The young bloods who block road to peace
In an exclusive venture behind rebel lines in Sierra Leone,
Lutz Kleveman accompanies refugees on a harrowing journey to their
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
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
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
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
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