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.

Much of the Sierra Leone army had, by this time, made common cause with the rebels. Captain Touray, the former State House commander, told me that he had been earning about two dollars a month with the army; he decided, owing to “lack of salary and welfare problem”—which sounds like the same reason twice—to join the renegade army of Lieutenant Colonel Johnny Paul Koroma, which at least held out the prospect of pillage. It was, in any case, almost impossible to distinguish the army from the rebels: the word “sobel” was coined to describe soldiers who wore the uniform of the government by day and then robbed, raped, and attacked civilians by night.

In May 1997, Koroma’s forces were about to capture President Kabbah when he fled to Guinea. The RUF joined the junta, and together they turned the government into a brutal joke. What little remained of the state—the central bank, the police, the civil service—collapsed. Now the country itself was at stake. In early 1998, ECOMOG soldiers, mainly Nigerians, launched an offensive to retake Freetown; they dislodged the rebels and restored President Kabbah to power. For the following year, the fighting continued throughout the country, with both ECOMOG and the rebels visiting immense destruction on civilians.

In the first days of 1999, men began appearing in east Freetown, saying that they were fleeing from the rebels. In fact, they themselves were the rebels, and they began their onslaught on January 6. The words “January 6” in Freetown are now used to mean “the apocalypse.” Whatever happened in 1996 and 1997 pales by comparison. Edmond Jah, who works at the Mammy Yoko Hotel where much of the UN staff is quartered, lived and still lives in east Freetown, which even before the attack was the slum neighborhood of a poor city. “It was midnight,” he says, “and I was suddenly awoken by a shot. I thought it was nothing, but almost immediately the shots were everywhere. I ran outside with my family. The rebels were shooting at anyone, killing babies, women, old men. We ran away and hid in the hills.” Edmond crept back into town, and saw things that he could scarcely have imagined—bodies stacked up outside Connaught Hospital, Nigerian soldiers killing dozens of rebels they had caught trying to poison the city’s water supply.

The ECOMOG troops at first had held their fire, Edmond said, because the rebels advanced behind women whom they used as human shields. But as the rebels gained ground the soldiers started killing the women as well as the fighters. Scarcely a competent fighting force, the Nigerians nevertheless equaled the rebels in ferocity; and after two weeks, they pushed the attackers out of Freetown altogether. During those two weeks, however, the rebels had killed an estimated six thousand civilians, raped thousands of women, chopped off the hands of thousands more, and destroyed most of east Freetown.


One morning, Edmond took me on a tour of the wreckage. Though well over a year had passed since the onslaught, there were piles of shattered brick and mortar everywhere. Often all that remained were the scorched and battered sheets of zinc that had once served as roofing material. Edmond showed me the precinct house where the rebels had murdered twenty-six policemen on the night of January 6. He pointed further down the road, and said, “They put fire on the Safeco gas station over there; they tried to burn the whole city down.” Edmond introduced me to his Aunt Nhabey, who lived in a dark hovel that had been hastily built from mud bricks. The rebels had burned her little stall in the marketplace as well as every house in the neighborhood. She and her husband now had to feed seven children on $35 a month; the family was living on the edge of starvation. Nhabey squatted in the dirt and told her story tonelessly. “She is mentally sick,” Edmond whispered.

Arson on a grand scale has lost its power to shock, but mass amputations have given Sierra Leone its special place in the annals of human wickedness. Amputation there is not a form of punishment as it is in the Islamic judicial system. In Sierra Leone the practice started as a grotesque warning—Don’t Vote, or Don’t Write. But most of the time, “chopping,” as they call it, wasn’t meant to convey or accomplish anything; it was simply a device to spread terror and to crush resistance. One day I walked around a camp for amputees in Freetown maintained by Doctors Without Borders. The amputees were supposedly waiting for prostheses, but few of them seemed to expect much help. They knew that nothing could restore a future to them, and so they sat listlessly on the dirt porches of their huts, trying to do with one hand, or none, the ordinary things they used to do—smoke a cigarette, hold a radio, nurse an infant. My visit didn’t arouse much interest—as it would have in, say, a refugee camp—but several of the amputees were eager to have me see the worst of the horror, like an eight-month-old girl without a hand.

