Rebels Turn Beauty into Wasteland with Guns and Land Mines; Letter from. Ziguinchor Senegal

Article excerpt

They come at night, slipping in from bases hidden in Senegal's dense forests.

Moving quickly through villages, the rebels open fire, steal cattle and leave behind land mines - many just the right size to blow a leg off the next villager who happens to pass by.

Yet they see themselves as liberators.

In the Casamance region of southern Senegal, where a separatist rebellion born of ethnic differences and geographic isolation has smouldered for 15 years, the rebels have turned against their own people. Low on funds, militarily weak and politicallyfrac tured, they have few targets left but the villagers at hand.

Slowly, the rebellion has bled the life out of the beautiful, agriculturally rich region, leaving parts of Casamance a wasteland of violence and economic stagnation.

"I don't know what I'll do now," said one former villager, a young mother who feared retribution and asked not to be identified.

"How can I work in the fields?" She lost most of one leg earlier this year after rebels stormed her village, leaving mines to cover their retreat.

Having left her village, she now sits at a friend's home in Ziguinchor, the small regional capital.

Senegal, one of the most stable countries in Africa, is popular with European tourists for its French-African culture and with black Americans in search of a link to their slave ancestors.

President Clinton praised the West African country during his visit in April for its peacekeeping efforts around the world.

But Senegal, with a population of 8.5million, cannot keep peace in Casamance, where the often-forgotten rebellion has left people frightened, the government frustrated and Senegalese soldiers accused of atrocities.

Peace may have to wait in Casamance, where countless ceasefires have failed, and rebel infighting complicates talks with the government.

The rebellion's roots lie in Casamance's geographic and cultural isolation. Separated from the rest of Senegal by Gambia, Casamance is lush, green and populated by the Christian and animist Diola people. Much of the rest of Senegal is arid and dominated by Muslims of the Wolof tribe. …