Sierra Leone last week held a symbolic destruction of weapons, formally marking the end of the country's 10-year civil war. The conflict became known for brutality that included the use of hundreds of child soldiers and a campaign of terror in which rebel fighters cut off the limbs of thousands of civilians. The war has left Sierra Leone with living conditions described by the United Nations as the worst in the world in terms of per capita income, life expectancy and education. With its economy in ruins, the country must now struggle to reintegrate the thousands of young combatants who have disarmed.
Mohamad Fofana, 27, and his cousin scrape mortar from a bucket in the ruins of their family's home in central Freetown. The bricks are forming a wall, and the house appears to be taking shape once again. Like many others in the Sierra Leonean capital, the house collapsed after rebels firebombed it during an attack in 1997.
Although no shots had been heard in Freetown for more than a year, Mr. Fofana says he did not have the confidence to go and purchase construction materials to start rebuilding until he heard that President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah and rebel leaders declared the war over on January 18.
"Now we have declared total peace in our country so we decided to rebuild our home, our shattered home," he explains. "We were thinking the place was not safe. But now we think that everything is alright, so we decided to rebuild this building."
The confidence expressed by Mr. Fofana and other Sierra Leoneans has been long in coming.
The war started in March of 1991 in Sierra Leone's coffee and cocoa-growing Kailahun district. Later, as the war spread to the country's rich mining districts, diamonds became a source of income for the rebels.
Rebels and the government had signed a peace agreement nearly three years ago at a meeting in the Togolese capital, Lome, but the agreement never held. A number of cease-fires were also declared, only to be quickly broken.
Finally, in the later months of the year 2000, Britain - the former colonial power in Sierra Leone - began sending significant numbers of troops to bolster U.N. peacekeepers who were already on the ground. It was the overwhelming presence of Western forces that some observers believe finally drew the rebels to meet and agree to a new cease-fire. That meeting took place in Abuja, Nigeria, in November 2000. The agreement held, and the final disarmament process began in May 2001.
In a speech at the weapons-burning ceremony on January 18, President Kabbah said the flames of war have been extinguished and the country was now watching what he said are the "flames of peace."
By and large, people in Sierra Leone agree the war is over. They seem little troubled by reports that a small number of weapons remain in the hands of former combatants. But most people, including the peacekeepers, also realize that the peace is fragile. Lieutenant-General Daniel Opande is the U.N. peace force commander in Sierra Leone who has overseen the disarmament effort.
"The security situation in the country today can be termed as calm," he says. "But, of course, having been involved in a 10-year civil conflict, one should not underestimate the potential for violence."
Observers say that while disarmament is complete, the root causes of the war remain. Zainab Bangura, national coordinator of the Committee for Good Governance, a civil society group in Freetown, tells VOA the government must act quickly if peace is to last after the U.N. peacekeepers have departed.
"The most important thing is that the sources of [the] conflict have yet to be addressed and the sources were political and economic," says Mrs. Bangura." And I think that was what led people into the bush."
Sierra Leone is due to hold presidential and legislative elections in May. With the war now behind them, politicians will have to address the plight of the thousands of ex-combatants and other young people who have no jobs and whose education has been cut short by the war.
It does not take long to get a sense of the despair felt by many young people in Freetown. 27-year-old Amadu Ba tells me he earns less than a dollar a day when he is fortunate enough he says to find work as a motorcycle mechanic.
"This is the only country where you don't see a factory that is employing 100 people or more than 200 workers. All of the youths of today are passing around, roaming around," he says. "This is the time for elections. Politicians want to use us again. We are suffering too much. Since this morning, I haven't eaten yet. It is now 12 o'clock this time. I never ate [this morning]. We are suffering too much. "
Mr. Bah, who attended school up to the fifth grade, believes he holds an advantage over many other Sierra Leoneans: He knows how to read and write in a country where the literacy rate is just over 31 percent.
The elections in May and events leading up to them will serve as a test of whether lasting peace has come to Sierra Leone.
Members of the Revolutionary United Front are in the process of converting their rebel group into a political party. One of the points of contention ahead of the elections remains the case of jailed RUF leader Foday Sankoh, whom some people say was responsible for pushing rebel fighters to commit atrocities.
RUF members, including the group's interim leader, Issa Sesay, regard Mr. Sankoh as the RUF candidate for president, even though he is in jail.
"We are still talking to the United Nations about the release of Mr. Sankoh. If there is [truly] a case against him, then he can be charged, instead of just detaining him," he explains. "We don't have access to him. People need Mr. Sankoh in this country because people know what Mr. Sankoh is capable of doing, in terms of bringing development [to] this country."
Foday Sankoh is among those expected to face prosecutors in the newly established U.N. special court that will carry out its work over the course of three years.
While the apparent impasse involving the former rebels and their jailed leader is troubling to some, analysts like Zainab Bangura believe the bigger challenge for the politicians lies in convincing the massive population of young people that there is reason to continue with the existing government.
Mrs. Bangura says the war has changed the way people in Sierra Leone see politics and government.
"The important thing that has come from this is the awareness that the young people have a say, that you need to listen to them," she says "If you look at the leadership of the RUF, [from] Issa [Sesay] downward, all of them are less than 40 years old. You look at the government ministers, they are all 60 or 70 years old. So, sitting at the table dialogue, you can see the generation gap we are talking about. We have actually been able to get the young people at the table to talk about the issues that are of concern to them."
Mrs. Bangura says the government in 1991 ignored the calls that young people were making for better opportunities. This time, Mrs. Bangura says, she hopes the leadership will listen.
Elections in Sierra Leone are scheduled for May 14.