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Tuesday, 7 August, 2001, 13:12 GMT 14:12 UK
Sierra Leone road trip: Freetown to Masiaka
Masiaka Makeni Yengema Koidu BBC West Africa correspondent Mark Doyle takes a road journey across Sierra Leone to witness first-hand how the peace process is progressing. Day one

I began my journey across Sierra Leone in the green hills that overlook Freetown Bay. High on the brow of one of those hills, on the outskirts of the city, jungle is being cleared by people ready to invest in the peace process by building new homes.

Among the first to build in this particular area was the British Government which has constructed a walled estate for senior British officers engaged in training and running the Sierra Leone army.


I hope the peace will hold because we are tired of war. We think the British presence here is a blessing because they are helping us rebuild this country

Ibrahim Kamara
But around the British estate more humble dwellings are also going up.

Just outside the high walls of the officers' married quarters, I met Ibrahim Kamara, a young man who lost several family members during the war but who had now cleared half a hectare of bush where you would construct a new three-roomed house.

"I hope the peace will hold because we are tired of war," he told me.

"We think the British presence here is a blessing because they are helping us rebuild this country".

Progress

A few metres away a group of young girls were squatting over a pile of rocks, smashing them into little pieces with hammers to sell as building gravel.

amputee
The RUF's reign of terror seems to be coming to an end
The girls were working for less than a dollar a day but by the war-ravaged standards of Sierra Leone this was progress. They had paid work and constructive work at that.

Fifteen kilometres further down the road into the provinces in the village of Newton, I met an old friend.

He is a lieutenant colonel in the Sierra Leone Government army, Moses Samura.

I last met Moses in mid-2000 when he was commanding troops in the isolated government garrison town of Bumbuna in northern Sierra Leone when the war was raging.

Despite critical supply difficulties - he did not for example have much ammunition - he held the town against the surrounding rebels.

Change

Since then a lot has changed in Sierra Leone.

The government and the rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) have signed and largely kept to a peace agreement and the United Nations which has its largest peacekeeping force in the world here has re-established its authority after a calamitous start to its mandate last May when 500 blue helmets were temporarily kidnapped by the rebels.


Today there are no soldiers in sight of the bustling little market place of Masiaka, just police officers from the Sierra Leonean police

The rebels began their war in 1991 saying they were mounting a crusade against corruption in the political class in Freetown.

But over the years the RUF used terror tactics that have made most Sierra Leoneans terrified of them.

International concern grew when large number of refugees from the war began fleeing to neighbouring Guinea and the conflict threatened to spread throughout the region.

The crisis within the UN force was the catalyst for a massive international effort to resolve the war. The UN simply could not be seen to fail yet again in Africa.

The former colonial power, Britain, acting outside the UN mandate has almost completed the retraining of the Sierra Leone government army which after a decade of war was a decimated and demoralised force.

Last year the RUF, which was once a powerful rebel army with impressive military command and control, came under serious pressure from the army of neighbouring Guinea.

The RUF had become involved with anti-government Guinean rebels and Conakry hit back hard using helicopter gun ships piloted by Ukrainians to powerful effect.

At the same time Britain and the United States got the UN Security Council to impose punitive sanctions against the man they said was the rebels main backer, Liberian President, Charles Taylor.

This has potentially limited the rebels' ability to rearm and attack the elected government of Sierra Leone.

Trip

All of these factors explain why it is now possible for me to attempt to travel the breadth of this country from Freetown in the west to the far eastern diamond mining districts near the Liberian border.

I am travelling unaccompanied by the United Nations or any other armed guards in a civilian car with BBC producer, Paul Danahar.


The rice paddies [around Masiaka] showed dazzling green shoots as we met farmers working the swamps who had returned there this year after taking refuge from the fighting

I left Moses Samura at the training base in Newton and concluded my journey in the strategic junction town of Masiaka - a place which over the past decade of war has changed hands between the various armed factions countless times.

But today there are no soldiers in sight of the bustling little market place just police officers from the Sierra Leonean police.

The police have temporarily taken over the ruins of the Bond Street Hotel - a shell of a building that once, no doubt, stood proudly overlooking the roundabout and welcomed guests from the provinces.

Certainly the Bond Street Hotel is now a wreck. But it bears testimony to the fact that at one time someone spent a lot of money building a solid structure.

It is the only two-storey building that can be seen from the main road in Masiaka and despite the war and a decade of rainy seasons it has somehow kept some of its shocking pink wall paint and become a familiar landmark.

Security returns

The police may have a significant presence here but the real power in this part of the country is the United Nations and the Sierra Leone Army (SLA).

Sanie Kano
Farmer Sanie Kano is trying to rebuild his life
Masiaka is the base for one of the newly trained battalions of the SLA. Under the peace agreement, the SLA has not been allowed to deploy yet into the rebel-held zones further east. But security is gradually being brought back to the country as United Nations troops fan out.

Around Masiaka I entered the rich agricultural land of rural Sierra Leone. The rice paddies showed dazzling green shoots as we met farmers working the swamps who had returned there this year after taking refuge from the fighting.

Sanie Kano, 28, spoke to us in his field.

"The rebels attacked my village," Kano said. "So we had to flee to the town of Mile 91 because the United Nations has soldiers there".

Eight months ago, with the peace agreement starting to take effect, Sanie Kano returned home to his fields. He is one of millions of Sierra Leoneans who are hoping that this time the peace will hold.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Mark Doyle
"It's a measure of the confidence that is returning"
See also:

31 Jul 01 | Africa
UN condemns 'callous' attack
18 Jul 01 | Africa
Sierra Leone diamond mining ban
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