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Monday, 8 March, 1999, 10:48 GMT
Rage and brutality in Freetown
Fergal Keane on life in the Sierra Leone capital under rebel attack in 1999:

At first I thought it was an animal - a beaten dog maybe. A strangulated wailing sound that filled the hotel lobby. A sound you could not escape, a sound full of bad news.

I walked outside, following the direction of the wailing. There in the hotel garden, near the glittering blue pool and the flame trees a man in a red T-shirt was begging for his life. He was surrounded by soldiers - three of them I counted, crowding in around him, pushing and then punching and kicking. A dark trickle of blood flowed from a wound in his neck. I walked towards them with one of my colleagues but they kept punching the man.

Sierra Leone
Then one of them cocked his rifle and the man began to scream. I understood now why he wailed so. It was not the beating, it was the expectation of imminent death.

The soldiers hustled him away out of the hotel. I did not run up and intervene. I did not throw myself in to the middle of that malevolent swarm. I would like to be able to say I behaved like a hero but I was too afraid.

Thousands have been buried in shallow graves
That is the kind of place Freetown is these days - full of rage and brutality. You move slowly and carefully. No sudden moves at checkpoints. Stop when they tell you to stop. And when they hustle somebody away at gunpoint? Observe, note it all down, remember their faces. But take care not to follow lest they offer you the bullet instead.

Death comes easily

As it happened the man survived. We saw him an hour later by the beachfront. A hotel porter explained that the soldiers had found him fishing on the rocks at the back of our hotel. They accused him of being a rebel spy.

Shooting in street
A suspected rebel was shot as he begged for mercy
He told them he was just fishing to feed his family. And then he ran out of words and began screaming. I do not know what saved him. But he was a very lucky man. For this ramshackle city on the golden peninsula is a place of murderous rumours and easy deaths.

We were down at the estuary not far from the Aberdeen Bridge. It was early morning and the clam gatherers were out, wading in the shallows of the Mangrove swamp.

It was a very beautiful morning full of haze and soft light and the call of the birds brought to us on the wind from their nesting places among the mangroves.

And then we saw a group of locals pointing at a spot almost directly beneath us. There was a human shape - bloated and twisted, neither black nor white, but a strange blue, green colour. We moved closer and saw that it was a man.

Rough justice for a suspected rebel
Rough justice for a suspected rebel
His hands were tied behind his back and his legs were tied together. There were five bullet holes in his back. It was clear that he had been badly tortured.

The Nigerian soldiers who were escorting us were impressed. "That will teach him to be a rebel," one of them said. The one who said that was a nice man. He was quiet and cultivated and dreamed of quitting the army and studying sociology in college. And I had no doubt that had he been present during the poor bloated wretch's final hours he would have added his own bullet for good measure.

Freetown in the time of war. I have seldom been in a stranger place. It is where Graham Greene meets Joseph Conrad. At night, after the six o'clock curfew the Nigerian officers would arrive for dinner, followed by their hungry and weary bodyguards.

Moses (in blue) has been clearly traumatised by the war
And then the girls - Jo Jo and Juliette and god knows how many others. In their teens and twenties, in the long dresses of much older women, they paraded in hope of business. But the hotel lacked the steady flow of customers which would have given them an income.

And so the bored girls would come by our table and keep us posted on the latest gossip and rumours from the town. They were sad, sweet creatures. Jo Jo wanted out - badly. She produced her passport and it showed that she was 20 years old.

In the photograph she was wearing a large west African wrap around her head. "Hey I look like a real African lady hah," she said, and then laughed at herself and at us and at the whole crazy situation. She had a German boyfriend. But he had gone home. Jo Jo said he had promised to send for her. And she believed him. She believed him.

Later in the night we would sit and drink with the mercenaries. Neil, the white south African who flew the helicopter and Fred - Fijian Fred - the former SAS man and living legend who was his door gunner.

I make no judgement on these men or their trade. Except I knew that neither was any longer in it for the money. They had crossed the line from the mercenary self-interest into belief in the cause.

child soldier
Children are forced to serve in both armies
Of course, they had seen the interior, flying day after day over the villages devastated by the rebels. And after years in the country I guess they had seen enough of the massacres and amputations and sheer nihilism of the rebels to convince them that here - at the end of their mercenary days - was a cause worth fighting for, something bigger than money.

On our last night in Freetown we bought some fish and cooked them in the moonlight just above the beach. Freetown was quiet as far as we could hear. But then the waves and the Atlantic breezes in the palm trees tended to drown out all but the loudest noises.

"What a country this could be," said Fred. He was drunk now, but then so was everybody. "What a country. With all its diamonds and fishing and these lovely people. It could be such a country," he said. I agreed with him and we all raised our glasses for a toast.

And then I wondered what was happening on the other side of the bay at that moment. The art of the bay near the Mangrove swamp - where men are beaten and shot and heaved into the water. It was not that far away at all. Just across the water in fact.

AV The BBC's Fergal Keane
Watch his first report, including previously unseen footage of the war. You may find some images disturbing
The BBC's Fergal Keane
Second report: The Royal Marines muster the British aid effort
The BBC's Fergal Keane
Final report: The future children's future
See also:

02 Mar 99 | Africa
08 Jul 99 | Sierra Leone
14 Feb 99 | Africa
27 Jan 99 | Africa
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