Sierra Leone

The civil war in Sierra Leone (1991-2002) began with the uprising of Revolutionary United Front (RUF) – supported by Charles Taylor in Liberia – in an attempt to topple the regime led by Joseph Momoh. Diamonds would play a strong role fomenting the conflict, with RUF trying to control the mineral rich regions in the east and south, and the government contracting private military companies (in return for diamonds) to fight off the rebels. After several coup d’états, unsuccessful peace agreements, and international (ECOMOG) interventions, the violence ended with a British operation defeating the remnant rebel groups and restoring order in Freetown. In 2002, after eleven years of civil war, and over 50.000 deaths, President Kabbah declared the end of the conflict.

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«Revolutionary United Front ‘s(RUF) rebel leader, Foday Sankoh, who died of natural causes while being held in custody waiting for his trial in Freetown, never had the same luck as [Charles] Taylor and never became Sierra Leone’s president.

In 1989, when Taylor invaded Liberia from the neighboring Ivory Coast with only 160 men, Sankoh was one of them. One year later, Taylor thanked him for the help by giving Sankoh a handful of soldiers to help him and his small rebel movement RUF to start an uprising in Sierra Leone using the same pattern as in Liberia.

When I meet Foday Sankoh for the first time, I was the first journalist he had ever agreed to talk to. Sankoh is a ‘Santa Claus like creature’, with a white beard and a fast smile, not at all the picture that will later be painted of him as a ‘brutal bandit leader, responsible for thousands of killings and horrible decapitations.’ Sankoh speaks about Sierra Leone’s corrupt leaders, foreign companies and individuals who made fortunes on the country’s famous diamonds while the rest of the population lived in extreme poverty.

The rebels sing battle songs about the country’s natural resources and show support for a strange mix of communism, nationalism, local tradition, and pure superstition. As in neighboring Liberia, there are deep roots in the so called ‘secret societies’, including, ingredients of voodoo and bizarre rituals, something that will also lead to many of the horrible scenes that are taking place in the civil wars of both countries. RUF has taken over a number of these rituals from these old ‘secret societies’ that scared and frightened the colonial powers when they first arrived in West Africa – Human sacrifices to everything from crocodiles and python snakes to other wild animals were common practice.

‘Papa’, as Sankoh is called by his rebel soldiers, is surrounded by a number of young women when I meet him. But the difference between Charles Taylor’s body guards is that these women are not tough looking or heavily armed, just young innocent looking girls. A rebel commander in the RUF headquarter of the thick jungle in northeastern Sierra Leone explains that in Sierra Leone there is a tradition that a man who is surrounded by ten virgins cannot be harmed by his enemies.

After several failed peace agreements and a few more military coups in the country, Sankoh dies in custody while awaiting his second trial for war crimes; a trial that probably would have ended with a death penalty for the old rebel. It seems that Sankoh did not have the ten virgins around him when a rival militia captured him and forced him to walk naked on Freetown’s streets before being saved by British troops and put into jail»

Peter Strandberg | Sierra Leone | 1996