To rebuild a nation – Tales of war and peace in Sierra Leone

During 2003 and 2004 I participated in rebuilding a nation torn apart by 11 years of civil war, as I was given the opportunity to do an internship at the United Nations Development Programme, UNDP, in West African SierraLeone for sixmonths. The position gave me experience from peace-making within the UN system as well as a viewpoint of a peacekeeping operation in a failed nation destroyed by war.

Following the end of the Cold War in the early 90’s, several armed conflicts erupted in Sub-Saharan Africa as a consequence of the new world order, a situation where the two superpowers had pulled the support from their respective proxy partners in the third world. As a response, several peacekeeping operations were carried out by the UN in order to prevent the conflicts, disarm the warring parties and to build long-standing peace.

Several of these peacekeeping operations conducted in the 90’s failed or came too late but, at least, an embryo of a more just world started to develop, where warring parties of a conflict could no longer get a way with serious human rights violations. Another step forward was the criminal courts specialized in war crimes, created in the aftermath of several bloody conflicts around the world. Ad-hoc courts popped up in Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Cambodia to mention a few, and the International Criminal Court in The Hague, ICC, was set up as a permanent body that can prosecute crimes committed in any part of the world.

In Sierra Leone, a particularly cruel civil war broke out in 1991 as the rebel movement Revolutionary United Front, RUF, started an uprising against the central government in Freetown, an operation mainly performed from neighbouring Liberia.  The causes of the war are found in a long-lasting misuse of power as well as grave under-development and poverty that had created a broad discontent amongst the rural population. The dictator in power at the time of the outbreak of war, Joseph Momoh, had favoured his own ethnic group that seized most of the recourses and thus created a deep divide between the Freetown elites and the poor population in the rest of the country.

I landed on Sierra Leonean soil in November 2003 at a time when the largest UN peacekeeping force in the world was stationed in the country. Since about one year before, the UN had succeeded in ending the fighting with the help from British Special Forces, disarmed the rebels and commenced a large scale nation building programme.

I was positioned at UNDP, United Nations Development Programme, at the Department for Peace Building and Transition (from emergency towards normality). Thereby I got to take part in the administration of several aid projects that had been set up to facilitate the transition to peace and stability. For instance, one project had job-creating activities for former rebel soldiers. Within these projects we worked closely with the civilian part of UN’s peacekeeping mission, UNAMSIL.

At that time (and still) Sierra Leone was regarded as the least developed country in the world and the whole society was characterized by the war and the following UN mission. Tens of thousands of soldiers and militia-men had to be disarmed and reintegrated into society, a society whose infrastructure and economy were completely destroyed. Tens of thousands of victims of brutal offences were in desperate need of rehabilitation for their deep wounds and traumas. Also, several hundred thousand refugees were to return to their home-towns and villages, and all that work towards a long standing peace was to be secured by the 17 500 armed UN peacekeepers.

Palm oil factory uprising

In this exiting and unpredictable environment, extraordinary adventures were of course unavoidable. I assisted the Programme Specialist for youth issues and we were responsible for handling the administration of a UN-sponsored palm-oil factory in the countryside. The factory was supposed to create employment opportunities for former rebel soldiers who were to be reintegrated into society. The factory certainly served as an important building stone in the shattered society, but the work was hampered by a major setback as the financial system of the UN crashed in January 2004. The system was down for weeks which meant that no salaries could be paid to the workers. And since the UN was responsible for the payments, friction quickly became unavoidable.

The situation quickly became increasingly bitter which forced the foreman to flee the scene and go to Freetown to beg us for money. With cry in his voice he explained that he couldn’t return to the bush without the money and we were swift to show our sympathy. As murderers, mutilators and rapists, the former rebels had unbelievable, violent crimes on their conscience.

The riot in the area finally grew to the point where the upmost UN chief in Sierra Leone had to produce cash in order to avoid a renewed civil war. It was up to me and my locally employed supervisor to go to the bank, withdraw the money and bring it to the UNAMSIL headquarters. From there it was to be flown to the palm oil factory in a UN military helicopter.

So one morning we met up outside the bank and had to wait a good while before the bank clerks managed to fill our sports bag to the brink. Since the largest bill was worth less than a US dollar they had to fill the whole bag to fit the 15 000 USD. Then we just walked out on the streets, me carrying the money-bag on my back, but considering the crime and chaos that had hi tFreetown after the war you couldn’t help wondering if this was such a smart way to go. Luckily the money ended up safely to UNAMSIL, the old warriors got their money and the calm was finally restored to the factory.