I was brought to see a man named Mustapha Mansary, the “adviser” to the camp committee. He said that in the summer of 1998 the rebels had come to his house in Kono, a diamond center in the north. “They looted everything from our houses and ordered us to carry it to their base in the bush,” he recalled. A person who does not have hands makes gestures that look very strange; Mustapha waved his forearms gently as he spoke. “When we got there, they said, ‘We want to thank you for helping us. We’re going to give you a gift.’ And the gift was, they chopped off our hands.” Mustapha bled for eight days before he could see a doctor.

I asked Mustapha if he had any explanation for what had happened to him. “I don’t know why they did it,” he said. “They didn’t accuse us of doing anything; they just did it for its own sake.”

A young man named Mukhtar Jialloh escorted me around the camp. He spoke English well, which was rare. The rebels had found a journal that he was keeping. Like the Khmer Rouge, they singled out the educated for special brutality; many of them are, like the Khmers, country folk with a deep suspicion of learning and of city ways. Mukhtar had begged the rebels to cut off his left hand, since he was right-handed; for that very reason, they had cut off his right hand.

While walking in Freetown recently, he told me, he had run into both the man who had bound his hands and the man who had chopped off the right one. It was a moment he had dreamed of. “I said, ‘Do you recognize me?’ They said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘You ought to.’ But I was in the long sleeve, and I presented my left side. Then I said, ‘You see, you tied me up, and you cut me.’ And then I took out my arm from my sleeve and showed them.” A group of Mukhtar’s friends gathered around. They wanted to take revenge for him. The rebels were trembling; they tried to give him money. Mukhtar wasn’t about to let them buy off their guilt, but he was also either too gentle or too demoralized to want their blood. “I said, ‘Leave them; the evil that men do lives after them.”‘

Freetown itself experienced a kind of nervous breakdown after January 6. Virtually everyone had to flee from his home; many people spent terrifying days trying to cross into the safe parts of the city. Two people I spoke to had been able to talk their way out of being executed. And much of the city’s economy, already flimsy, was wrecked. Thousands of people—especially the well educated—fled to Guinea, where they joined the more than 400,000 refugees who have left Sierra Leone since 1992. There are scarcely any jobs for Freetown’s remaining educated class; the only way to survive is to get work or help from the aid organizations or embassies or the UN. I was taken one night to Paddy’s, a big restaurant owned by English expatriates, with two bars and a dance floor and pounding music. There were virtually no African men—just local girls dancing with each other, gazing hungrily at every white man who walked in the door.


Whatever their competence, the Nigerian troops in ECOMOG were at least willing to fight and die to defend Sierra Leone. More than a thousand Nigerians were killed in the fighting, which cost Nigeria about $1 million a day. By early 1999, the Nigerian leaders had had enough, and they told President Kabbah that he would have to look elsewhere if he was to survive. This happened at the same time that NATO was getting ready to try to drive the Serbs from Kosovo, and Kabbah asked Secretary-General Kofi Annan, a fellow West African, to do the same for his beleaguered country.

Annan, however, explained that the Security Council would not come to Sierra Leone’s rescue. It was, after all, a small country with no important patrons, and the situation was far too unstable for the UN to send a peacekeeping force there. The President would have to reach some understanding with his rivals. President Clinton, eager to do something—he had just apologized to the Rwandans for having failed to lift a finger in the face of genocide—sent the Reverend Jesse Jackson to use his negotiating skills to work out a deal.

In the resulting Lome accords, signed in July, the RUF agreed to lay down its arms in exchange for a promise of amnesty for past acts and their inclusion in a new coalition government. Foday Sankoh was named Minister of Mines, thus formalizing his control over the country’s diamond supply. The agreement was repellent to Kabbah, while even Annan himself said, “No one can feel happy about a peace obtained on such terms.” But those were terms the US approved of, and so they were the best terms Sierra Leone was going to get.

