VOA's Luis Ramirez traveled through the Sierra Leonean countryside this month and has the first of two reports looking at Sierra Leone's return to peace after a decade of war.
Rebels in Sierra Leone continue disarming at a high rate, signaling what many believe is finally the end of a 10-year brutal civil war that centered on control of the West African country's rich diamond fields. The United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone, UNAMSIL, says more than 16,000 combatants, both rebels and pro-government militias, have laid down their weapons since a U.N. sponsored disarmament program began in May.
U.N. officials expect to complete the demobilization of combatants by November of this year. Under the weight of extensive damage done by the war to the country's social structure and the continuation of illegal diamond mining, observers say that peace is fragile.
Signs of reconstruction are everywhere in Sierra Leone. Farmers are returning to long-abandoned fields. People, both in the capital, Freetown, and in the countryside, can be seen rebuilding homes that were torched by rebels with the Revolutionary United Front, RUF, as they went on a campaign of terror. Sierra Leoneans, it appears are ready to move on.
In towns like Makeni and Koidu, which were virtually abandoned following rebel attacks, the scars remain. Koidu, the capital of the diamond-rich Kono district, once was a prosperous diamond trading city. It now resembles a ghost town. Not a single building along its main thoroughfare, it appears, was spared the looting and firebombing. The roofs of houses and shops were burned off years ago. All that remains now are walls covered with jungle growth. It is only in recent days that people have started returning, setting up makeshift dwellings next to the burned-out buildings.
Until just a few weeks ago, rebels controlled most of Sierra Leone. After years of rebel occupation, those areas lack even minimal infrastructure. As the disarmament and demobilization of combatants continues, the Sierra Leonean government is still trying to assess the damage.
The government estimates 3,000 villages were destroyed, along with 4,000 schools and health facilities. That is only an estimate. Kanja Sesay heads the Sierra Leone's National Commission for Resettlement Rehabilitation and Reconstruction. He says the actual damage figures have yet to be compiled.
"We have not even had access yet to do proper assessment in the rest of the entire country," he says. "We still need to do proper assessment in newly accessible areas like Kambia, like Kono, Bombali, Tonkolili, all of these areas. We really need serious, serious resources to be able to take the displaced persons back to their homes, to repair all of the damaged infrastructure there, to provide economic livelihood for the people, the resettling communities. Therefore, it is huge, it is overwhelming. The challenge is really huge and resources are really required."
Near Koidu's center is a government hospital that was overrun by the rebels and is now under U.N. control. A commander of Pakistani peacekeepers explains to a hospital staffer that his troops can provide security, but not medicines or equipment. There is no running water, no electricity. In a room inside the men's ward are three rusting beds and an empty cabinet. In one of the beds is a man, curled up. His body is emaciated from days of suffering an intestinal infection. There are no antibiotics; not even a drip to rehydrate him. A nurse says he will likely soon die.
Moses Yambi is a 29-year-old nurse who fled the hospital after rebels took it over. He has now returned, but he says that with no supplies, there is little he can do. "We are doing here minor dressings, and some minor dispensary. There are not sufficient drugs for now," Mr. Yambi says. "You can see the walls. Everything has been vandalized during the war. There is no proper care and there is no NGO [non-governmental organization] that can take up the responsibility now."
Pakistani commander Brigadier General Ahmad Pasha says the job of his troops, as peacekeepers, is only to secure the area. The delivery of supplies and medicines, he says, is the work of non-governmental organizations. He says U.N. peacekeepers' main challenge at the moment is to build trust among the people, and make it clear to the people of Sierra Leone that the United Nations is there in the interest of peace.
"Once that is done, I think the next is going to be to someway or another bring them to a point where they start thinking that their efforts toward peace [have] not been in waste," General Pasha says, "that they have a hope, that they have a future, and that they can work together with us toward that. Of course [there] remains the education and the health problems which are in abundance in this area and for which unfortunately my resources do not permit doing much."
Rebuilding economic structures and employing the thousands of young people who are giving up their guns is one of the biggest challenges facing Sierra Leone.
At an abandoned gas station in Kono, former RUF fighter Minkailu Kamara, aged 27, uses a sledgehammer to smash his rifle as U.N. peacekeepers look on. Minkailu tells me he has been fighting since he was 17. He is one of scores of combatants who lined up to hand in weapons and ammunition. "Why did I disarm," he asks. He continues,"I disarmed for freedom. I feel like going to school."
Also in line at the gas station is a 10-year-old former rebel combatant. He proudly shows a yellow piece of paper that was given to him after he turned in his gun. "I came for disarm," the young former rebel says. "Right now I disarmed. Look at my paper."
A visiting reporter asks him what he will do now. Carefully thinking about how he was going to answer, he responds, "I want to go to school. I want to go to school and learn from a book. I'll forget about this war and about everything."
The boy says both of his parents were killed when rebels attacked his village and took him away to fight with them. He says he does not know how many people he shot while he was with the rebels. When asked if he thought he had done anything wrong, his reply was, "No. I am a good boy. I obeyed my commander. I did what he told me."
Part 2 of this series will look at efforts to repair Sierra Leone's damaged family and social structures in the wake of the war.