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Sunday, 10 February, 2002, 11:31 GMT
Sierra Leone opens its arms to Blair
Blair in Sierra Leone
Tony Blair is welcomed by President Ahmad Kabbah
Nick Assinder

If Tony Blair were looking for anything to bolster his belief in his Africa mission, his visit to Sierra Leone has provided it.

The people in this devastated and extremely poor country love him.

They love him for helping end the decade of civil war that has destroyed their country.

They love him for pledging never to turn his back on them and their attempts to cement their new democracy.

Blair in Sierra Leone
Watching a demonstration by former rebels

And, probably most of all, they love him for just turning up.

He may have stayed for less than two hours and barely lost sight of Lungi airport, and he may not have brought any new initiatives with him.

But the mere fact that one of the most powerful leaders in the west was prepared to meet their President Ahmad Kabbah and be greeted by a local Paramount Chief and locals was enough.

The one thing these desperate people want above all else is not to be forgotten and Tony Blair was given a true hero's welcome as his convoy swept him into the tiny village of hovels.

'Missionary Blair'

The signs hanging on fences around the centre of the village read: "We welcome you excellency the peace maker, we love and respect you, trust and support you."

And Mr Blair was at his most missionary.

He told the cheering crowd of his unbending commitment to their country. And he spoke about his personal, family links with the country.

"My first introduction to Sierra Leone came many, many years ago because my father used to come to Freetown to the University here to teach.

Blair inspects troops
Tony Blair inspects Sierra Leone troops

"And I remember him telling me what a wonderful country it was and how warm and friendly the people were."

He returned to his regular theme about creating a country worthy of its children.

And there were children in their hundreds listening to his words.

Some of them, maybe even as young as five or six, may only a few months ago have been fighting in the civil war.

Many families in this country are facing unbelievable traumas attempting to re-socialise children hardened and cynical from suffering, or taking part in, unthinkable atrocities.

The prime minister referred to other former young rebel soldiers who were now training with the Sierra Leone army in the nearby garrison and who, he said, would support the legitimate new democracy.

Glimmer of optimism

After the speeches there was a colourful display of dancing, drumming and fire-eating.

It was a security nightmare as the prime minister walked into the crowd, all eager to shake his hand or merely touch him.

For some in his party this was an inspirational event. They saw optimism and the glimmer of real hope for the future in the visit and what it signified.

Others, possibly the cynics Tony Blair has identified as his enemies, were less enthusiastic.

The sheer size of the task is enough to overwhelm anyone.

And simply looking at the children in this country can be enough to induce instant despair.

But for the people of Sierra Leone, Tony Blair is already credited with helping to transform their lives - and they continue to look to him to ensure the world's eyes remain focussed on them.

See also:

07 Feb 02 | UK Politics
In Africa with Blair
07 Feb 02 | UK Politics
Blair hails new era for Africa
07 Feb 02 | Africa
Low-key reception for Blair
06 Feb 02 | UK Politics
Blair back to world stage
08 Jan 02 | UK Politics
Perils of a globetrotting PM
08 Jan 02 | UK Politics
Blair flies home to frosty welcome
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