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Sierra Leone Holds First Election After 10-Year Civil War - 2002-05-14

Voter turnout has been heavy in Sierra Leone, where people are electing a president and members of parliament for the first time since end of the country's brutal, 10-year civil war.

Thousands lined up in the pre-dawn hours in Freetown to wait for the polls to open. In many cases, lines went around city blocks. The voting followed a campaign season that was mostly festive, drawing thousands to the streets to rally in support of their candidates.

Eight men and one woman appeared on the presidential ballot. Favored in the poll is incumbent President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, who some Sierra Leoneans credit with helping to end the war. The war, which killed tens of thousands of people, gained international attention due to the wide extent of atrocities that combatants committed against civilians.

The conflict was officially declared over in January, when the last of more than 40,000 former combatants turned over their weapons to United Nations peacekeepers.

People's eagerness to vote was evident Tuesday at one polling station in Freetown, where some complained of the long lines.

Minor scuffles erupted when a large number of people tried to rush the gates of the polling station.

Forty-year-old office worker Florence Bangali arrived at her polling place at three o'clock in the morning to take her place in line. She said she could not wait to vote. Mrs. Bangali, who lost her home and several members of her family in rebel attacks, said casting her ballot marked, in her mind, the moment that she could finally put the war behind her.

"We have learned a lot of bitter lessons, very bitter lessons. They killed our parents; they burnt our houses; they raped our children. Those things were very bitter for us," she said. "So, for now, we really know that war is not a nice thing and we are not ready to face it again. We have gone through so many things in the past 11 years. Some of us lost everything in this world. We are starting life all over again. So, we don't want to go there again. We are ready to change and we are ready to get peace."

One of the largest crowds of voters lined up at a camp in Freetown that houses amputees - people who had their limbs cut off by rebel fighters during the conflict.

Special provisions were made so that people who are missing their hands could vote using their toes. Lamin Jusu Jarka had his two hands cut off by rebels when they invaded Freetown in January of 2000. On Tuesday, he stamped his toeprint on a ballot.

"Because of the fact that I lost my two hands, that is why I cast my vote with my toe, to pick my choice of my leader, who will be the better person to lead this country," he said.

Mr. Jarka leads an advocacy group that is fighting to get the government to start paying pensions to war victims like himself. He said he hopes his vote on Tuesday will help bring that about. The voting took place amid tight security, with Sierra Leonean police and United Nations peacekeepers guarding the polls.

The head of Sierra Leone's National Election Commission Walter Nicol said final results from the presidential and legislative polls are due by Friday.