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Saturday, 19 January, 2002, 01:55 GMT
Sierra Leone: Memories of war
A sign in front of burning rebel weapons thanking the UN and the Economic Community of West African States
The international community helped achieve peace
Mark Doyle

One of Africa's most brutal wars was declared over this week, at a colourful ceremony attended by men who a few years ago were at each other's throats - in some cases literally.

It was a reminder that Sierra Leone may be moving away from the image most people have of the place - an image of war, atrocities and misery.

As a correspondent who has covered the war for several years, I admit it is difficult to forget this image and realise that something approaching normality may be close.

Some scenarios become so familiar that it is difficult to let them go, even when what is familiar is an aberration, like war.

Ex-rebel in a suit

And so, at this week's peace ceremony, when I saw the rebel leader Issa Seesay, dressed in a light grey suit and tie, embracing the government defence minister I had to blink a few times before I realised it was not a mirage.

Sierra Leone Defence Minister Chief Hinga Norman, left, embraces interim Rebel Leader Issa Seesay
Not a mirage: Rebel and minister embracing
As far as I am concerned, the rebel Issa Seesay dresses in lightweight military fatigues and is surrounded by fearsome looking men with belts of ammunition slung across their shoulders.

But I am wrong now. Mr Seesay is not a rebel any more, he's an ex-rebel, and he carries a lounge suit rather well.

Say "Sierra Leone" to the average person and they immediately think "war". Given what has been going on here during the last decade this is not surprising.

But the facts have changed.

'Moral victory'

The President of Sierra Leone and senior commanders of the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF) shook hands at the ceremony - held in an army parade ground surrounded by soldiers of the UN peacekeeping force, the largest UN force in the world.

The President of Ghana, John Kuffour, attended the ceremonies in Freetown and said it symbolised "a moral victory for the people of Sierra Leone and the international community".

The government and rebels have had stop-start peace talks for several years but now they have finally succeeded in bringing the majority of the rebel commanders to the capital and many of the guns have been destroyed.

No-one here is so naive as to think there are not arms caches in the bush, but it does seem indisputable that many of the leaders of the RUF are trying to transform themselves into civilian politicians.

Airport redone

The signing ceremony was not the only surprising thing that I, a correspondent more used to war in the place, saw.

The ceremony took place near the international airport. That is a place I have some very vivid memories of.

In my memories, it is abuzz with Nigerian jet fighters, Lebanese diamond dealers, and mercenaries flying military spotter planes or helicopter gunships.

That was in the late 1990s.

Former combatants hand over weapons for burning
Rebels handed in their weapons for burning
Later, when a peace deal was signed, the largest UN peacekeeping force in the world began deploying, and Russian-built helicopters, painted in UN white, were added to the scene.

Around the middle of the year 2000, the airport - by now thoroughly dilapidated and war-like - saw British troops on the tarmac.

The British had arrived to bolster the army of the elected government against rebels who had committed a variety of atrocities, from chopping off the hands of those who did not support them to kidnapping UN peacekeepers.

But now I am out of date again.

In fact, Freetown airport is in the process of being rehabilitated. The helicopter gunships are in hangars waiting for spare parts, and out on the tarmac there are passenger planes and luggage trolleys painted in the colours of the revitalised Sierra Leone National Airlines.

New army role

For me, the surprises do not stop there.

There are more in the centre of the capital itself. You know a country is really at peace when you start seeing zebra crossings appearing with smartly-dressed soldiers on point duty shepherding schoolchildren across the road.

During the war years soldiers were not smartly dressed, they rarely did gentle things like helping children across the road, and most of the schools, in any case, were closed.

What remains of the rebels' weapons after they were burned
There might still be hidden arms, but most rebel weapons were burned
Before the peace ceremony took place this week, I made a trip to eastern Sierra Leone that would have been far too dangerous during the war.

I flew with British and Sierra Leonean government troops almost to the borders with neighbouring Guinea and Liberia.

In the past this was rebel country, where diamond-smuggling desperados held sway. There are still some of them around.

From the window of my helicopter I saw telltale signs of illegal diamond mining - river beds where the water had been turned yellow by the miners panning gravel.

New security

When we landed at a village deep in the bush I realised with a start that I had never been this far into diamond country.

But then I also quickly realised that I was not concerned about my security because the British and Sierra Leonean soldiers had extended the rule of law to a small part of this remote jungle area.

The villagers certainly seemed happy about it. As British officers walked along a village track they lined up to sing "British you are welcome, British you are welcome".

President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, left, and President John Kuffour of Ghana
Ghana's President Kuffour (right): A moral victory for Sierra Leoneans
These villagers had had no security for a decade, and the arrival of relatively well disciplined, British-trained government soldiers, backed by British officers, has literally changed their lives.

And so Sierra Leone is changing, and changing for the better.

The images of war in my mind will never go away but they might gradually fade until I perhaps associate the place with zebra crossings and schoolchildren.

There was, once upon a time, another Sierra Leone altogether. One I never knew: A pre-war Sierra Leone, which welcomed plane-loads of Scandinavian tourists who would lounge on the beautiful beaches here.

The country's image might not be up to that yet, although there is a minister of tourism.

On my way to the peace ceremony I spotted the hopeful minister. Like the former rebel leader, he was wearing a rather natty suit.

The BBC's Mark Doyle
"Is the newly trained army ready to stand on its own two feet?"
See also:

18 Jan 02 | Africa
The President's speech
17 Jan 02 | Africa
Bringing justice to Sierra Leone
16 Jan 02 | Africa
Leone war crimes tribunal set up
13 Jan 02 | Africa
Last Sierra Leone rebels disarm
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