Sierra Leone Diamond War

Given the horror that has characterized Sierra Leone's recent past, it was a bold move.
Given the horror that has characterized Sierra Leone's recent past, it was a bold move.

Sierra Leone Diamond War

Given the horror that has characterized Sierra Leone's recent past, it was a bold move. On May 8, with their small diamond-rich country once again descending into chaos, several thousand government supporters gathered in Freetown, the capital, to protest at a villa belonging to rebel leader Foday Sankoh. But Sankoh's soldiers have a reputation for brutality - even to the point of mutilating children. And they did not hesitate, firing into the crowd and killing four people as Sankoh escaped. At week's end, his whereabouts remained unknown, as did the fate of 500 UN peacekeepers, mostly from Zambia, captured by his men on May 4. What was clear is that Sierra Leone's fragile peace seemed irrevocably broken as Sankoh's troops launched a new offensive against the capital - even as thousands of frightened people fleeing the fighting continued to arrive in the city.

Since 1991, Sankoh's Revolutionary United Front has tried to terrorize Sierra Leone into submission - often by cutting off the feet and hands of innocent children - in an effort to control the country's diamond trade. The horror was supposed to end last July, when Sankoh agreed to become vice-president in a power-sharing government with President Tejan Kabbah. But when the 500 UN peacekeepers, part of a 8,900-strong peacekeeping force fanning out across the country to police the agreement, approached Sankoh's diamond mines on May 4, the rebels took them hostage, precipitating a new round of hostilities with UN troops ill-prepared for full-scale combat.

Only days before the hostage-taking, Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy visited Freetown on UN business and met with Sankoh in his villa. Axworthy attempted to convince the rebel leader to release 3,000 teenage girls his forces held as sex slaves, but Sankoh rebuffed those efforts. "He was focusing on his diamond mines, not the children he was abusing," Axworthy told Maclean's. Last week, with the situation deteriorating, British Prime Minister Tony Blair dispatched 250 paratroopers to Freetown to help evacuate foreign nationals. Canada and the United States also promised planes to ferry 2,000 additional peacekeepers into the country from India and Bangladesh. Blair and U.S. President Bill Clinton refused UN secretary general Kofi Annan's appeal to send in combat troops to crush the rebels. But Axworthy insisted the United Nations would not abandon Sierra Leone. "The UN is not retreating," he said. "It is regrouping."

With Sankoh firmly in control of the countryside and the West unwilling to send in combat troops, many analysts believe a bloody standoff will now prevail. To finally defeat Sankoh, the West will have to sever his financial lifeline: revenues from the rich diamond mines in the eastern part of the country. The gems are shipped south to neighbouring Liberia, where they are sold on the black market. So far, the struggle for control of Sierra Leone's wealth has scarred a generation of the country's youth. Young boys and girls were kidnapped, the girls used as sex slaves and the boys forced into the RUF. As Sankoh's foot soldiers, they committed terrible atrocities, including maiming nearly 10,000 people since 1991 by chopping off their hands, arms or feet. "This war is only about diamonds," said Ian Smillie, who co-authored "The Heart of the Matter," a report on the Sierra Leone diamond trade for the Ottawa-based human rights group Partnership Africa Canada. "The RUF wants to dislodge the government so it can gain more control."

U.S. officials thought they had ended the fighting last year when they enlisted the Rev. Jesse Jackson as a peace envoy to lobby President Kabbah, Sankoh and a second rebel group that once supported the RUF for peace. To complete the pact, the United States was forced to strike a bargain with the devil, with Sankoh becoming vice-president. As part of the deal, Sankoh and his troops were granted amnesty in exchange for disbanding and giving up their weapons - which they did not do.

From the time they arrived in December, the peacekeepers were harassed. The lightly armed UN forces were easy prey: in fact, the 500 peacekeepers captured on May 4 apparently gave up their weapons without an argument. At week's end, the whereabouts of the captured troops remained unknown (Sankoh, who some Western observers say may have gone mad, said that his troops were not holding them hostage and that the soldiers had gotten lost). "The last time the rebels came it was like this," said Rominus Conteh, who fled to the capital. "We were not going to wait for them."

British paratroopers have been joined in the capital by Sierra Leone government forces. But analysts say Sankoh is gambling the West does not have the resolve to put combat troops into Sierra Leone. He may be right. At an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council last Wednesday, no commitment was made to send in armed troops. "The fact is, countries are not prepared to sacrifice their sons on the altar of human rights - unless they can bomb from 15,000 feet in a very safe environment," said retired Canadian Maj.-Gen. Lewis MacKenzie, who led a UN peacekeeping mission in Bosnia in 1992.

The United Nations is hoping that a regional African force led by Nigeria could yet enter Sierra Leone and put down the rebels. But at a hurried meeting in Abuja, Nigeria, leaders from around the region condemned Sankoh but fell short of ordering additional troops into Sierra Leone. Canada also hopes to undermine Sankoh by asking the Security Council to consider sanctions against countries dealing in Sierra Leone diamonds. Partnership Africa Canada would welcome such a move. "The UN should ban all exports of diamonds from Liberia," said Smillie. "It's high time the world paid attention to it." If not, the children of Sierra Leone will continue to be sacrificed in the struggle over diamonds.

Sierra Leone: A Tragic Past

1808: Becomes a British colony populated largely by freed slaves.

1961: Achieves independence.

1996: Election of President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah.

1997: Kabbah is overthrown in a coup and flees to Guinea.

1998: Kabbah is returned to power with the help of Nigeria.

1999: Foday Sankoh leads Revolutionary United Front soldiers into Freetown. After terrorizing the city for three weeks the rebels retreat and sign a peace accord in July, with Kabbah remaining as president and Sankoh becoming vice-president.

Maclean's May 22, 2000