Once President Kabbah signed the cease-fire agreement, the Security Council was prepared to send troops, and even obliged to do so. From the UN’s point of view, there was all the difference in the world between intervening to protect the state against the rebels—a violation of the principle of neutrality which has always guided peacekeeping missions—and sending troops to ensure compliance with a cease-fire agreement, which is precisely what UN peacekeeping is traditionally for. Foday Sankoh was no longer the enemy; he was now part of the government that was issuing the invitation to the UN. And peacekeepers must be invited; otherwise, they are parties to a conflict. This is why the Security Council has expended so much energy in recent months in getting all the countries that have soldiers roaming around the Congo to commit themselves to the so-called Lusaka accords, which specify the terms of disengagement. The UN cannot go into a country until all the parties—at least those that are sovereign nations—have made at least a rhetorical commitment to peace. Of course, this principle also requires that the UN behave as if that rhetorical commitment has meaning even when it patently does not. In other words, the UN can seldom intervene when it is really needed, and it cannot refrain from intervening even in impossible situations.

In October, the Security Council passed Resolution 1270 creating a peacekeeping mission in Sierra Leone, and charging it with a range of tasks: helping to carry out the government’s “disarmament, demobilization and reintegration” plan; monitoring adherence to the cease-fire agreement; protecting UN personnel and establishing “a presence at key locations.” The Security Council authorized six thousand troops, and then the UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations began canvassing the countries that might contribute them. Certain countries, including Canada, Australia, Holland, Poland, and Fiji, have long experience in peacekeeping; they are referred to collectively as “the glue,” and a peacekeeping mission needs at least some of them in order to hold together. None of them, however, wanted to send their soldiers to Sierra Leone. India was the only country with a genuinely professional army that was willing to send troops. The others were drawn from the ECOMOG forces already on the ground—Nigeria, Ghana, Guinea—as well as Kenya. This was hardly an auspicious start.

Foday Sankoh began testing the peacekeepers almost as soon as they arrived. In mid-January of this year, RUF troops ambushed a convoy of the UN’s Guinean troops as well as two detachments of Kenyans. In each case, the peacekeepers meekly handed over their weapons, which included automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, as well as their armored personnel carriers. In February, the Security Council responded by authorizing an additional five thousand troops, adding new elements to the mandate and authorizing the troops to “take the necessary action”—that is, shoot people, if need be—to “ensure the security and freedom of movement of its personnel” and “to afford protection to civilians under imminent threat of physical violence.” Foday Sankoh responded by publicly ridiculing the disarmament process and flew to the Ivory Coast and South Africa in violation of a travel ban.

Still, I arrived in Sierra Leone during a relatively tranquil interlude. The peacekeepers were expanding their presence into rebel-held areas and reporting only minor resistance. I took a UN helicopter from Freetown to Kenema, 185 miles to the east, and then drove two hours further eastward through the blazing heat to Daru, where a detachment of Indian peacekeepers was stationed. Along the way we passed through Segbwema, until recently a rebel-held town, where every large building, and many ordinary houses, had been smashed to bits. That, I was told, was the handiwork not of the rebels but of Nigerian Alpha jets, which, like the Nigerians themselves, had been lethal and not particularly discriminating.

The Indians were lodged in an ancient barracks that once had probably been occupied by the English. When I drove up, at about two o’clock in the afternoon, the officer corps, about twenty-five strong, had assembled in a sort of parlor. They were seated, facing one another, in a rectangle. I was introduced to each officer in turn, and then ushered to a seat. The room fell silent. I finally whispered to the man next to me, “Did you all come here just to meet me?” “No,” he said, “we’re here for lunch; we just waited for you.” That was a relief. I had, I realized, entered an Indian, or Anglo-Indian, enclave in the West African bush—junior officers smartly saluting, mutton curry served by bearers, badminton, chaffing fellowship, elaborate hospitality. It was slightly bizarre, but reassuringly professional; the Indians were considered easily the best of the peacekeeping troops in Sierra Leone.

