By: Kaitlyn Fung, Grade 10
Revolutionary United Front, or RUF, for short; what does that name suggest to you? The first word, “revolutionary,” seems to imply that there is great change taking place, while the word “united” is synonymous with “combined.” The last word “front” seems to refer to a movement or campaign. Strung together, all these words create a definition along the lines of “a group fighting together for something completely different.”
Does that seem familiar? It should be, because it’s a thought that surrounds us every day. You can find it in the political parties of the countries around the world, all competing to promise things to their people. You can see it in all the environmental activists demanding a sustainable future, as well as in the homosexual community advocating for their legal and social acceptance. It can even be found in the groups of students fighting for their education to be properly funded. Most of those are all problems of today, though; what about before that? This idea is not new. In fact, it is an idea seen constantly throughout our world’s history. In the past, women had fought for their right to vote (and by extension, their equality), and the poor peasants in the 17th-century France eventually rose up to fiercely protest for their starvation. People had always been fighting for change; the Revolutionary United Front is just another example from the past.
The original ideal of the RUF was to bring equality to their people, as they claimed that the government was greedily managing Sierra Leone’s rich mineral resources (particularly diamonds) while the rest of the country rotted in poverty. It sounded like a good cause; “No More Slaves, No More Masters. Power and Wealth to the People.” was the slogan put out by these rebels. They planned to overthrow the corrupt government. It must be ironic, then, that the rebels quickly became interested only in gaining power and controlling the diamond industry, just like the corruption they had initially fought against. Now there were two power-hungry groups looking to dominate Sierra Leone, which only set the stage for massive conflict.
The RUF first made their move to overthrow their country’s corrupt government in March 1991. Invading from Liberia, they violently attacked the towns bordering the two countries, with former army corporal Foday Sankoh as leader. Sankoh was following the example of Charles Taylor, who had overthrown former Liberian president Samuel Doe the same way in 1989. They killed thousands of innocent men, women, and children and displaced about half the population, sending many to refugee camps and neighbouring countries. Easily crushing any weak government troops sent out to stop them, their unstoppable conquest continued until 1995, when they were almost at Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown. It was then that the government hired EO (Executive Outcomes was a South African military company) mercenaries to counter the rebels. Additionally, the Kamajors (local Mende hunters as militia) were also instrumental in successfully repelling the RUF. After a failed peace agreement in 1996 and a few effective interventions by ECOMOG troops (the joint armies of multiple African countries) in 1998, the civil war seemed to drag on endlessly. In January 1999, the rebels captured Freetown, leaving many civilians devastated or killed. However, on July 7 of that same year, the Lomé Peace Accord was signed by Sankoh. Foday Sankoh and other members of the RUF were given positions within the government that they didn’t hold for long once RUF forces swiftly broke the agreement. It wasn’t until January 18, 2002 (after British intervention and disarming the disbanded rebels) that the war was officially declared over by Sierra Leone’s president.
With the war (just over a decade long) finally over, you would think that it no longer affects anyone. Yet, the RUF left a lasting impression on the world in various ways, notably evident in their trademark practice of amputating limbs. As they went across the country in their horrific campaign, the rebels not only killed a great deal of people, but they maimed them, too. With elections planned for a new government during the 90’s, citizens were told that “the future was in their hands,” so the RUF chopped off hands to stop people from voting. Using machetes and axes, they frequently amputated feet, legs, arms, and hands of thousands, including children. Sometimes they didn’t, though. Instead, one might be kidnapped and turned into a child soldier. Given cocaine and other drugs, child soldiers were made to do atrocious acts of killing and maiming. Young girls were often taken as sex slaves in addition to being child soldiers. While some have escaped or been freed, all are left traumatized by what they have witnessed and done.
With all the activities it undertook during the civil war, there is still a missing piece to the puzzle, which is how the RUF was able to fund all of its efforts. The answer to that lies within the land of Sierra Leone; the rebels, or more appropriately, the people they kidnapped, mined diamonds to sell for weapons. These diamonds were infamously termed conflict diamonds, or blood diamonds. It was odd, because Sierra Leone was ranked the poorest country in the world at the time. This was most likely due to the immense amount of smuggling these diamonds underwent to countries where they could be illegally certified. These diamonds became an extremely controversial topic during the late 90’s, when their existence gradually began to be revealed through the media. When shoppers discovered that their favourite jewellery stores were supplied by companies (De Beers being the biggest one) who knowingly bought these stones, they were outraged at the unacceptable exploitation of the source countries and their people. The Kimberley Process, started in 2000, was created in hopes of preventing blood diamonds from entering the mainstream diamond market.
Indeed, the effects that the RUF had had on their country and the world still linger today. The masses of amputees and child soldiers left scarred by the conflicts are all dark reminders of that turbulent war. Foday Sankoh was never formally punished for his actions, though, but died quietly in jail in 2003. Three other prominent rebel leaders within the RUF had not been sentenced until February 2009. The failed RUF political party that formed after the peace accord eventually merged with the All People’s Congress in 2007. Despite all that, it seems as though they were able to live up to what their name represented: a group of people fighting for things to be completely different. While they may not have achieved all the things they had set out to do, the Revolutionary United Front had indubitably managed to turn thousands of lives upside down during the course of Sierra Leone’s civil war, and beyond