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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.