I was standing out on the veranda of the mess hall admiring an extraordinary butterfly with reddish circles at the base of immense black wings. “That’s not a butterfly,” said Lieutenant Colonel Amit Sharma. “It’s a moth.” The lieutenant colonel proceeded to deliver an impromptu lecture on lepidoptery. I had asked to go out on patrol and Sharma, it turned out, was to be my guide.

The roads had been getting steadily worse from Kenema to Daru. Now, as we drove further eastward, they became almost impassable. The asphalt had disintegrated so far that the remaining bits had become an obstacle to the four-wheel-drive Maruti that Sharma wrenched in and out of potholes. Peacekeeping, Sharma said, meant driving around the countryside and talking to people. “I try to make these people understand what peacekeeping is,” he said. “I tell them that we have not come here to fight the rebels, that we are not a war-making force. We are here to give people the sense of security that will allow peace to go forward.”

Sharma admitted that many of the people he spoke to found this idea as cryptic as it sounded. They were entirely content to have a war-making force that would fight on their side. This noncombatant status was, on the other hand, satisfactory to the RUF. But Sharma felt that establishing a UN presence was valuable in itself. The Nigerians had made a stand in Daru and defended the town from innumerable rebel attacks; but they hadn’t ventured far from town, and they had conceded the countryside to the rebels. It was the Indians’ job to reclaim those hinterlands.

Sharma had originally wanted to take me to Kailahun, but it would take six or seven hours to drive the seventy miles from Daru, and it was considered far too dangerous to travel through remote parts of the countryside after sundown. The Indians were especially proud of their presence in Kailahun, where the rebellion had begun. The town had been an RUF bastion, and the mandate of the Indian force had been to establish a beachhead there, and thus to prove that no place would be off-limits to the peacekeepers. About a month before I arrived in Sierra Leone, an Indian convoy had crept over the shattered roads and reached Kailahun with no resistance at all. The town had been devastated by years of war—trees were growing through the middle of houses—and the civilian population had left long ago.

And so the Indian peacekeepers began a campaign to win over the rebels. They brought in an Indian doctor from Freetown who treated rebel soldiers, no questions asked; he requisitioned a helicopter to bring several of them to the hospital in Freetown for further care. They dug a well, and brought in a pump and water purification equipment. One of the Indian officers, Major Yadav, made a heartwarming home movie in which rebel leaders, including one who could only hop up and down on a single leg, professed gratitude for the peace process. Sharma, less gullible, had met the RUF’s chief theoretician, a Mr. Jonathan, who had delivered an impassioned denunciation of “capitalist roaders” which made the lieutenant colonel nostalgic for his days studying political philosophy at Delhi University. Sharma and the local RUF commander were now on excellent terms.

As we drove through Pendembu, another wrecked town halfway between Daru and Kailahun, Sharma suddenly braked to a halt and backed up. He had just seen Major Sam, one of the rebels’ brigade commanders, an important personage. Sharma beckoned him over, and Major Sam came obligingly to the car. He was wearing fatigues and a bulletproof vest, though he was unarmed. The day before, Sharma had tried to settle a dispute between Major Sam and a couple of former Sierra Leone army soldiers who had attacked Sam’s driver and cracked the windshield of his Toyota pickup. It was a complicated situation, and Sharma had gone to extraordinary lengths to untangle it. His father and grandfather had both been high-ranking civil servants, and it was clear that he had a knack for artful mollification.

Major Sam seemed very deferential, as if speaking to a superior officer. Sharma wanted to use this chance meeting to deliver a little lecture. “Sam,” he said, “I want to tell you something, and I want you to tell your brothers. We don’t want to hurt the reputation of the RUF; we want to work with you. But UNAMSIL is not going anywhere; we are here to stay.” Sam nodded, and smiled.

