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Background: An Uneasy Peace

October 26, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: Late last week, the U.N. Security Council voted to send 6,000 peacekeeping troops to the West African nation of Sierra Leone, part of a negotiated plan to quell a vicious eight-year civil war.

IBRAHIM KAMARA: The people of Sierra Leone are grateful to the Security Council for the decision about to be taken to provide what I more durable security blanket for them.

GWEN IFILL: The peace agreement the U.N. will be enforcing is a controversial one. Signed in July, it’s goal: To end fighting that left at least 20,000 dead, thousands more severely wounded in mass amputations, two million homeless. But the agreement also gives new power to the very rebel forces accused of hacking off the limbs of men, women, and children. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, visiting Sierra Leone last week, was visibly shaken by the remains of that war. Albright supports the painstakingly negotiated accord, which calls for blanket amnesty for those rebels while not ruling out future U.N. war crimes prosecutions.

GWEN IFILL: Sierra Leone, which gained independence from Great Britain in 1961, is among the poorest countries in the world, ranked last in the U.N.’s Human Development Index, with the lowest life expectancy in the world– only 37 years– the highest maternal mortality rate, and an adult literacy rate of 33 percent. The latest conflict began in 1991, when former army photographer Foday Sankoh took up arms and created a rebel force.

FODAY SANKOH: This is for anti-tank.

GWEN IFILL: Enlisting men from the countryside, he preached economic justice and class struggle. Aided financially by Charles Taylor, the military leader in neighboring Liberia, Sankoh and his men gained a reputation for brutality, including mass civilian killings. In 1997, the rebels, joined by Sierra Leone’s army, staged a coup, overthrowing democratically elected President Ahman Tejan Kabbah and looting the capital of Freetown. It took another year for the deposed president to fight his way back to power, backed by a Nigerian-led coalition of West African troops. But the rebels continued their offensive, raiding villages, burning homes, killing and maiming thousands. It took foreign governments from Africa and the West to bring the two sides to the bargaining table last July. In nearby Togo, they hammered out a power-sharing agreement. In addition to the blanket amnesty, under the deal, Sankoh, the rebel leader, is now vice president and head of the government’s powerful commission on minerals; the rebels have been given four cabinet posts; and the U.N. peacekeeping force was established. Two weeks after the peace deal, two U.N. monitors rolled into the town of Makeni, which had been under rebel control. Children chanted and adults rejoiced.

SPOKESMAN: We are happy about this peace, about this peace accord, because for quite some time now we have suffered greatly, and inasmuch as we have these two parties, the government of Tejan Kabbah and Foday Sankoh have come to one.

GWEN IFILL: The full peacekeeping force is expected to arrive within 60 days, and stay in place for one year.