- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 11, 2000

LONDON A small group of us, three Britons, an Italian and two Irishmen, spent five terrifying days, dozens of miles from friendly lines in Sierra Leone, surrounded by an army of mostly teen-age soldiers hell-bent on atrocity.

It was on Tuesday last week that the trouble started. Working for a company contracted by Britain's Department For International Development, we had spent weeks building disarmament camps for the rebels in the bush under an arrangement with the United Nations. Then we sat back and waited for the first volunteers to arrive.

Instead, two dozen heavily armed rebels pulled up in stolen Medecins sans Frontieres cars and began threatening us. At first, our Kenyan U.N. bodyguards saw them off with threats of their own.

As the tension rose, we barely had time to scuttle off to a U.N. compound. Then the rebels arrived there, too. The Kenyans manned their positions; we waited.

We felt reassured after hearing on our satellite phone that Indians and Zambians were on their way to reinforce our camp. With hundreds more U.N. soldiers we would be safer. We might even be allowed to leave for the capital, Freetown.

The rest of the day we heard nothing. Night fell. The shooting began at 10 p.m.

Bullets flew threw the compound and a rocket-propelled grenade hit a U.N. armored car.

From the village we could hear the sounds of people being attacked and stores being looted. Men shouted in pain and women began to scream not the cry of surprise or sudden fear, but blood-curdling, piercing screams.

Then the drumming began. Deep African drumming, not far from the perimeter of our camp. It went on all night and even the toughest among us found it difficult to shut out its beat and not think of what it might portend.

Then on Thursday morning came devastating news. Our Zambian U.N. rescuers had been taken, disarmed, humiliated and stripped more than 200 of them. Our spirits plummeted. We knew the RUF could now take our positions at any time.

The Kenyans promised they would resist and sometimes they shot salvos at the guerrillas lurking in the dark. But if it came to a gunfight we knew our chances were bad. Everything now was a battle to keep our spirits up. We found a little beer; that helped.

By Saturday our situation was desperate. We were on our last food and water. We simply had to get out. Our only choice was to hand ourselves over to the RUF and trust to luck.

We pushed aside thoughts of dismemberment and torture. We were civilians and maybe they wouldn't harm us.

It was Fergus, one of the Irishmen, who went to bargain with the local leaders. He had a certain rapport with them.

They agreed that for a small "gift" they would let us go, even give us an escort. We handed over $500 and drove to the middle of the town to wait.

The worst was yet to come.

The rebels in town had robbed the Zambian U.N. soldiers. They stood around wearing bits of the stolen garb flak jackets, U.N. berets and blue helmets. Some had the U.N. badges off the uniforms and put them on their heads.

At the third checkpoint the trouble began. Our escort he called himself a brigadier and never stopped smoking dope was now completely stoned and, unable to continue, he staggered off into a building. Then his men came for us.

With a torrent of abuse the guns were raised. In the front car sat Dave, Fergus and John Cody. I saw them bundled out at gunpoint. The rebels began grabbing everything, money pouches, sunglasses and watches.

Then they came to our car. "Get out," one shouted at Luca, my Italian colleague in the driving seat. When he refused, a gun appeared at his throat. He got out.

I stuffed my money and passport down my pants. But they saw it and came running over.

Many of the rebels had bullet belts across their bodies. They had AK47s, RPGs and the glazed eyes of the deeply stoned.

One put his hand down my trousers and yanked out the money.

The scene was ugly and the threats were flowing. The two cars in front were taken from us, leaving us only one. As 13 of us scrambled onto it, Luca began to edge forward.

They rebels hesitated and then attacked. Just in time Luca saw a gap and went for it. We braced, expecting the bullets to come burning through the car, but they never came. We were away.

But we were on our own, behind RUF lines, and without an escort.

We passed deserted U.N. outposts, manned by swarming rebels. We passed the APCs of the Zambian U.N. soldiers abandoned by the side of the road.

At each checkpoint the rebels were getting worse. They were on the move, had their tails in the air and were looking for a fight.

"We're rebels, we're killers," they would say. They said it in Krio, the local pidgin English, but we understood.

At the next checkpoint we were pulled over. No smiles, no pleasantries. We blustered and bluffed that we had to pass, but to little avail. Then the rebels jumped in their Jeep. "Follow us." Another carload came behind.

After a few minutes, the first car pulled up and we were forced to stop behind it. The second car passed us and stopped too, blocking the road.

We were in the middle of nowhere. There were no witnesses. The rebels got out. They fixed bayonets and began to prance. It means they're puffed up and ready to fight.

Then they came for us, leering. At that instant we all had the same thought it's all over, it's finished. This is definitely it. We began to swear and squirm.

Truth must be stranger than fiction. It was a man who called himself "Colonel British" who saved our lives.

Although he was an RUF commander, he wore traditional African dress. As the rebels advanced on us he ran forward and called them to a halt.

For 10 minutes he argued with their commander, who kept insisting that his men be allowed to have us. We waited quietly while they decided our fate. Eventually Col. British got his way. We were on our way out.

Luca needed no encouraging and drove like hell. More armed rebels were by the roadside but they hardly gave us a glance.

Then we came to the first Nigerian U.N. outpost and one of the sweetest sights I had ever seen: our very own Department For International Development helicopter with country director David Ede standing next to it.

Despite the pressure of the rebel advance and a terrified Russian aircrew he had waited for us. We hugged, kissed and allowed the euphoria to wash through us.

Twenty minutes later we were in Freetown, the next day on a flight out.

But as I sit in London there is no sense of satisfaction. It is the Kenyans that always come to mind. They are still sitting in the bush surrounded by those thugs and killers. Perhaps by now they have been overrun.

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