Sharma told me he had no illusions about Foday Sankoh. “Foday Sankoh has told the rebels to stop fighting,” he said, “but he’s also told them not to turn in their weapons; so they’re waiting.” But he also felt that if the peacekeepers remained resolute the rebels might begin to cooperate. There was some evidence that he was right. In mid-February a large Indian convoy had been halted by a few RUF soldiers with AK-47s at a place called Bendu Junction, on the road between Kenema and Daru. Sharma had been called in to mediate, and he had told the local commanders that Foday Sankoh himself had promised the peacekeepers that they would be able to travel without interference. The rebels refused. Within a few hours, there were three hundred or so armed rebels standing at the roadblock, and the situation had become threatening. Sharma ordered the convoy to fall back a mile or so, and there it remained for thirty-six hours. Finally, he said to the local commanders, “We’re leaving, but you’re going to see us again and again, until we get through.” UNAMSIL got word of the incident to Foday Sankoh, and the following day one of the local commanders came to Sharma and said that the road would be clear if they wanted to try again.

I thought the Indian contingent was impressive, and when I came back to Freetown I argued with local journalists who had been convinced that the rebels would trample the peacekeepers at the first opportunity. Of course, they were right, and I was wrong. Lieutenant Colonel Sharma was wrong and so was Major Yadav, the enthusiastic video producer. Among the first peacekeepers whom the RUF captured were a group of Indian soldiers and civilians who landed by helicopter in Kailahun. In retrospect, it is now obvious that the roadblock in Bendu Junction was part of a larger pattern of testing and prodding, and that Foday Sankoh had learned what he needed to know: that the peacekeepers, unlike the ECOMOG forces, would not shoot back if provoked. Their discipline and self-restraint were a sign of their professionalism; but this was a professionalism that was wasted on their adversaries. And what became of Major Sam and the other “good guys” who were Sharma’s interlocutors? It wouldn’t be surprising if they wound up turning their guns on their Indian friends. After all, they had been the bad guys—very bad guys indeed—until just the other day.

The Indians didn’t fail to convince people that they would be protected; the population of Daru had swelled from 3,000 to 30,000 as people from the interior and refugees from across the border in Guinea came into the city. Bare-breasted women began dancing as the peacekeepers went rolling by—the West African equivalent of the welcome accorded the GIs as they swept across France. But it didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered, in the end, was Foday Sankoh’s state of mind. And Foday Sankoh wanted war, not peace. He had taken the measure of the UN peacekeepers, and found that a brief violent attack would serve his purpose. Even the seeming ability of the Indians and other contingents of UNAMSIL to establish a “presence” was illusory. It now appears that Foday Sankoh permitted this until UNAMSIL tried to establish a presence in the central diamond district of Kono. That he could not permit; and so he had struck. Even after he was captured on May 17, the RUF continued to control much of the countryside.


The UN mission in Sierra Leone now looks like a ludicrous attempt to apply the loftiest set of moral principles in a sadistic and predatory world. It is another case of precisely the kind of ruinous naiveté that the UN has been accused of suffering from in Bosnia and Rwanda. But it’s worth remembering that it was the Clinton administration, and specifically Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who forced on President Kabbah the grotesque shotgun marriage with Foday Sankoh in the first place. It was at least as absurd to believe that Sankoh would be satisfied by power-sharing as to believe that the RUF could be conquered by a campaign of friendly persuasion, or that the rebels would be intimidated by the peacekeepers’ modest show of force.

It is more likely that neither American policymakers nor the UN Secretariat was so foolish as to put stock in Foday Sankoh’s reasonableness—and that Sierra Leone is a tale not of actual but of willed naiveté. The Clinton administration, unwilling to commit troops or resources to the problems of an unimportant West African country but fearing accusations of risking through inaction another disaster on the scale of the one in Rwanda, found a cost-free way of acting, or appearing to act. Secretary-General Annan, fully aware of the limitations of UN peacekeeping, sent off UNAMSIL with a Security Council mandate more suitable to Cyprus than to the nation of chaos he must have known Sierra Leone to be. And the Department of Peacekeeping Operations shipped off a force of soldiers with hardly any idea how to engage in peacekeeping because most of the soldiers that knew about it wanted no part of it. Did anyone really have much confidence in what they were doing?

