Government officials try to avoid the word because it scares away the tourists who used to come to enjoy the palm-fringed beaches flanking this decrepit, clapboard town.
But the evidence is overwhelming: Sierra Leone is at war. There are casualties, at least 10,000 so far, the majority of them civilians hacked to pieces in their villages. There are refugees, some 300,000 of them, who have fled in panic to neighboring countries. According to state radio, there are even air raids, even though everyone knows the Sierra Leone government doesn’t have an air force.
That small detail only adds to the Alice in Wonderland quality surrounding the bizarre state of affairs prevailing in Sierra Leone that is widely referred to as a war.
The real problem is that no one seems quite sure who is fighting whom, or why.
“That’s the strange thing about this war. We have no idea who these socalled rebels are. We have no idea what they are fighting for, and we have no idea who the leader of the rebel movement is,” said lawyer Joseph Cole, who is trying to organize peace talks but doesn’t know who to invite.
“There are no facts. The only fact is that we are at war.”
Sierra Leone is just the latest example of Africa’s newest and most sinister affliction: the disintegration of nation states into conditions of war that could more accurately be described as anarchy.
The first was neighboring Liberia, and the story of how that conflict degenerated into anarchy and then oozed across the border into Sierra Leone underlines the virulence of Africa’s most dangerous new disease.
War is no stranger to Africa. But past conflicts such as those in Mozambique, Angola and Ethiopia were fought along broadly ideological lines, and were fueled at least in part by superpower rivalry. As was the case elsewhere in the world, the end of the Cold War helped end old conflicts but also heralded a new era of instability.
Whereas in the former Soviet bloc, however, an end to dictatorship unleashed suppressed nationalist sentiments. Africa’s stricken, fragile nations have simply atomized into loose collections of rival factions or clans competing for little more than supremacy over one another.
These new wars, lacking clearly defined goals, offer no readily apparent solutions. They are fought not by armies or states but by bands of youths for whom war offers the only source of employment they are ever likely to know. They are fueled not by political or nationalist aspirations but economic desperation. And the end result has been not the creation of new nations, as in the former Yugoslavia, but the death of the nation itself.
“What is happening is the collapse, or more frequently the implosion, of the African states as constituted more than 100 years ago by the colonial powers,” noted a recent study on world wars by the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Most African countries are not in danger of total collapse. But as Liberia’s experience makes clear, this is an affliction, once caught, for which there is no known cure.
The war in Liberia, founded as a colony for freed American slaves, started out logically enough. Barely a month after the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, a small band of rebels led by Charles Taylor, a disgruntled ex-government official who receives support from Libya, invaded the country to overthrow the hated Liberian dictator Samuel Doe.
In days gone by, the U.S. government might have leaped to the defense of Doe - the biggest recipient of U.S. aid on the continent despite an appalling human rights record - to prevent Liberia from falling into Moscow’s sphere of influence. Instead, the United States simply evacuated its citizens while war raged.
Five years and more than 20 failed cease-fires later, Liberia’s war has lost whatever point it may once have had.
Doe is dead, but now there are some eight different factions and subfactions, divided largely along tribal lines, squabbling over the spoils of the ravaged country.
The depopulated countryside is in the grip of a bizarre, drugfogged anarchy that graphically illustrates the state of juvenile delinquency into which the most hopeless and impoverished of Africa’s youthful states risk descending.
Sovereignty rests in the hands of roaming bands of pimply pubescents sporting Bart Simpson hairdos and waving automatic rifles. They give themselves comic-book names, wear wedding dresses and wigs to scare away the enemy and compete with one another for the most powerful juju, or magic, to shield them from enemy bullets.
“It’s a senseless war,” said Lt. Col. Jonathan Baji, a Nigerian commander with the West African peacekeeping force that has failed to bring peace to Liberia. “One of the first principles of war is that you’ve got to have an aim. But here we’ve got children fighting in the bush and they’re fighting for what?”
One answer to his question was articulated by a young fighter called Colonel Domination, who demobilized under one of Liberia’s peace plans last year only to return to the bush to fight for a different faction after discovering there was no way to make a living as a civilian.
“The main reason we’re in the bush is that Monrovia is too expensive and there aren’t any jobs,” he said. “At least here we have free food.”
Domination now reports to General Snake, a 27-year-old veteran of the bush war who commands a few dozen men and boys based in back of a bombed-out store in the destroyed town of Tubmanburg.
“We get our weapons from ambushes. We get our food from ambushes,” said Snake, describing his military tactics. “Sometimes we don’t eat for a week and then we make an ambush and eat what you have.”
War has thus become a way of life, a means to an end for young men raised in one of the world’s poorest countries. Food and weapons can simply be stolen from other factions, locking the country in a selfsustaining cycle of war for war’s sake.
And now that cycle has spiralled beyond Liberia’s borders into Sierra Leone.
There, the conflict began as an offshoot of Liberia’s anarchy, with the creation by Taylor in 1991 of a copycat rebel movement in Sierra Leone, reportedly to destabilize the Sierra Leonean government as a punishment for participating in the peacekeeping force he regards as an enemy.
Called the Revolutionary United Front and led by a cashiered army officer called Foday Sankoh, the group’s activities were confined largely to a strip of territory along the Liberian border. No one took much notice of it, especially after 1992 when the government it had vowed to overthrow was ousted in a coup and reports circulated that Sankoh was dead.
But late last year, violence unexpectedly erupted throughout the country. Panicked civilians began fleeing in all directions to escape seemingly random massacres and ambushes.
As if overnight, the new government, headed by 29-year-old army Capt. Valentine Strasser, had lost control of the entire country outside the capital to an amorphous group of rebels believed by diplomats to number no more than 600.
The war appears to have lost whatever link with Liberia it once had. But there are still few clues to its real purpose. Communiques in the rebels’ name occasionally appear mysteriously on the desks of United Nations officials in Freetown, demanding the overthrow of Strasser’s regime. A man claiming to be Sankoh sometimes telephones the BBC in London to make the same demand, but the authenticity of these contacts has not been confirmed.
There is widespread suspicion in Freetown, however, that many of the so-called rebels fighting the government are simply bandits, and that others are what is known as “sobels” - army soldiers by day and rebels by night - who are taking advantage of the confusion to supplement their incomes with the spoils of war.
“Once someone in a very poor country discovers you can get something with a gun, everyone gets involved,” said Elizabeth Lwange, coordinator of U.N. programs in Sierra Leone.
That is the danger confronting Africa’s impoverished, weak states: that anarchy will creep up on them as ordinary people take it upon themselves to improve their lives in the only way that has proven effective.
Most African governments have failed to better the lives of ordinary Africans, but past governments in Sierra Leone and Liberia failed spectacularly. Both were formed as colonies for freed slaves, and their descendants became a ruling elite who paid little attention to the needs of other groups.
The ill-educated, armed teenagers who swagger through Liberia’s countryside are doing little more than mimicking the behavior of the ruling class, said Siafa Kamara, a Liberian aid worker who has taken refuge in Ghana.
“Dictatorship developed values in society of fear, and the expectation that might shall rule,” he said. “We have a whole generation that grew up with denigrated institutions. Their attitudes and values are not ones of principle. It’s who can beat the system.”