The young bloods who block road to peace

Daily Telegraph
(Filed: 03/05/2001)

In an exclusive venture behind rebel lines in Sierra Leone, Lutz Kleveman accompanies refugees on a harrowing journey to their old homes

HELLO! My name is Blood, Commander Blood," the boy introduced himself with faked politeness when he jumped on to the bus in Lunsar, just inside the rebel-held territory in the north of Sierra Leone.

His eyes were bloodshot and yellow with disease. He and his two companions, fellow teenage fighters of the infamous Revolutionary United Front, enjoyed the fear in the passengers' faces. Suddenly Blood dashed forward and slapped a passenger in the face. The attacked man, red-faced and eyes fixed to the ground, yielded his seat.

Then Blood ordered the terrified driver to turn right into a small dirt road: "Let's go see the area commander." The driver obeyed without question. Luckily the area commander in question, a certain Colonel Kolon, seemed rather annoyed that his soldiers had woken him from an afternoon nap.

Dressed in sandals and underwear, he let us drive on. Throughout these terrifying moments Bangladeshi soldiers at a United Nations checkpoint across the street looked on in smiling indifference. Only two weeks ago UN troops secured and opened the road to Makeni, the RUF's headquarters.

Fuelling hopes of peace after 10 years of civil war, the UN advance deep into rebel territory prompted thousands of refugees to return cautiously to their homes. However, fears persist as the rebels, who stand accused of routinely chopping off civilians' limbs, refused to disarm.

Somehow 27 refugees were crammed into our ramshackle minibus, with their belongings piled on the vehicle's roof, willing to take their chances with the rebels to return home. Kadia Sesay, who fled to the capital, Freetown, with her family in 1998 after rebel troops attacked Makeni, said: "Of course the RUF still intimidate us a bit.

"But since the UN troops are guarding the road I feel safe enough to go back. For four weeks we walked through the bush, trying to get to get away from the fighting," said the 43-year-old former travel agent. "At that time anyone who tried to escape by road was robbed and killed at rebel roadblocks."

Now it was UN peacekeepers, British-trained government army units and rag-tag pro-government militiamen who stopped the bus at some 50 checkpoints. Once inside rebel-held territory, the bus drove past deserted villages, burned-out ruins pockmarked by heavy gunfire.

The first RUF roadblock was in the town of Lunsar. Haggard-looking young men dressed in combat fatigues or garish T-shirts, some armed with pistols, demanded money or food in return for lifting a rope or a wooden beam. Kadia said: "The children were the most wicked killers. But now they are so hungry, they beg us civilians to give them food."

Then Commander Blood and his men struck.The RUF, which has recently come under heavy attack from pro-government militia and their allies from the Guinean army, invited UN troops into their territory. Cut off from the support of their traditional backer, President Charles Taylor of Liberia, and faced with an army itching to settle the score, the rebel commanders are keen to see the UN mediate peace talks with the government of President Tejan Kabbah.

Gabriel Massaquoi, the university-educated RUF spokesman, said: "We are very glad to have the UN troops here. The fighting must end because the people are suffering." The bus reached Makeni at dusk. What was once a lively and relatively modern city of 200,000 people was in rapid decay.

Most of the dilapidated houses had no windows. Only a few cars seemed to function as the streets were littered with stripped vehicles. With the electricity and water systems cut off for three years, people lit palm oil in the streets and fetched water from old wells. When she arrived at her home Kadia said: "The RUF people looted everything. Even the lavatory was ripped out.

"We will have to start all over again." The school where the 700 Nigerian peacekeeping troops set up their base two weeks ago is a looted shambles after the RUF took over the town in December 1998. However, the Nigerian commander, Lt Col Jap Oladipo, said he believed that the rebels were committed to peace.

As a result, up to 100 refugees were returning to Makeni every day. Lt Col Oladipo admitted that he did not have enough troops to dismantle RUF checkpoints. One year after the RUF took some 500 UN peacekeepers hostage, security concerns persist. Several RUF fighters, many of them teenagers, could be seen carrying AK-47 rifles.

Generalissimo Issah, the senior commander of all RUF forces, openly patrolled the streets with about a dozen combatants. "We are on our way to peace talks," Issah said with a grin and drove off. A UN patrol commander , Major Ibrahim Ogasun, said warily: "We have to play along the RUF's lines. But I do not trust them. They are too unpredictable."

The situation in Makeni highlights a growing rift between UN peacekeeping policy and the more robust approach taken by the British Army. Though publicly keen to present both strategies as a complementary two-pronged approach, most British officers are exasperated.

A senior officer said: "It is absolutely clear that the RUF do not want to abide by any peace accords. Meanwhile, the UN act as a protective shield for the rebels." It is a view that the terrorised passengers on Commander Blood's bus will certainly share.