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Monday, 9 April, 2001, 12:07 GMT 13:07 UK
Riding Sierra Leone's roadblocks
Sierra Leonean rebels
Going through a rebel roadblock can be an unnerving experience
By Mark Doyle in Freetown

"Oh dear," I thought as my driver negotiated a bend in the jungle road. "Oh dear, a rebel roadblock where there isn't supposed to be one."

I was driving through northern Sierra Leone heading for what is supposed to be the safe, United Nations-held town of Lunsar.


The layout of the various checkpoints on that road towards the town of Lunsar was a mystery

The UN has its largest peacekeeping force in the world in Sierra Leone, with over 10,000 soldiers drawn from dozens of countries.

A few miles back, I had just passed a smart contingent of Kenyan UN peacekeepers.

Their roadblock was a model.

Well-dressed soldiers pointing their guns safely towards the ground. Well positioned barriers painted in the white and blue of the United Nations.

A Kenyan officer had approached us and, on learning we were journalists, waved us through.

Rebels

But this rebel checkpoint might be a very different proposition.

The rebel roadblock was a bamboo stick balanced across some old oil drums.

UN vehicle
The UN's roadblocks are sometimes well run
A group of young men were there, dressed in t-shirts and jeans plus, of course, the regulation dark sunglasses worn by all militia groups in this part of the world.

The sides of the oil drums were painted with the letters "RUF" - standing for the rebel Revolutionary United Front.

Oh dear. UN peacekeepers were supposed to have deployed here, and no other roadblocks should have been allowed.

For several months now there has been a fragile ceasefire in the long war between the RUF and the government army.

So I didn't sense the sort of danger there would have been at a rebel roadblock in times of conflict.


Some of the innocent looking children of Sierra Leone have guns

But I still had to catch my breath. Historically the RUF have been a greatly feared group responsible for widespread atrocities.

In fact, I had no trouble at the rebel checkpoint.

The ceasefire was holding and the young men behind the sunglasses waved the BBC through.

Ten miles further on there were more United Nations roadblocks, this time manned by Nigerian peacekeepers.

No logic

The layout of the various checkpoints on that road towards the town of Lunsar was a mystery.

The rebel roadblocks were quite clearly bang in the middle of the United Nations' strategic military positions. Why the rebels were allowed to stay there was an enigma.

A few days after I travelled through the illegal RUF roadblocks, a senior RUF official was reported to have promised the UN that they would be removed.

After a decade of war, roadblocks and checkpoints have become a way of life in Sierra Leone - even at a time of ceasefire.

Kids

It's such a routine thing to be stopped and searched that even young children play at mounting roadblocks.

They hang a rope across the road and ask for money on the sometimes dubious grounds that they are mending potholes.

You can usually just ignore these kiddy checkpoints and drive straight through the rope.

But it's still best to be careful. Some of the innocent looking children of Sierra Leone have guns.

Roadblocks tend to reflect the group that built them.

British soldiers patrolling a roadblock in Freetown
The British roadblock was the most elaborate in Freetown
By far the most substantial checkpoint I've ever seen in Sierra Leone was constructed by the British army.

The British intervened here last year to back the internationally recognised government against the rebels.

Their roadblock, set up in the capital about a year ago now, was a huge thing with concrete walls, trenches, and neatly stacked sandbag defences.

As this checkpoint was going up, large groups of Sierra Leoneans would stand around admiring the British soldiers' handiwork.

The idea, of course, was that the enemy was not allowed beyond this impressive structure.

British oversight

But no-one is perfect.

When the British first arrived here they didn't always know which militia group was on their side, and I saw numerous armed men hostile to them pass through their apparently impressive checkpoint.

Unfortunately, in an off-guard conversation I let this information slip to a senior British officer.

I say "unfortunately" because, within hours of my conversational faux pas, the British had tightened up their vehicle searches. I then had to spend many tedious hours in huge traffic jams at the British checkpoint.

But roadblocks are no joke to ordinary Sierra Leoneans.

At best they mean endless delays in their journeys and bribes to men with guns.

At worst, in times of conflict, military checkpoints can mean fear, rape and murder.

That is why most Sierra Leoneans want the ceasefire to hold. They want more United Nations roadblocks and less of the other sort.

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See also:

23 Mar 01 | Africa
Sierra Leone: Ten years of terror
12 May 00 | Africa
Foday Sankoh: Rebel leader
27 Jul 00 | Africa
Analysis: Sankoh under pressure
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