In Sierra Leone, homes are seldom surrounded by grass. It only gives cover to snakes and lizards, who would slither right into the dwellings. So the hard ground gave away rebels as they surrounded the house of S.D. Kanu, head of the Wesleyan Church and a key Christian figure in this West African nation, in the wee hours one December eve. Two guerrillas crept to the front door, two to the back door, and four to the windows. Awakened and alarmed, Mr. Kanu heard someone whisper through the darkness, "This is his bedroom!" A shot ripped through the front door and the rebels stormed inside. They ordered members of the Kanu family out of their rooms. "You!" they shouted at Mr. Kanu, "Where is the money?" The clergyman said he had no money. He emptied his pockets and was ordered to sit on the floor. A guerrilla thrust a gun in his face and said, "You are going to be a dead man tonight." Although the attack on Mr. Kanu and his family took place over a year ago, little has changed in Sierra Leone since the rebels who have waged an atrocious nine-year civil war agreed to a peace accord last July that would disarm them. On Jan. 26, international officials monitoring the peace process said they feared the deal may be unraveling. UN troops and rebel leaders failed to meet a Dec. 15 deadline for disarming rebels. The UN reports that less than one-tenth of 45,000 rebels have surrendered their arms, as agreed to under the July accord. They say rebels have been slow to dismantle roadblocks and continue to draft child soldiers. The international monitors said atrocities are continuing. And the record wasn't good to begin with. Last year when Revolutionary United Front (RUF) forces occupied the capital, Freetown, they killed civilians by the thousands, massacring them as they hid in houses, churches, or mosques. They systematically rounded up and raped girls and women (even seeking virgins) and hacked off limbs from hundreds of people, including young children. The Missouri-based Christian relief group World Hope International estimates that several thousand Sierra Leoneans are victims of forced amputation. Before last year's mayhem, war raged throughout the country but somehow bypassed Mr. Kanu's hometown, Makeni. "Many people thought the guerrillas had spared Makeni because we were supportive of the rebels," Mr. Kanu told WORLD. That changed. Guerrillas came within three miles of the city, spreading terror. Mr. Kanu knew he had to leave, even though his church is headquartered in Makeni. The rebels believed he had access to overseas money. Mr. Kanu took family members, including his 15-year-old daughter and his three-year-old son. They fled to the nearby village of Mabonkani, where he was born. Assuming the rebels were just passing through on their way to Freetown, Mr. Kanu mistakenly thought he could return to Makeni in a couple of days. But RUF forces tracked him to Mabonkani, tipped off by a young man who sold out Mr. Kanu for $10 and a good meal. "We have been informed you are a wealthy man," the rebels told him. "You have a car; your sister has money; your brother has money; you are a very wealthy man." After rummaging through the house, they ordered Mr. Kanu to strip naked before his family. Then, for no apparent reason, they changed tactics and demanded to be taken to Mr. Kanu's car. Mr. Kanu had hidden it about half a mile away. His captors ordered him to drive. Mr. Kanu said he took the wheel, singing, "Jesus, keep me near the cross." Meanwhile, the rebels talked of their "good catch" and bragged about drinking human blood. "We had heard plenty of stories of rebels doing just this," Mr. Kanu now says. The next morning, the rebels found another driver and confined Mr. Kanu to their headquarters. After a skirmish with government forces, they returned to argue about whether to hold him. "Release this man," one rebel told his comrades. "He has a young son at home." In the end, he was freed. When he returned to Mabonkani, his son, daughter, brother, mother-in-law, and aunt were missing. They had fled from gunfire and were in hiding. Mr. Kanu said, "Everyone had to run for his life," even his 80-year-old mother-in-law. Eight other senior citizens, three miles away, were unable to run and were burned in their houses. Throughout the winter months, Mr. Kanu and his family lived outdoors in the bush. "The dew would be heavy on us and it would be very cold in the morning," he described. When they did return home, "months of grief and pain" followed. Rebels daily raided the village and retreated into the bush by nightfall. When it was safe, Mr. Kanu ventured into the village area to scrounge food. "There was no fish, no meat. We lived on carbohydrates," Mr. Kanu recalls. "There were days that I was discouraged. There were days that I was depressed. There were days when all I could do was cry out." In this recent round of fighting, two rebel groups, RUF and the Armed Forces Ruling Council, tried to overthrow the government of President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah. They referred to the atrocities as "destabilization methods" that have included the human-rights abuses as well as the destruction of buildings and crops. Nigerian-led peacekeepers, operating under UN sanction and the acronym ECOMOG (Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group), put up a poor show of support for President Kabbah's civilian government. They could not stop the devastation. They did, however, move the rebels to peace negotiations, with international pressure. With a July 7 agreement signed in Togo, it looked as though life could return to normal. Mr. Kanu made a trip to the United States to visit supporting churches. But by late last year, fighting and atrocities had resumed. Rebel attacks again spread, particularly in the country's northern regions, even as UN peacekeepers moved in. With the UN on the scene-multinational troops are eventually supposed to number 10,000-government forces and ECOMOG troops have not intervened. This past New Year's Eve, Freetown residents huddled indoors under an overnight, lights-out curfew, instead of ringing in the millennium. The circumstances forced Mr. Kanu to remain in the United States until late December. He feared that his return would endanger the lives of family members, including his wife and children, who continue in hiding in rebel-controlled areas. Mr. Kanu finally went back to Sierra Leone because he said he saw encouraging signs from rebel groups. By early January RUF fighters opened roads near his home, which they had shut down for several years. Mr. Kanu also reported that an RUF captain appealed to his countrymen to forgive the rebels for "misdeeds and inhuman acts," while urging his comrades to confess their crimes and "accept responsibility for their wrongdoing." But while Mr. Kanu acknowledged from Sierra Leone that the situation has "improved significantly," he knows that major roadblocks remain on the way to making the promises of peace stick.
-Michael Mallie is a WORLD Journalism Institute Fellow