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Last Updated: Wednesday, 3 July, 2002, 15:31 GMT 16:31 UK
Sierra Leone: Will the peace hold?
Julian Pettifer investigates Sierra Leone as the country strives to put aside years of civil war and horrific violence. On the surface is a picture of hope. But will the peace hold, is the cycle of violence finished for good?

Arriving in Freetown, capital of Sierra Leone, one's first impression is of hope and confidence.

With the help of the large UN Peacekeeping Force, order has been restored after ten years of civil war. With substantial British help, the police and the army are being retrained and re-equipped.

There is talk of reconciliation and of justice to be meted out by Special Courts set up by the UN. Here in a country where lavish natural resources include large deposits of diamonds and other minerals, there are plans to rebuild the economy.

Corruption

It's the mention of diamonds that casts a shadow over the picture. Despite the superficial air of optimism there are deep-seated doubts about the future. It is feared that unless the diamond industry can be regulated and freed from corruption, it may become the focus of civil war as it was in the past.

There is also the feeling that not enough has been done to investigate war crimes and bring the guilty to justice. That these fears are justified was confirmed by my visit to the diamond fields in the district of Kono.

Cheated

There my guide was Peter Kamara. I met him at the Ministry of Mines office in Koidu, the principal town in the diamond belt. Peter is supposed to inspect and monitor the diamond workings; but as he has no transport, it's a hopeless task.

He hitched a lift with me to an area pock-marked with giant holes. From the air, they look like bomb craters - but they are mines - swarming with young men, up to their waists in muddy water, feverishly searching for diamonds.

Peter Kamara explained that each mine owner employs scores of young men who earn two cups of rice a day plus a few pence in wages. Any diamonds they find, they must sell to the owner - at a price set by him - and subject to arbitrary deductions. In short, they are systematically cheated.

Human bones

We travelled to a village called Tombodu, deep in the bush, but never reached it's mines, because the villagers made it clear there was something else they were determined to show us.

During the war, Tombodu was occupied by different rebel factions - the notorious Revolutionary United Front and the Armed Forces Ruling Council - fighting each other for diamonds.

They left behind their grim signature. Beside a flooded mine working, I was shown what were undoubtedly human bones. I was told that beneath the water there was much more damning evidence.

In the village itself, I was taken to a ruined house where there were piles of human remains. I heard that the victims had been locked in before the rebels torched the building.

Eyewitness

We heard conflicting stories about the number of murders in Tombodu. Some say 400 bodies were thrown into the flooded mine. Others speak of 1000. Until there's proper investigation by forensic experts, it's guesswork.

The villagers say the human remains have been reported to the authorities and that they did have a brief UN visit back in February. Since then, nothing more has been done to examine or even to secure the evidence.

We were told by a UN Field Officer in Koidu that the Tombodu atrocities are hard to investigate, as there are no surviving eyewitnesses. But we found one. Samuel Komba.

Samuel told us how he was one of a group of captives lined up for amputation of their hands. When his arm was struck with a bush knife - we saw the terrible scars - the other prisoners ran for it.

Most were shot, said Samuel, and their bodies thrown into the flooded pit. When I asked Samuel who had been responsible, he mentioned two names: Colonel Savage and Johnny Paul Koroma. I understand that Savage is in gaol; but Koroma certainly is not.

Atrocities

Lieutenant-Colonel Johnny Paul Koroma is a former army officer who was installed as Head of State following one of the military coups inflicted on this country during the troubles.

Following the coup, Johnny Paul allied himself with RUF rebels and is accused of leading troops responsible for many atrocities. Since then, this one-time warlord has achieved an astonishing transformation.

He re-invented himself as a born-again Christian and leader of his own Peace and Liberation Party. He was elected Member of Parliament in May.

Low priority

Back in Freetown, I wanted to know why the UN has done so little to investigate what appear to be serious war crimes and why the evidence is not being preserved.

My conversation with the head of the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone's Human Rights Section left me with the strong impression that the investigation and prosecution of war crimes has a low priority.

Resources are clearly inadequate and I gather that morale in the section is poor. The recent arrival of a four-man forensic team is regarded as too little, too late.

Comforting news for people like Johnny Paul Koroma who must fear investigation of his war record and a summons to appear before the Special Courts.

At present there's little danger of that. But he is still shy about talking to the BBC. When I finally tracked him down, he refused to record an interview. Off the record he denied everything. He could not, however, disguise his ambition or his contempt for the elected government.

It is little wonder that the people of Sierra Leone are nervous about the future. They know that members of the old elite, the corrupt powerbrokers are still in circulation; waiting perhaps for the departure of the UN, to re-emerge.

One of the most dangerous, because he enjoys support in the armed services, is thought to be Johnny Paul Koroma.

Sierra Leone - a mass war crime: Monday 08 July on BBC Radio 4 at 20.30 BST.

Reporter: Julian Pettifer
Producer: Bill Law
Editor: Maria Balinska


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SEE ALSO:
Country profile: Sierra Leone
25 Jun 02  |  Country profiles
Britain's role in Sierra Leone
10 Sep 00  |  UK News
Cleaning up the diamond badlands
05 May 00  |  From Our Own Correspondent


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