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The Worst Place on Earth


Sierra Leone is a tiny West African country famous now only for its evil. Once it was known as the source of some of the world’s highest-quality diamonds, but the stones have been plundered for generations by colonial mining companies, corrupt heads of state, Lebanese merchants, and profiteering warlords, and the supply of the finest diamonds has been depleted. Now Sierra Leone is known as the place where its rebels chop off people’s hands and feet, rape little girls and old women, press-gang children into combat, and use civilians as human shields. A visitor to Sierra Leone has an inevitable impulse to inquire into this evil. It may be pointless, but you want to know: How could human beings do these things?

Early this past April, I went to Port Loko, a dusty little town about sixty-five miles north of the capital, Freetown, to visit a “disarmament camp.” There around twelve hundred rebels were lounging about, waiting to be paid $300 by the government for bringing in their weapons—or some weapon, at any rate—as they had been promised. A few young men were sitting on a low concrete wall under a tree. I asked if any of them had fought in the attack on Freetown on January 6, 1999—the campaign known, with the rebels’ ghoulish sense of humor, as Operation No Living Thing. One of them, a tall, wiry man with a loud voice and sharp, swift gestures, told me he was the “State House commander”—the commander of the troops who had briefly taken the legislative building. His name was Abubakar Touray, and he had been a captain.

You sound proud of your role,” I said.

Of course I’m proud. I was trained to be a soldier. I fought for many years with the Sierra Leone army. I love my country.”

I then asked him about the death and maiming of thousands of civilians during the onslaught. Captain Touray looked reflective. “I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know,” he murmured.

Are the stories true?”

Well…I can’t tell. Whenever you fire any missile in this area, maybe it’s going to land where the innocents are.” His friends nodded. Accidents happen.

I wonder now what has become of Captain Touray and his friends. I was in Sierra Leone two weeks before the rebels turned their weapons on the UN peacekeepers, capturing five hundred of them and threatening to retake Freetown. (All of the captives had been released by the end of May.) Half of the disarmament camps have now been destroyed, and Captain Touray could well be fighting again—though, like thousands of other soldiers who have switched back and forth between the army and the rebels, he could be fighting on either side. The delicate structure built by the UN since late last year to restore a semblance of order and to gradually move Sierra Leone toward democracy has disintegrated, as practically everything seems to do in Sierra Leone. The country has a chance to be remembered not simply for brutal warfare but as the graveyard of UN peacekeeping—or at least of the doctrine of “humanitarian intervention” for which UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has become the chief spokesman. The poisons that infect Sierra Leone may be too powerful for UN peacekeeping to counteract, at least so far as peacekeeping is currently understood.

Just before I left for Sierra Leone, a UN official in New York told me that, for all the horror, I would find Freetown, the capital city, quite beautiful. “It is,” he said, “one of the most picturesquely situated cities in the world.” And flying in by helicopter from Guinea, I could see what he meant: Freetown is built on a group of dark green hills that run steeply down to the Atlantic Ocean, the whole city surrounded by the infinite canopy of the bush. And from the top of some of these hills—from the road that runs up to the stronghold of President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, for example—you can still see what the city must have looked like when it was a colonial entrepôt, with fine white villas at each hairpin turn and the ocean sparkling far below. But the view from Freetown is almost always spoiled by the im-mediate prospect. Many of the villas are wrecked or abandoned, and even the richer residential neighborhoods are dotted with great empty patches where bits of shrubbery and weeds are sprouting.

The city feels as if it is collapsing into the red clay on which it was built. The wooden frame houses that the English put up in a fit of nostalgia over a hundred years ago have buckled and heaved downward, so that they seem to be squatting on their haunches. On Pademba Road, a main thoroughfare where part of the UN headquarters is located, you have to hop deftly over gaps in the paving stones of the sidewalk in order not to fall into the sewer. The UN office itself consists of a set of trailers set higgledy-piggledy on a hillside behind an impregnable blue gate. It’s not easy to remember the splendid ocean that lies beyond the jostling crowds and the choking dust of the road.

Sierra Leone is, by some measures, the worst place on earth. The country ranks 174th—last—in the UN Human Development Report—worse than the Sudan, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Bangladesh, Laos, Afghanistan, Haiti. The average life expectancy is thirty-eight years. The infant mortality rate is 164 per thousand. Sixty-nine percent of adults are officially illiterate. Sierra Leone offers powerful proof of what can be accomplished by forty years of misrule. The English colonial regime ended in 1961; and while one may fairly accuse the English of neglecting the country’s interior and exploiting its diamond mines, they did leave behind a good university and an educated elite in Freetown, as well as a network of roads and railway tracks linking the capital to the countryside. And they left quietly.

Sierra Leone’s first president was the much respected and ineffectual Sir Milton Margai. But Sir Milton died after three years, and power passed to his brother Albert, a hardly respected figure who ensured his election by banning all opposition parties. A long succession of dictators followed, who took power by a coup and stole the country’s assets. What principally distinguished Sierra Leone from the one-party states surrounding it was the importance of diamonds in the never-ending struggle for power that has continued to shake the country.

