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Last Updated: Wednesday, 17 December, 2003, 05:43 GMT
Healing Sierra Leone's scars
By former Focus on Africa editor Robin White
BBC Focus On Africa magazine

The ferry that takes you from the airport at Lungi to Freetown is a bit like Sierra Leone - struggling.

It is old and decrepit, but it just about goes.

When I arrived it was not even going: workers were on strike after one of their colleagues was arrested. Luckily, Development Minister Mohammed Daramy was one of the passengers and he clearly has good negotiating skills.

The ferry eventually arrived in Freetown three hours late and parked next to two even more dilapidated ferries. They don't go at all.

Kabbah's country

A decade of civil war has left deep scars on the whole of Sierra Leone, and heavy fingerprints on the capital. Government buildings have been reduced to burned-out skeletal ruins and police stations left as rubble.

Many Freetown citizens lost everything: property, possessions, limbs and lives.

No-one forgets the day when a joint force of Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels and disenchanted government soldiers marched into the capital, hacking and burning anything that stood in their way.

Eventually they were repulsed and the Tejan Kabbah government somehow survived. The United Nations then arrived in force, and give or take a few hiccups, the peace has held.

Peace, though, has not brought prosperity and few have been able to find the money to rebuild their homes.

Kabbah is a genial, well meaning, competent man, and his official photographs do not do justice to his smile
Any improvements in the public face of Freetown are very cosmetic - as deep as the paint of the sign-painters, of which there are many.

One thing that Freetown does not lack is cars. The place has become one vast traffic jam.

And a large contributor to the jam is the UN peacekeeping mission in Sierra Leone (Unamsil). The UN's white jeeps and armoured cars are everywhere.

When they are not parked at UN headquarters at the beachside Mammy Yoko hotel, they patrol town spending much-needed foreign exchange, and bringing peace of mind to the people who still do not quite trust a nearly retrained national army and police force.

President Kabbah lives at the Hill Station above the city - he never reoccupied State House after the military junta was thrown out.

He is a genial, well meaning, competent man, and his official photographs do not do justice to his smile.

Like all decent leaders, he is accused of not being ruthless enough. Corruption is said to be creeping back into the system and Kabbah stands accused of turning a blind eye.

I ask him why he doesn't lock up the guilty.

"If I were to do that without hard evidence, I would be accused of dictatorship," he replies.

But some would prefer a little dictatorship to big corruption - because that was the root cause of the anger that Foday Sankoh and his RUF was so ruthlessly able to exploit.

Sankoh's widow, Fatou, still lives in Freetown, in a medium-sized house along a slippery mud track on the capital's outskirts.

Sankoh's children, by previous marriages, live with her. She tells me what a kind man Sankoh was, describing him as a loving father who would have made a wonderful president.

She denies marrying Sankoh for his diamond money. If she did, she certainly has not spent it on her home.

There are rumours of bank accounts in South Africa. Fatou denies it.

Big problems

Sit in a bar, or a newspaper office in central Freetown and stories just walk by.

A group of blind, limbless soldiers come up to me with a petition protesting that they have been thrown out of their houses as part of a programme to cut down on military expenditure.

One shows me a picture of President Kabbah standing over him when he was hospitalised after his injury.

UN peacekeeper in Monrovia
There are fears more UN troops will be leaving for Liberia
"The president promised me he would look after me until I die," he claims.

The infamous Alieu Kamara, one-time spokesman for the junta that overthrew Tejan Kabbah in 1997, sips beer with the very journalists he once tormented. I express surprise he is still alive.

"So am I," he laughs.

Perhaps Kabbah's biggest problem - apart from lack of money, massive unemployment and the prospect of the UN leaving and taking their money and machinery with them to neighbouring Liberia - is Sam Hinga Norman, once deputy defence minister and leader of the Kamajor militia, which did more than anyone to defeat the RUF.

Hinga Norman now languishes in the custody of the UN special courts accused of war crimes.

Many Sierra Leoneans find this incomprehensible, since the men who should be there - Sankoh and his brutal lieutenant Sam Bokary (alias Mosquito) are dead, and the RUF's sponsor, Charles Taylor, is enjoying the hospitality of the Nigerian government.

Maybe the gentle Kabbah can continue his elaborate juggling act and keep 20 balls in the air at the same time, and save himself and Sierra Leone from another decade of hell.

If he can't, who will rescue Sierra Leone next time? The stakes are very high indeed.

The full version of this article appears in the January-March 2004 issue of BBC Focus On Africa magazine. White In Africa begins on 18 December at 09:06GMT on the BBC World Service.

Country profile: Sierra Leone
27 May 03  |  Country profiles
Energising Sierra Leone's youth
01 Oct 03  |  Africa
UN urges aid for Liberia
16 Sep 03  |  Africa
Kabbah denies part in atrocities
06 Aug 03  |  Africa

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