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Western Press Review: Sierra Leone Crisis, Kosovo Assessed

  • Joel Blocker

Prague, 11 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Outrage, anger and disgust mark much of today's Western press commentary on the continuing political and humanitarian crisis in Sierra Leone. In the West African nation's capital Freetown, beleaguered United Nations soldiers are reported deploying for a pitched battle against advancing rebels, while thousands of refugees flee the city and Western nations continue to evacuate their citizens. Analysts assess the UN's role, Sierra Leone's prospects for survival, and the future of sub-Saharan Africa. There are also some comments today on Kosovo.

WASHINGTON POST: Sierra Leone has become the world's heart of horror

The Washington Post's foreign-affairs columnist Jim Hoagland writes bluntly of "Sierra Leone's monstrous rebel leader, Foday Sankoh" who recently, he says, "widened his slaughter and hostage-taking to include UN peacekeepers. He is now a global outlaw," Hoagland writes of Sankoh, "who exploits with impunity the weak points of an international order that offers only token help for Africa's multiple, deepening catastrophes."

The commentary continues in the same outspoken language: "Sierra Leone has become the world's heart of horror, put on the news map by Mr. Sankoh's use of amputations, gang rape and forcing children to massacre their own families." It goes on: "His trademark savagery is not the only reason his impact suddenly extends beyond his tiny West African nation. If it succeeds, his grab for power could be the death blow for UN peacekeeping, already seriously weakened by failures in Bosnia, Somalia and Rwanda." Hoagland argues that there is little Africa can expect from the West, saying: "The developed world has long abandoned Africa to a fate outside the new global [economic] era." He adds: "The affluent democracies of the Northern Hemisphere have amply demonstrated -- from the self-interested, frequently brutal colonial era to the more benign involvement of peacekeeping, famine relief and development of bureaucracies after independence -- that they lack the wisdom, patience and altruism needed to deal successfully with Africa's vast problems."

NEW YORK TIMES: Let us hope that the West doesn't opt for a second try at an accord

In the New York Times, U.S. African specialist William Reno argues that the crisis in Sierra Leone shows that "sometimes it is better to wage war than to agree to an unstable and unworkable peace." The commentator recalls that, in his words, "a peace agreement signed in July 1999 was supposed to help rebuild Sierra Leone by installing a coalition government, composed of the current president, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, and Foday Sankoh, the ruthless leader of the main rebel group. Under the accord," he says, "Mr. Sankoh became a vice president and commissioner of diamond resources, the country's main source of income. Three of his lieutenants became [government] ministers. All were offered a blanket amnesty for past crimes."

Reno argues that the agreement "mistakenly assumed that the rebels were interested in peace, let alone had an interest in real governing." In fact, he says, "the rebels never had any intention of honoring the peace accord; they were only interested in waging war and looting the country." He continues: "The UN, so reflexively attached to the mantra of peace at any price, sent peacekeeping troops when there was no peace to keep. The UN and the [U.S.] State Department, which helped negotiate the peace accord, should have known better."

He concludes: "The peace agreement in Sierra Leone was quick and cheap, but doomed. Let us hope that the West now recognizes this -- and doesn't opt for a second try at an accord."

BOSTON GLOBE: The faster a blunder is acknowledged, the sooner it may be corrected

Comments in two other U.S. newspapers also describe the faulty July 1999 accord in Sierra Leone as a major cause of the current crisis. In an editorial, the Boston Globe says: "In peacekeeping as in war, the faster a blunder is acknowledged, the sooner it may be corrected. That is the harsh moral of the civil war that has revived this month in Sierra Leone."

The editorial continues: "[Rebel leader] Sankoh's fighters became infamous for their practice of hacking off the hands and arms of citizens who defied the warlord. Despite such sadistic methods, Sankoh persuaded Washington, London and the rest of the outside world to grant him a complete pardon for all his crimes."

The paper also says: "The great powers behind the illusory peace treaty of last July blundered in trusting Sankoh to keep his promises after a West African armed force that had been keeping the peace withdrew from Sierra Leone this month." It concludes: "Since there is no stomach for a full-scale intervention by any of the permanent members of the [UN] Security Council, the next best thing is for the rich and powerful nations -- those that wish to make good their blunders -- to subsidize the return of a bigger and better armed version of the West African forces that had [earlier] kept the peace in Sierra Leone."

LOS ANGELES TIMES: The 1999 accord was a deal made in hell

In the Los Angeles Times, Yinka Akinsulure-Smith -- a U.S.-based psychologist of Sierra Leonean origin who visited the country last month -- calls the 1999 accord "a deal made in hell."