This disingenuousness is an inevitable consequence of a situation in which the means engaged are obviously unequal to the desired end, and nobody can afford to admit it. Why can’t the UN muster sufficient means? For one thing, peacekeeping wasn’t designed to stop warlords like Foday Sankoh—or anyone else, for that matter. It was created to help carry out agreements among states, as in the Sinai, the UN’s first peacekeeping mission, in which each of the belligerents was eager or at least willing to accept a pretext to disengage. Peacekeeping worked because all sides accepted the UN’s position of principled neutrality.

But countries don’t go to war with one another as often as they used to. We live in an era of collapsing states; and now governments declare war on factions, often ethnic, as in Kosovo; or factions try to murder their way to power, as in Liberia or Sierra Leone; or in the absence of any state at all, warlords fight each other for supremacy, as in Somalia. The new contestants find the UN’s principles quaint; they aren’t much swayed by international public opinion, and they often derive tremendous economic benefits from war. They can’t be reasoned with; they can only be stopped. You can’t go into places like Sierra Leone unless you’re prepared to shoot people when you are provoked; you can’t go unless the explicit idea is to stop the bad guys. But the UN can’t live by that truth.

Perhaps the UN as an institution is psychologically incapable of adapting to a world that scorns its principles; its passivity in the face of the impending Rwandan massacre argues as much. Kofi Annan has admitted that the UN failed the Rwandan people; but he also knew at the time (Annan was then head of peacekeeping) that the Security Council—and, above all, the United States—would never agree to reinforce the small Belgian contingent that had been stationed there. Time and again—most recently in East Timor—the Security Council has proved itself unable or unwilling to act in the months before a catastrophe, and has rarely agreed to a tough enough mandate to deal with ongoing violence (witness Bosnia). And so even if Kofi Annan were willing to try to drastically change the rules of peacekeeping, the Security Council almost certainly wouldn’t let him.

Yet one lesson Sierra Leone plainly teaches is that it doesn’t necessarily take a lot of force to put down a brutal rebellion. Look what Executive Outcomes accomplished with two hundred well-trained soldiers with an unambiguous mission. The one thousand British paratroops who landed in Freetown early this May were sent to secure the airport and help evacuate foreign nationals; and yet, working with the peacekeepers and the Sierra Leone army, they drove the rebels from the outskirts of Freetown without, apparently, taking a single casualty. And so the question arises: Where can we look for such a force the next time around? Not to the British, presumably, unless the country happens to be a former colony. And obviously not to the Americans, whose muscular and moralistic rhetoric has rarely been matched by deeds (or even money).

Sir Brian Urquhart, the former Deputy Secretary-General for Political Affairs, has proposed, in these pages, the creation of a UN “rapid reaction force.”3 Such a force would represent a radical change in UN peacekeeping, and it’s not easy to imagine the Security Council accepting the concept, deploying the force when needed, or giving it an adequate mandate. But in the absence of such a force, UN peacekeeping is likely to become irrelevant. The fact that US Ambassador Richard Holbrooke has recently spoken up in favor of a rapid reaction force may mean that the debacle in Sierra Leone will force a debate that the UN desperately needs. One can only hope that the next proposed peacekeeping mission, in the Congo, doesn’t prove to be such a fiasco as to make all debate superfluous.

As I write in late May, there are shreds of good news for the miserable people of Sierra Leone. The rebels have been driven back from Freetown, the UN has sent additional troops, Foday Sankoh is in government custody, and President Kabbah has announced that he will put him on trial. But the government remains only a hypothetical one, with a president whose writ runs no further than the gate of his hilltop compound. And it will have to proceed cautiously against Sankoh, because the rebels continue to fight only fifty miles from Freetown, and a trial could provoke full-blown war.

Charles Taylor has suddenly become the West’s, and specifically the US’s, interlocutor with the rebels, which means that we will now be negotiating Sankoh’s, and Sierra Leone’s, fate with a man every bit as unpredictable and bloodthirsty as Sankoh himself. Sierra Leone is a thoroughgoing mess, and neither the UN nor the “international community” can be expected to solve its problems. But we cannot keep vowing to prevent the next catastrophe, and then make ineffectual gestures when that catastrophe happens.

—June 1, 2000

This Issue

June 29, 2000