Sierra Leoneans make spectacle of captured invaders




Mark Huband in Kenema reports on a faltering army’s way with its prisoners

The Guardian, 17 May 1991

OUTSIDE the rosy-pink cinema, closed by the owner two weeks ago to punish the staff who ran away in the face of trouble-makers, the captive winced as a rifle butt crunched into the back of his head.

He walked quickly in front of two Sierra Leonean soldiers, setting the pace. His arms were bent round and tied behind him. Blood coursed down his belly from a wound on his chest. Blood slid down his neck, because one of his ears had been cut off.

As they passed, the two soldiers and their captive were joined by the makings of a crowd: children, old women, young couples holding hands, policemen laughing in groups. Others watched in silence from their balconies above the main road through Kenema.

The crowd began to chant “Rebel” – slowly at first, then: “Rebel. Rebel. Rebel.” They ran through the streets after the captive they assumed to be one of those who invaded their country from Liberia on March 23, who never slowed under the weight of blows and kicks from the two soldiers until they turned into the police station; and the crowd outside grew bigger as people ran to the scene, hoping to see the rebel’s discomfiture.

The National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) has seized control of up to 500 square miles of Sierra Leone since the beginning of the invasion. The Sierra Leonean army says that the NPFL rebels are on the run and have taken to proving their own efficacy by regularly parading those captured through the towns and villages before killing them. Asked if it is possible to talk to rebel prisoners, soldiers say that few survived the wounds of battle.

The Sierra Leone government has requested military assistance from Britain and the United States to fight the invasion. Soldiers openly admit that the army is incapable of pushing the NPFL back into Liberia.

“It is necessary to get foreign aid at this time because now we don’t have the necessary armaments to fight the rebels,” said Lieutenant J. P. Koroma, commander of of the government troops in Segbwema. “We need small arms and other support weapons to fight them. Even our strength is not all that good. Our fighting force is very small, so if we can get support that will be better. We can still hold them. The foreign aid is necessary to push them far forward.”

That morning guns boomed through the forest from the frontline army barracks at Daru. Ten soldiers lay on guard at the gate facing the road. They had commandeered a large herd of goats which roamed along the road into the barracks: a sign of preparation for a long stay.

A rocket sped across the parade ground and exploded in a ball of fire among the trees on the other side of the river where the rebels have held Daru town for the past four weeks. A second landed further away. Machine gun fire crackled in the forest.

The commanding officer, Lieutenent-Colonel Conteh, rushed agitatedly from his office to the radio room. He called for somebody to bring his hat, a steel helmet draped in thick green foliage which dangled across his face so that only his eyes and moustache could be seen clearly.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “My men are in some trouble down there. I have no time to talk to you.” He sent his men off by truck towards the village while the morse code machine tapped wildly and the parade ground was deserted as the combined Sierra Leonean and Guinean troops trotted towards the gunfire.

On Sunday the rebels struck the diamond mines a few miles away at Tongo Fields. In the nearby mining town of Wilima, the NPFL killed ten people and were hunting down survivors who escaped.

Within hours of the attack, thousands of refugees were streaming down the red-earth tracks towards Kenema. Some said 50,000 people came through Kenema, others put it at 12,000. Last week the United Nations told Liberian refugees, in Sierra Leone since last year, to leave Kenema in expectation of this new influx. The Liberians, 12,000 of them, were told to walk to Freetown 300 miles away. Eventually the UN sent trucks when the road became a mobile refugee camp of young children and old women fleeing through the countryside to nowhere in particular.

The diamond mines of the eastern region have not produced a gem for six weeks, the merchants say. Diamonds provide Sierra Leone with most of its foreign currency earnings. People believe the NPFL is intent on seizing the mines to sell the stones to buy weapons for their final assault on the Liberian capital, Monrovia.

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