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Thursday, 9 August, 2001, 10:34 GMT 11:34 UK
Sierra Leone road trip: Makeni to Yengema
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 three.

Until this year it was impossible to drive safely across Sierra Leone and as recently as last month, bloody clashes were continuing in the east between the rebel RUF and militiamen opposed to them.

But the presence of UN troops in many parts of the country and British soldiers working outside the UN mandate backing the government army has brought relative stability.

I am beginning to believe that after a decade of dreadful war, lasting peace here is a real possibility.

The United Nations has opened a disarmament centre in Yengema in the far east of Sierra Leone near the border with Liberia.

It is one of the areas that has been most hotly contested during the war so there is plenty of work for the UN to do.

During the past few weeks thousands of combatants have been flocking in to give up their guns.

Seeing is believing

I'd heard this information in UN press conferences of course but I didn't really believe it until I saw it with my own eyes that there they were in a long abandoned filling station.

child soldiers destroying weapons
RUF soldiers are destroying their weapons and saying they want peace
On the morning I visited, several hundred ex-combatants were queuing up before Pakistani UN peacekeepers at the station to give in their guns.

There was for example, Major Musa, an RUF man in a T-shirt, who had 16 followers with him, including several young men in combat fatigues and three women.

There was a lady who had an umbrella in one hand and in the other a red plastic shopping basket full of large calibre ammunition.

"Put your shopping basket down there," said a Pakistani UN soldier.

Rough road ahead

The journey from Makeni to Yengema was tiring but fascinating.

In four years of reporting the war in Sierra Leone I had been to many parts of the country but I had mostly travelled by helicopter as the roads were too dangerous.

An hour's drive after Makeni is the militarily strategic town of Magburaka. I dropped in on the United Nations base there to say hello to the Bangladeshi UN commander in the region, Brigadier General Hassan, and to get an update on security on the road ahead.

"There is no problem," the general said, "except the state of the road - it's terrible".

He was right.
Disarmed militia
Disarmed militias and rebels are given some training and $15

Along the road to Yengema there are several holes in the tarmac that were quite clearly more than normal potholes. These were trenches dug by combatants to mount ambushes. They have now been half filled in but are still obstacles.

As we approached the east I noticed the jungle became thicker, the green more verdant.

This is partly because we had left traditional farmland areas behind us.

But it was also due to two other factors.

1. The war: Hundreds of thousands of people have fled this area to escape fighting between government and rebel forces and so the jungle has reclaimed cultivated land.

2. Diamonds: The main money-making activity in this region is diamond mining. Planting the local staple vegetable cassava or chopping firewood are not uppermost in people's minds.

Hammering arms

But back to the disarmament process in the old petrol station.

The deal is that combatants give up their weapons in exchange for a demobilisation package worked out between the Sierra Leone government and the UN.

Mining in Sierra Leone
Local people have returned to diamond mining
After they'd given up their arms, they get food and shelter for a few weeks and 30,000 leones - about $15 as a transport allowance.

Giving up their arms is a dramatic moment for many combatants.

Major Musa told me he had held a gun for six years but after registering at the filling station he was told by the Pakistanis to take a sledgehammer to his AK47 and destroy it - he did so.

I watched Major Musa's face after he had destroyed his gun - he was smiling. It was a nervous smile but I think a genuine one. A smile of relief.

I saw this expression repeated dozens of times as I watched for an hour while men and women gave him belts of ammunition, grenade launchers and automatic rifles.

I asked them why they were smiling and they all said automatically "I want peace".

It was a sort of mantra, a phrase they felt appropriate to give a visiting journalist but I think nevertheless it was true.

The UN soldiers and the combatants themselves said the explanation was that they were tired of war.

Key UN role

That is no doubt true but there are other reasons as well.

One is that the RUF realises that with the British military on the side of the elected government, the game is probably up.

They can't take Freetown so they may as well sue for the best possible peace deal they can get.

Another factor is the huge UN presence in the countryside.

It is not only that there are UN soldiers here - although that is critical - it is that the entire UN and NGO aid system (UNHCR, WFP, Oxfam, Medicin sans Frontieres etc) have been mobilised to pump money into Sierra Leone and made sure that this time round the UN does not fail yet again to end an African war.

Will they succeed?

I was extremely sceptical before I saw the combatants queue up at the petrol station and I still have nagging doubts.

Sierra Leoneans have finally realised the dreadful absurdity of their predicament

I have now driven halfway across Sierra Leone without seeing a single aggressive military roadblock.

This is in many ways due to the international presence here - the United Nations troops given backbone by the British military.

But it also seems to me that Sierra Leoneans have finally realised the dreadful absurdity of their predicament.

This is one of the most beautiful and potentially wealthy countries in Africa but because of the war it is in ruins - the poorest country in the world.

My journey across the country has taught me a lot.

For the past four years I couldn't have driven more than 100 kilometres outside Freetown without seriously risking my life.

This week I have travelled without an armed escort from the far west to the far east.

I am beginning to believe that after a decade of dreadful war, lasting peace here is a real possibility.

See also:

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