IN A UN camp in Nyala, in the southern part of the Sudanese region of Darfur, a fully equipped gym has been shipped in from Sierra Leone. With the baking heat cooled only a bit by air-conditioning units, Sierra Leone’s once-reviled army is pumping iron as it takes on a surprising new role as a guardian of global peace.
The former British colony’s first international peacekeeping tour marks a remarkable turnaround for a country that only nine years ago had to submit to the world’s largest peacekeeping force, when 17,000 UN troops were sent in to hold the ring after a gruesome civil war that had gone for a whole decade. But Sierra Leone is now considered safe enough at home to send 160 of its soldiers to help the mixed force of nearly 22,000 soldiers and police from the African Union and the UN that are keeping the peace in Darfur. This contribution is expected to earn Sierra Leone $2m a year.
The Sierra Leonean peacekeepers are drawn from the same army that carried out two coups during Sierra Leone’s civil war. Nicknamed “sobels”—soldiers by day, rebels by night—many of them were found by the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission to have tortured, raped and even forced their victims to eat each other during the conflict.
Since then, a lot has changed. A British-led training team arrived in 1999 and remains there today, five years after the UN peacekeepers withdrew. The British have spent more than $30m to revamp the army, reducing it from 20,000 men to 8,500, including the former rebels. “That’s the only way you can heal these wounds,” says the forces’s second-in-command. “We gave them all uniforms so nobody knows who you are, unless you say so. No one is pointing fingers any more.”
The Sierra Leoneans are sending some of their best troops to help out in Darfur. “It’s payback time to the international community,” says Brigadier Alfred Nelson-Williams, chief of Sierra Leone’s defence staff. Britain, Canada, the Netherlands and America have coughed up $6.5m to equip and pay for the batch of peacekeepers. Their equipment will dwarf that of their entire army back home. “There are some extremely capable officers who would survive very well in the British army,” says Colonel Hugh Blackman, commander of the British-led training team. If the Sierra Leoneans perform well, their peacekeeping force in Darfur could swell to 850 men.