Rebuilding Sierra Leone

The men live to age 40, one in five women die in childbirth, corruption is everywhere and the situation could get worse in the blink of an eye. This was what Lieutenant Colonel Bill Adcock confronted upon arriving in Sierra Leone for a six-month tour of duty in December of 2007. The Sheridan College professor and Canadian Forces reserve officer travelled to the West African nation to take part in IMATT (International Military Assistance Training Team) and bring order to Sierra Leone's large military and carry out reconstruction.
Sierra Leone is still reeling from a horrific civil war that lasted a decade, finally ending in 2002. The war saw a rebel group known as the Revolutionary United Front attempt to seize control of the country's diamond fields through a nightmarish campaign of fear that often involved the hacking off of limbs, widespread rape and the kidnapping of children for use as child soldiers. This war, which went largely unnoticed by the rest of the world, claimed 100,000 lives. The atrocities were eventually stopped when the United Nations sent in 17,400 peacekeepers, but today the small IMATT group of 90 (including 11 Canadians) is all that's left.
Through a recent slideshow and lecture at Sheridan College, Adcock showed Sierra Leone has beautiful green mountains and valleys, but its forests are being decimated because they are being used to create charcoal. Sierra Leone contains vast diamond, mineral and fish stocks, but the government gets little revenue and few gains from the resources. "The Chinese are offshore with their fleets, raping the sea of the fish," said Adcock. "The Sierra Leoneans don't do much about this because the Chinese promise to build them a hospital here or a road there. The Chinese built a great big football stadium, which doesn't get used because no one wants to come play in Sierra Leone."

Lieutenant-Colonel Adcock in Sierra Leone

His first moments in the African country were to prove eye opening. "Once I left the airport, they put us on a helicopter, which was a 40-year-old Russian Hind, operated by pilots whose sobriety was questionable. It took us five minutes to get airborne and we flew across the water to the main city (Freetown) and I thought it was going to be my last flight."
Once in the capital, Adcock found while the war may be over and Sierra Leone has just completed UNobserved, democratic elections, evidence of its bloody past is everywhere. "There are 20,000 amputees and they're all over the streets of Freetown, begging because there is no work for them," said Adcock. "I saw folks there who had had their hands cut off and then some who had their entire arms chopped off."
Figuring out what to do with Sierra Leone's 27,000 former child soldiers was also something Adcock had to deal with in reorganizing Sierra Leone's army. Adcock noted it was easy to tell who had been a child soldier as they had slashes on their foreheads. This was done during the war so that when a drug-soaked bandanna was wrapped around the child's head, the drugs would be absorbed through the cut causing them to go into a killing frenzy. "You can imagine the trauma they went through and are still going through. The only thing we could do with these kids was integrate them into the military and try to inculcate values that were democratic, which was a challenge," said Adcock.
Another challenge is the 2.5 million refugees who have not returned to their homes in the countryside. That's where the worst atrocities took place and many do not feel safe there. The refugee crisis has also diminished Sierra Leone's food supply, as many refugees are former farmers. The lengths to which the local population would go for food became clear when Adcock was relaxing at his headquarters and a cobra came through the thatched roof. He got out, but the local guys set off in chase — to make the cobra lunch.
While the challenges facing any kind of relief effort were immense, Adcock and IMATT did their best. The main effort was to transform the military, which was important because Sierra Leone had seen six military coups since gaining independence in 1961. To ensure future stability the military had to become self-sustaining and democratically accountable.
Literacy programs and educating some junior officers in Canada aided, but Adcock noted what really needed to be done was to shrink the size of the army from its current size of 10,200 — something to which the government was not receptive. Adcock did have success in reconstruction, digging a number of wells and rebuilding schools. Adcock's medics also assisted where they could. "We had a Sierra Leonean soldier whose wife was pregnant and she went to hospital. The baby was born and he had an infection in his belly button. The hospital said there was nothing they could do and they sent the baby home with the mother and the baby died," said Adcock. "The mother was infected as well and I realized I could not allow this to happen, so I sent over Ray, my medic. Ray was an American medic who served four tours in Iraq and as it turned out, he knew more about medicine and he saved her life."
Another notable success was providing security to an orphanage for mostly girls who, after losing their parents, had suffered the additional trauma of being raped. "Horribly enough at one point the locals had broken in and raped some of these girls again," said Adcock. "What we did was rebuild the walls and then put barbed wire and glass on top of the walls so we could keep people out and we got them a couple of dogs."
Adcock's men also installed proper flooring and supplied the orphanage with chalk and books. Adcock was also involved in a home building project, but this was hindered when it was discovered that some members of the Sierra Leonean military had stolen about $30,000 worth of the cement being used. This incident served as an illustration, Adcock noted, of the extreme corruption that exists in Sierra Leone. The harbourmaster of the port where IMATT received supplies was notorious for tying up supplies to get bribes. Even personal packages were subject to this kind of abuse. "My wife sent me a total of 10 packages and I think only four made it through. The rest disappeared at the airport," said Adcock.
Despite some bad experiences, Adcock remained amazed at the resilience of the people of Sierra Leone. Despite having so little, many parents still supply their children with pristine clothes to wear to school. Adcock also said he saw people working unthinkable hours doing unthinkable jobs to provide for their family. One man Adcock saw spent day after day breaking rocks with a hammer to provide gravel for a road. Stepping in to help for a moment, Adcock found that breaking rocks with a hammer hurts the hands after a while and this man would do that seven days a week.
"These are magnificent people, the way they've survived and what they do and how they care about their country," he said. "Some of the friends that I made there, they are the future leaders of the country."
Adcock had mixed feelings about coming home as he worries what the future will hold for Sierra Leone. "In Free Town the streets are full of unemployed young men. That's a very dangerous situation because if someone has money and wants to manipulate them it's possible."

David Lea, Oakville Beaver, 21 November 2008.