Fury and Fear: As Sierra Leone Slides toward Civil War and Other Conflicts Erupt in Africa, the West Wonders How to Keep Peace in a War Zone

Article excerpt

In the abandoned foundry complex in central Freetown, thousands of jittery people are camped under a huge corrugated-steel shed, among enormous lathes and metal presses that haven't worked in at least two years. Young men play soccer, in air thick with humidity and dust, when a clamor rises near the gate. Security guards are inspecting people entering the compound, to prevent infiltration by rebels of the Revolutionary United Front. The guards check the bare shoulders of young men for calluses left by an AK-47, and inspect for rebel initials carved into their flesh. Some of the newcomers don't like the search. Fists fly. People gather, yelling excitedly.

Nearby, other men huddle near a transistor radio. Days earlier, ragtag rebels with a penchant for unspeakable violence had broken a peace pledge and attacked United Nations forces, sometimes using captured U.N. guns and possibly armored personnel carriers in an assault on Freetown. The latest news bulletin is more hopeful: pro-government forces have retaken the burned-out market town of Masiaka, 35 miles outside the capital, temporarily halting a weeklong advance. But no one is sanguine. "We are worried a lot," says Joe Johnson, 65, as the group around the radio disperses. During an offensive against his village two years ago, rebels chopped the hands off some of Johnson's relatives and killed others. "We don't want the war to come even to the edge of the city. We need help quickly, even today."

The world doesn't have a record of prompt action in Africa. And when help does arrive, it often makes little difference. U.N. peacekeepers already have a string of unsuccessful missions on the continent, and a U.N. inquiry recently issued a highly critical report on the world's failure to prevent the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. (To be fair, U.N. peacekeepers also have a couple of African successes, including peace in Mozambique.) Last week's slide back toward full-scale civil war in Sierra Leone, where rebels still held about 500 peacekeepers hostage, raises questions about whether the United Nations has learned much from previously mishandled catastrophes.

Sierra Leone is also testing the much-touted commitment of wealthy democracies to help Africa at a time when the continent is beset by war on many fronts and is racked by AIDS, famine and economic collapse. Some 37,000 superbly equipped, mostly NATO, peacekeepers are stationed in Kosovo, an area slightly more than one seventh the size of Sierra Leone. But Africa doesn't have a NATO. It's hardly surprising that the poorly trained, ill-equipped and outnumbered Zambian, Kenyan and other peacekeepers in Sierra Leone were overcome by the rebels in recent weeks.

Diplomats, meanwhile, seem overwhelmed by Africa's many troubles. Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, led a Security Council mission to the continent for the past two weeks, mainly to prepare for a U.N. peacekeeping operation to Congo. But he spent much of the trip dealing with other crises--an eruption of political violence in Zimbabwe, and forecasts of renewed war between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Two days after Holbrooke left the African Horn, Ethiopia launched an offensive on at least two fronts. "There was no doubt in anyone's mind that the attack had been planned before we got there," said a despairing diplomat who was along on the Holbrooke mission.

With so much going wrong in so many places, last week's battle for Freetown took on symbolic heft. This wasn't just a fight for a dilapidated city in a half-forgotten patch of Africa. It was in part a battle for the credibility of the United Nations. "This time, in this crisis, let us back words with deeds and mandates with the resources that will work," an increasingly frustrated Kofi Annan, the U. …