Why Kosovo and not Sierra Leone?

Although Kosovo has consumed the public’s attention, the suffering caused by violent conflict is even greater in many parts of Africa. Sierra Leone’s rebel war—in which thousands of crude amputations are just one of many terror tactics routinely employed by a rebel army trying to remove the country’s democratically elected government—is the most glaring display of inconsistency by both the U.S. government and the media. One calamity takes place in Europe, the other in Africa. When the United States failed to act to prevent the Rwandan genocide, Jimmy Carter voiced the thinking of our nation’s leaders: They’re poor. They’re black. And they have no oil.

Ancestral home to millions of Americans, Sierra Leone has many historical connections with the United States. The Gullah people of the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina have cultural traditions and genealogical roots that go directly to Sierra Leone’s Mende people. American slaves who fought with the British during the Revolutionary War were repatriated to Freetown, now the country’s capital. Steven Spielberg’s Amistad also underscored the many links. With all of these connections, Sierra Leonean immigrants are bewildered by the lack of attention paid to the wholesale destruction of their homeland.

Sierra Leone has never before known such violence. Initiated and supported by neighboring Liberians since the early 1990s, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels have inflicted suffering on every ethnic and religious group within the country. They have built their army with children, many not yet even in their teens. As defenseless villages are attacked, young boys are forced to kill their parents, relatives, and childhood friends. Traumatized, orphaned, and threatened with death if they attempt to escape, these children are then adopted into the rebel family. Girls, even as young as 7, are taken as sex slaves and later offered "promotions" as guerrilla fighters.

The rebels, together with elements of the Sierra Leone army, briefly took power in Sierra Leone in May 1997. They were later driven from Freetown by ECOMOG, a Nigerian-led peacekeeping force. The rebel forces regrouped in the tropical bush and, in "Operation No Living Thing," intensified their campaign of terror throughout the countryside, committing mass executions and other atrocities.

THIS JANUARY THE RUF rebels slipped past the peacekeeping forces and took hold of a large part of Freetown. Over the next few weeks, they freely carried out acts of terror on the civilian population. Hundreds of thousands were trapped in a living nightmare, huddled in their homes without food, water, electricity, and phone service. Rebels raped and murdered those who refused to support them. Entire neighborhoods were torched. As the ECOMOG soldiers fought to regain control, rebels forced residents into the streets to serve as human shields.

More than 5,000 were killed in the Freetown attack. Another 150,000 were made homeless. More than 2,000 children were snatched from their families and taken back into the bush with the rebels. The rebels also took hostage church workers, businesspeople, journalists, and government leaders, later killing many of them. A nun from India serving with Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity was murdered, as rebels claimed they had too many hostages. The rebels left behind thousands of amputees.

Recently the rebel leadership and Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, the president of Sierra Leone, have agreed to a cease-fire as a beginning to planned peace talks. Jessie Jackson was in Togo, sent by the administration to encourage the peace talks. Commentators are saying that it is unclear that the cease-fire will stick. It is also unclear that the rebels can reverse their culture of violence and brutality against innocent civilians.

The rebel war has created the worst refugee crisis in Africa, with nearly a half million Sierra Leone refugees in neighboring countries. It has destroyed the economy and infrastructure, helping to make the country the poorest on the planet.

What is the response of the richest country on earth? Low-level diplomacy and a request to Congress for $6 million to support the peacekeepers—a drop in the bucket compared to the billions spent on the Kosovo operation. The administration’s humanitarian aid is also woefully inadequate. This follows President Clinton’s promise "never again" to stand idle in the face of another Rwanda.

But more than security assistance and humanitarian aid is called for. There is also the presence of the demonic. Christianity has been growing very rapidly in Sierra Leone. With rebels not only practicing a Nietzsche morality but also invoking evil spiritual powers, Sierra Leone calls Christians to a major campaign of prayer as well as action.

RON MITCHELL is a former missionary in Sierra Leone who now directs the Open Arms homeless shelter in White Plains, New York. His book Organic Faith, published last year by Cornerstone Press Chicago (1-888-40-PRESS), calls Christians to bring together belief and practice in Christ-centered social action. For more information on Sierra Leone, visit www.woaafrica.org/woasl.htm, or call the Africa Faith & Justice Network, (202) 832-3412, or the Sierra Leone Emergency Network, (914) 668-2894.

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