Africa, Development & Aid, Headlines, Population

POLITICS-SIERRA LEONE: Disarmed, Demobilised – and Desperate

Lansana Fofana

FREETOWN, Jan 13 2004 (IPS) - A lengthy disarmament programme has wrapped up in Sierra Leone, with organisers giving themselves a pat on the back: “I think that the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of ex-combatants have been a success,” says Francis Kaikai, Executive Secretary of the programme.

“Right now, virtually all the ex-combatants have got skills training, and something or other to do,” he adds.

The programme started in 2000 with a group of 45,000 soldiers drawn from various factions – including the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and the Westside Boys. This militia was loyal to the group of army officers that staged a coup in 1997 under the leadership of Johnny Paul Koroma, although it later pledged allegiance to the government.

Last week, the programme came to a close with organisers claiming that all weapons had been taken away from the fighters and destroyed – or recycled to make hoes, shovels and other implements.

Amidst the backslapping, however, there was growing discontent amongst some of the former combatants, who have been taught skills like tailoring, carpentry and masonry. They say they have not been given the specialised tools that will allow them to ply their trade. Even for those who have everything they need to earn a living, jobs are scarce.

“I finished training in 2002, but I am as yet unemployed – just roaming the streets,” says Edward Kowa, formerly of the RUF.

“This problem is not affecting me alone. Hundreds of my colleagues are in similar situations, and this – I think – is untenable for sustainable peace.”

In the former rebel strongholds of Kono in eastern Sierra Leone and Makeni in the north, hundreds of ex-combatants while away their time, waiting for opportunities that might improve their living conditions.

Political analyst Michael Jones comments, “This holds potential for disaster. These youths have known, for the better part of the last decade, guns and violence. If they are not properly reintegrated they may as well go back to war – because that was how they made their living.”

Since its inception, Sierra Leone’s demobilisation programme has encountered several obstacles, ranging from the abduction of hundreds of United Nations peace-keepers by rebel forces in 2000 to delays in the handing over of guns.

Some analysts believe that a good many weapons are still being hoarded by former soldiers for use at an opportune moment. However, the government insists that all armaments have been surrendered.

Certain communities have also refused to accept returning fighters, largely because of the atrocities they are believed to have committed. Sierra Leone’s civil war, which broke out in 1991, quickly became one of Africa’s bloodiest – with rebels accused of amputating the limbs of civilians, and forcing children to become combatants.

“I attempted returning to my home town of Gandorhun in the eastern district of Kono, but the people there were furious to see me,” says Sia Gborie – a former female soldier, now in her 20’s.

“I was bossed, threatened and called all sorts of names. I just don’t feel safe going back. Now, I am stuck here in Freetown with no job, and hardly any future,” she adds.

The war lasted for 10 years, during which more than 30,000 people are believed to have been killed – while a quarter of the five million strong population was forced to take refuge in neighbouring states. It was declared over at the start of 2002.

Today, there is relative peace in Sierra Leone as people try to piece together their lives. A process of national reconciliation and healing has been going on, and a war crimes court is trying political and military commanders of the erstwhile warring factions.

While some might see the activities of the court as crucial to entrenching stability in Sierra Leone, analysts like Margaret Bailey have reservations. “This war crimes court might well open old wounds and ignite the boiling anger in the ex-combatants,” she told IPS.

“It has the potential to reverse the gains made in the peace process – as well as the (demobilisation process).”

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