forced on the country by Western powers, gave the rebels four cabinet seats, including the position of Vice President for Sankoh, in return for a promise to disarm. But from the start, R.U.F. soldiers were slow to hand in weapons and continued to exploit the diamond fields for themselves. The peace held thanks only to the Nigerian-led ecomog troops who stayed on as the U.N. deployed some 7,500 lightly armed peacekeepers. When the Nigerians pulled out three weeks ago, financially strained by their years of intervention in Sierra Leone and making way for the expanded U.N. force, the R.U.F. pounced, killing four peacekeepers from Kenya and capturing more than 500 other U.N. troops, some 240 of whom were released last week. Further humiliation was avoided only with the arrival of about 800 British paratroopers. They quickly secured Freetown's Lungi Airport and strategic positions in the capital, and their presence eased panic that the R.U.F. would launch an attack on the city. But negotiations to free the hostages have been complicated — first by the disappearance of Sankoh, who managed to flee his heavily guarded Freetown home during a shambolic public protest on May 8, and then by his capture.
With or without Sankoh, the R.U.F. is on the retreat. Diplomatic sources say Britain is orchestrating an offensive against the rebels. Frontline troops include soldiers from the Sierra Leonean army, fighters loyal to warlord Lieut. Colonel Johnny Paul Koroma — who overthrew the government in 1997 but is now apparently loyal to the reinstated President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah — and Koroma's onetime enemies the Kamajors, a shadowy group of traditional hunters also allied to the government. British military leaders deny that they are leading a specific offensive but concede that their original mission has widened to include "logistical and transport support" to the U.N. "We're not here to get involved in a civil war," says Major Andrew Charlton, sitting in a looted room of what was once Freetown's grandest hotel. "But I think British soldiers are adaptable and we should use that ability to assist where we can." Indeed, after Sankoh's capture, elite British forces moved him, first from an army barracks to Lungi Airport, and then on to an undisclosed secure location.
Despite the R.U.F.'s nine-year reign of terror, any well-organized and well-equipped force should easily defeat the rebels. In the mid-'90s, the besieged government hired South African mercenaries to drive the R.U.F. from the diamond fields, a campaign that took just weeks. "Where the R.U.F. has been effective is not in tactical leadership on the ground — it has very weak organizational structures," says Nigel Vinson of the Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies in London. "But it is well-motivated because it has a clear, precise goal — to take power in Sierra Leone." Until now the government and international community has lacked such a clear goal. The broken peace deal provides one.
Francis Koroma doesn't care who defeats the R.U.F.. Two years ago the rebels came to his village and ordered everyone to line up. One by one they amputated arms, legs and ears. Koroma's pregnant wife's legs were cut through above the knee with a power saw. She bled to death in minutes. Two of his six children were killed. His own left hand was amputated with an axe. "It happened quickly but it changed my life forever," he says, burying his bandaged stump in a coat pocket. "We hoped for peace last year but the rebels never wanted it. All they want is power and money." Now Sierra Leoneans have pinned their hopes of peace on the army of their former colonial masters and a ragtag bunch of poorly equipped local soldiers. This time they hope they won't be disappointed.
— With reporting by Helen Gibson / London