Visit to the diamond fields – Victims and perpetrators side by side

Me with Pakistani UN troops at their base in Koidu. Notice the sign in the background!

Perhaps the most exciting event during my time in Sierra Leone was my visit to the areas of the infamous diamond mines, which had created the shameful expression “blood diamond”. The mines and the wealth they produced (to a few) were one of the causes of the war and the fuel that allowed it to continue for so long. We went to Koidu, the capital of diamond mining and located close to the Guinean border, to follow up an aid project. The city was more or less ruined in the war but was now being rebuilt.

In the sandy streets young men walked around with shovels on their backs, and thus they were diamond miners. And, many of the men hanging around the city centre were no doubt former RUF rebels. The atmosphere in Koidu was generally rawer and tougher than in Freetown, and I couldn’t walk the streets by myself as I could do in the capital. At all times my local colleague had to accompany me. I stayed at the heavily guarded UN base, isolated from the world outside since I couldn’t go out alone.

View from my bedroom window. UNHCR base in Koidu

Except for the many drifting young men, whose unemployment in itself served as a risk for renewed instability, their victims were also frequently seen in the streets. The amputated were a normalized element of society and constantly reminded us of the horrors of the war.  How these two groups, victims and perpetrators, could live side by side after these horrific events that had taken place is astonishing.

Weekday surrealism – CIA and a diamond-smuggling security chief

When you find yourself right in the middle of international affairs, where white UN helicopters fly by in the air while you’re standing on a white beach after work, you’re filled with a kind of surrealism that is essentially different from the reality that you experience at home, in my case Sweden. In a volatile situation, like during the peacekeeping mission in Sierra Leone, there are rules for handling of your car, for example. First, my official UN car was diesel-driven so that the tank wouldn’t explode if shot at. Secondly, one was requested to always let the tank to be at least half full to be able to drive to saftey if the shit hit the fan. Also, the car was always required to be parked with the front out, so that one could escape quickly enough…

In the evenings or during lazy weekends I often ended up at one of the many beach bars by the ocean where foreign aid-workers and UN staff gathered to drink beer, get a bite to eat or play some beach volley. At these places you could run into some odd figures and at times hear a cock-and-bull story or two, because in Sierra Leone there were plenty of crazy stories going around.  At one point I happened to end up at the same table as the defence attaché at the American embassy (i.e. CIA) who told stories about the war when he had to commute with a helicopter from Guinea to Sierra Leone due to prevailing chaos.

He also had some astonishing gossip concerning the security chief of the war crimes tribunal of Sierra Leone; a huge, mean-looking Canadian with a bull’s neck and a shaved head. The beastly man was said to be involved in heavy blood-diamond smuggling, but I can’t maintain that I sought to further research the subject. A Norwegian colleague of mine argued that I should keep away from such company if I preferred not to go home in a body bag.

Life in the poorest country in the world – sometimes wine, sometimes water

Life in Sierra Leone was filled with contrasts where, on one hand, under-development and grave poverty were forced upon me at all times, but where life was actually better than at home in several respects, on the other.

Living in the middle of all that poverty meant that I was often hassled by beggars and various oddballs, and that also local employees at home or at work could come and beg or have strange requests. For instance, one of the drivers once asked me if he could have my Swiss watch since he liked it so much. Once a cleaning staff asked if he could borrow my car for a day, and a security guard asked for a handout because he was hungry. Then you got a little worried since the guards’ primary task was to maintain my safety. The local office staff, foremost consisting of sturdy middle-aged ladies dressed in traditional, colourful dresses, could be a little snappy, which I suspect was based on some kind of jealousy or racism. But I must say that most of the office staff was rather sympathetic.

The bright side of living in Sierra Leone was a life with eternal summer that gave the opportunity to visit a white beach every day of the year, and where you could go to the beach resorts in the weekends to swim in the sea, sun-bathe, dine on grilled fish or have gin & tonic while watching the sunset. Every morning before going to work I would sit at the porch having breakfast and watching the sea where the cargo ships eased by in the horizon. Each night I would sit there once again with the same stunning view while the calm would fill my body after a long day of work. My thoughts would flow through my head and it struck me that this warm, beautiful country deserves a better fate than the war it received.

Lakka Beach outside of Freetown, Easter 2004

Filip Ericsson

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