She writes: "As a Sierra Leonean returning to Freetown for the first time in five years, I was stunned by the level of trauma experienced at every level of society that transcends religions, tribal affiliations, geographic regions, age, gender, occupation, education and socio-economic levels. But if war has destroyed the lives of the civilian population," she adds, "it has been good to [Sankoh's Revolutionary United Front, or] the RUF, and the former army of Sierra Leone, whose soldiers simply take what they want, whether it be a village's women and girls, or Sierra Leone's diamond mines."

The commentator -- who is a specialist in dealing with rape and other traumas -- writes that rape and dismemberment were common atrocities in her country: "Especially rape," she says. "UN officials have estimated that Sierra Leone has the highest rate of sexual violence in the world. Although no one knows the numbers, it is safe to say that thousands of women and girls were raped and killed, or abducted." She sums up: "The RUF now has turned its guns against the international community. The world's response will mean life or death for Sierra Leonean civilians who are as much the RUF's hostages as are the UN's 500 soldiers and staff [held hostage by the rebels]."

POLITIKEN: The fiasco in Sierra Leone appears to be unavoidable

The Danish daily Politiken is also highly critical of the international community's role in the crisis. Its editorial says: "With the collapse of last summer's Sierra Leone peace agreement, the UN has moved toward another fiasco. The main reason for the accord's failure," it goes on, "is that it was negotiated with indicted war criminal Foday Sankoh, who calls himself a revolutionary leader but who has terrorized the country since 1991." It adds: "Both the U.S. and Britain, which pushed for the peace accord last summer, knew all about [Sankoh's record. Still,] the Clinton administration called it a 'hard but necessary' way to peace."

The editorial then comments: ""It has turned out to be very hard, but it has not led to peace." The paper says further: "It is not just the peace in Sierra Leone that has been put at stake. It is the credibility of the United Nations as well. If it fails in Sierra Leone, it will also fail in the [strife-ridden, neighboring] Democratic Republic of Congo where the [strategic] stakes are much higher."

The paper concludes that to achieve success in Sierra Leone, the UN needs far "greater Western -- primarily U.S. -- input. Since that now seems unlikely," it says, "the fiasco in Sierra Leone appears to be unavoidable."

LOS ANGELES TIMES: What other lies were told about the Kosovo war?

Two commentaries today re-assess last spring's NATO air strikes on Yugoslavia. Los Angeles Times Syndicate columnist William Pfaff says that recent press reports -- such as one in the current issue of Newsweek magazine -- suggest that "NATO lied about its air war over Kosovo a year ago."

In Pfaff's words, "What compelled the [Yugoslav] government to surrender was not [the largely ineffectual] attacks against its forces in Kosovo but the [later] bombing of strategic targets in Serbia -- bringing down the power system in Belgrade and destroying selected industrial plants, including those belonging to [President] Slobodan Milosevic's political supporters." He goes on: "When the air campaign was over last year, [NATO commander] General Wesley Clark sent a 30-man team to investigate. They found that [most] real tanks and other military equipment had been successfully camouflaged or entrenched, just as the Serbian army claimed after the war."

"What other lies were told about the Kosovo war?" Pfaff asks. "Did the ethnic cleansing inside Kosovo really begin before NATO's attacks started? The Serbs and some reports in the international press say 'no.'" He says NATO "expected [the campaign] to be quick and decisive. [But] we know that panic was produced in Brussels when it proved to be neither. [We] also know," he adds, "that General Clark has been forced into early retirement, apparently because he insisted that ground intervention was the only sure way to get Serbia's capitulation." Clark's offense, says the commentator, "seems to have been to attempt to introduce realism into plans drafted in Washington to please officials afraid of casualties."

WASHINGTON POST: Clark's reward for victory is early retirement

In a Washington Post commentary, Patrick Pexton -- managing editor of the National Journal -- pays tribute to General Clark. He writes: "[Clark] led a cumbersome multi-national coalition to victory in a short war. But [he] has come home to no special welcome. His reward for victory is early retirement."

The commentary goes on: "Recent events in Kosovo show that General Clark's bosses in the Pentagon and the White House still don't get it. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs [of Staff], General Henry Shelton, rebuked him [three months ago] for using 350 American soldiers to reinforce French troops unable to quell violence between Albanians and Serbs. After the American reinforcements were pelted with rocks and bottles," Pexton says, "General Shelton and the White House -- panicky about potential casualties -- told General Clark not to volunteer U.S. troops again."

"But," the commentator argues, Clark "was right to act. He understood the value of using force quickly and early to show who was in control, and to demonstrate to the European allies that the United States, too, was willing to put lives at risk."

(Anthony Georgieff in Copenhagen contributed to this report