FREETOWN, Sierra Leone -- Moments before the rebels were going to kill Ishmael Dramane, a 9-year-old boy cradling a machine gun saved his life.
"He told his commander that they have a lot of people to kill, and they didn't have to kill an old man," said Dramane, who at 42 is already long past middle age in this West African nation ravaged by poverty and war.
The rebels argued about what they should do. Then they voted. Three years later, Dramane, an itinerant miner and truck driver, still struggles to find the words to describe what they then did to him that day in a jungle village in eastern Sierra Leone.
Instead, he kneels in the dirt of the Freetown camp for war victims where he now lives. He shows how the rebels tied his wrists behind his back and how he obediently placed his hands on a small bench. He knew what was coming. They'd told him what they were going to do.
Then, he says, one picked up a machete and chopped off both his hands.
Laughing, the group left him in the dirt, blood pouring from his forearms as he screamed in agony. It took him 12 hours to reach a hospital.
"How can I live with these people?" Dramane demands angrily, waving his stumps in a visitor's face. "I lost everything."
Thousands of people lost everything in Sierra Leone's civil war, systematically butchered by a rebel movement with a fascination for amputation and an undefined political agenda.
In a war almost completely ignored by the international community, people as young as 3 and 4 years old lost their fingers, their hands, their lips, their ears. All became living examples of the power and the sheer brutality of the rebels, signs of what people who did not support them could expect. Thousands of people were mutilated, and tens of thousands more lost their lives or their homes.
But the government of Sierra Leone says it's now time to forgive.
Suddenly, rebel leaders dismissed as war criminals just months ago are about to join the government. They stay in nice hotels, get chauffeured around this ramshackle capital city and give TV interviews. They have audiences with powerful politicians, diplomats and aid groups, and they talk endlessly about their commitment to peace.
In early July, the rebel Revolutionary United Front signed a shaky accord ending eight years of civil war, trading peace for a role in a power-sharing government.
It's an agreement that few people in Sierra Leone are comfortable with -- and few believe will bring long-lasting peace.
But, most people acknowledge, there was nothing else the government of President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah could do. Broke, horribly bloodied, outgunned and dependent on foreign aid, Sierra Leone knew it had to find peace somehow. In January, a rebel offensive leveled entire blocks of Freetown and left thousands dead, pushing the government closer to a deal.
"If Kabbah didn't accept this peace, the rebels would continue to kill people, to amputate people," Dramane said. "Kabbah had to accept."
He admits this grudgingly. Dramane, who like most rebel victims was randomly targeted -- led into a trap by a rebel boy -- has nothing good to say about the peace deal.
A proud man with an easy laugh and a smoker's gravely voice, he once roamed Sierra Leone dreaming of mining riches, of living an easy life.
"I'm a traveler," he says. "I can't stay long in one place."
Now, though, he no longer travels. He can't light his own cigarettes or eat without help. His family has disintegrated, his wife and four children spread among various homes and refugee camps in Freetown and neighboring Guinea.
The civil war destroyed Sierra Leone. Kabbah's government is now little more than an administrative shell. Its bills are paid by international donors, and its security is handled by soldiers from a Nigerian-led regional intervention force. …