Each president in turn formed a strategic alliance with the Lebanese traders who controlled the diamond mines. According to the Canadian authors of one study, “Sierra Leone, Diamonds and Human Security,” a Lebanese named Jamil Muhammad, who was involved in the diamond trade, served as the country’s unofficial co-president throughout the Seventies and Eighties.1 Soon after the mining business was nationalized in 1971, official diamond exports dropped to almost nothing because virtually all the diamonds that were mined were smuggled out of the country, presumably for the benefit of the ruling elite and their Lebanese partners and other foreigners. The consequence, of course, was that virtually none of the country’s diamond wealth benefited Sierra Leone’s citizens.

In 1991 Foday Sankoh, a cashiered army officer, started a rebellion in the diamond-rich region around Kailahun, near the border with Liberia in eastern Sierra Leone. He had picked up some of the Maoist rhetoric of university students in Freetown, but his army, which he grandly called the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), was not so much an indigenous movement based on ideology or ethnic or tribal allegiances as the local expression of region-wide forces that were causing disintegration. According to The Mask of Anarchy, Stephen Ellis’s authoritative account of the Liberian civil wars, Sankoh gained support from Libyan President Muammar Qadhafi in the late Eighties.2 Qadhafi was already backing Charles Taylor, one of many who hoped to topple the Liberian president, Samuel Doe. Taylor’s forces, in turn, had already helped to overthrow the president of Burkina Faso.

Sankoh was both ambitious for power and ready to be used. Qadhafi, who dreamed of becoming a dominant player in the region, helped to train Sankoh’s troops, and financed the early stages of the rebellion. Burkina Faso’s new head of state, Blaise Compaore, was smuggling diamonds out of Sierra Leone and shipping weapons to Sankoh. But it was Charles Taylor who became Sankoh’s chief ally. Taylor offered a safe haven for the RUF, and provided several of his best units for Sankoh’s initial attack in the east. Taylor also appears to have served as a conduit between Sankoh and the international diamond markets. Most important of all, Taylor provided Sankoh with a model for the efficacy of relentless terror. In 1997, the Liberians, weary of the long years of slaughter, elected Taylor president; now, ironically, with Sankoh’s arrest, he is playing the part of regional peacemaker.

Sankoh recruited from among the bored and hungry and frustrated teenagers in the provincial cities and towns, promising them jobs and free education. That was all the motivation many of them needed. Moses Sinnah, one of the demobilized soldiers I met in the camp in Port Loko, a young man in his mid-twenties, had grown up in Kailahun and joined Sankoh in the early days. This is how he explained his decision: “I took my O-level exams, and I wanted to continue with my education, but nobody would help me. I asked my uncle for help, but he wouldn’t do anything for me. My friend told me that I should join the RUF.” Moses said that he had also heard that the RUF was “liberating the motherland”—from whom, he couldn’t say. Nor did it matter: Moses had been a fifteen-year-old boy with no prospects who suddenly had a gun and a career.

By 1994, the RUF had gained con-trol over the diamond mines in the north and east, as well as bauxite and titanium mines. A coalition of West African nations, led by Nigeria and known collectively as ECOMOG (Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group), sent in several battalions to defend the government, but by spring 1995, the rebels were poised to take Freetown. The government, bankrupt and desperate, turned to a group of South African mercenaries called Executive Outcomes, promising to pay them from the proceeds of the diamond mines when they liberated them. Executive Outcomes was run by white former officers of the South African army. Its fighting forces were largely black. These two hundred mercenaries, fighting alongside the West Africans, took all of a week to drive the rebels from Freetown, and they took over the mines a few weeks later. They were, after all, fighting an enemy that consisted largely of teenagers on drugs.

In March 1996, Sierra Leone held the first free elections in its history. The rebels went on a rampage, chopping off people’s hands as a warning not to vote. But 60 percent of registered voters cast a ballot anyway, and Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, a former UN official, was elected president—the first plausible leader to run Sierra Leone since Sir Albert. But Kabbah, like Sir Albert, may have been too gentle a soul for the gangster world he had inherited. In November 1996, he signed a peace accord with Foday Sankoh in which he agreed to dispense with the services of Executive Outcomes. The authors of “Sierra Leone, Diamonds and Human Security” lament that governments should be forced into such “Faustian bargains,” and perhaps Kabbah felt the same way. But William Shawcross in his book on UN peacekeeping, Deliver Us from Evil, writes that the $35 million that EO charged for its services was “cheap,” and points out that as soon as the mercenaries left, “Sierra Leone began to fall apart again.” I couldn’t find anyone in Sierra Leone who did not consider Kabbah’s agreement to get rid of Executive Outcomes a catastrophic miscalculation and an act of inexcusable naiveté.

  1. 1

    Ian Smillie, Lansana Gberie, and Ralph Hazleton, “Sierra Leone, Diamonds and Human Security” (Partnership Africa Canada, 2000).

  2. 2

    Stephen Ellis, The Mask of Anarchy: The Destruction of Liberia and the Religious Dimension of an African Civil War (New York University Press, 1999).

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