- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 14, 2002

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone With the government of President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah preaching reconciliation after an 11-year civil war, Sierra Leoneans go to the polls today with the rebels, now disarmed, appearing on the ballot.

Among the voters will undoubtedly be hundreds of civilians who were used as human shields by rebels retreating from Freetown in 1999, according to Human Rights Watch.

The civil war ended with a dominating U.N. peacekeeping presence.

The peacekeepers disarmed the combatants and paved the way for elections.

The government has encouraged Sierra Leoneans to consider the election as an occasion for reconciliation rather than revenge and has welcomed the former combatants into the political process.

The voters will receive ballots that include two parties formed from rebel groups.

“Yes, we are going to forgive,” said James Kamara, whose house near Freetown was destroyed in the 1999 fighting.

“But how are we going to forget?”

Two years ago, elections would have been impossible. The United Nations had 11,000 soldiers in the country, but rebels still controlled most of the countryside, and in May 2000 they came close enough to Freetown that embassies evacuated their citizens.

But after hundreds of U.N. soldiers were taken hostage that month, the United Nations strengthened its mandate and beefed up its forces. The U.N. mission in Sierra Leone includes 17,500 soldiers, believed to be the largest U.N. peacekeeping contingent anywhere.

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