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Mission To Sierra Leone


by Major John Egan

The author pauses during a live-fire exercise near the Songo River in Sierra Leone in 2001.

The Hercules dove to within 200 feet of the Atlantic as it came up on the coast of Sierra Leone. Tilting left, then right to avoid potential missile or gunfire, the aircraft was not far above the water when it lifted up slightly to pass over two fishing boats and a small freighter. To the south, I could see the capital of Freetown, our home base for the next six months.

After crossing over a beach, the big plane cleared a palm forest before banking hard right. Soon we were on the ground at Lungi airfield: 11 Canadian soldiers ready to take over from the first rotation of 10 Canadian military advisers. It was nearly noon, June 1, 2001, and we had 20 minutes to conduct handovers on the airstrip, during which time the Herc’s engines never stopped running. And although we were surrounded by United Nations troops guarding the airfield, we were not serving with the UN. We were part of a British-led initiative to provide advice and training to help the Sierra Leone government rebuild its armed forces. This effort was in line with the Lome Peace Agreement signed between belligerent forces in July 1999.

My involvement in the African mission stemmed from my work in the Training Development Branch, a small profession within the Canadian Forces that is dedicated to improving military training and education based on operational requirements. I had argued for years that the Canadian Forces should send people from the branch to observe various operations and then recommend changes to training or other areas that would improve performance. However, it was the British Army that sought what I had been proposing for more than 20 years. It wanted a training development major for the mission, and that gave me the chance to prove that my profession had an operational role.

The ferry crossing from Lungi to Freetown took about 45 minutes, enough time to contemplate the heat, humidity and emerging detail of the city that was spread across the lower slopes of the Peninsular Mountains. Several tall office towers stood out against the hills, and we could also see a jumble of low-rise concrete buildings and rusted, sheet-metal shacks. Wood fires and exhaust fumes formed a permanent haze over the city, and the streets were mostly strips of pitted and broken pavement lined with open and broken sewers choked with all types of refuse. It was this concoction of waste and humid rot that drifted out to greet us as we approached the dock.

In the 1999 battle for Freetown, the Revolutionary United Front, RUF, killed approximately 6,000 people and de-
stroyed most of the city and its services. The RUF killed another 50,000 people in the countryside as it fell back to the east. Over 1,000,000 refugees joined 400,000 citizens in the ruins of Freetown, and approximately 10,000 of these survivors had one or more limbs missing; chopped off by RUF fighters. Thousands more had been burned, blinded or otherwise traumatized by the RUF.

Beyond these lingering casualties, poverty and disease dominated the streetscape. Malaria, polio and leprosy were common among the people while mange and rabies ruled the dog packs that ran wild through the streets. On average, three people died of rabies each week in Freetown.

Sierra Leone, which is about the size of New Brunswick, is home to five million West Africans. Located north of the equator, it is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean, Guinea and Liberia. The UN has rated Sierra Leone as the least developed nation in the world. It has also been called the most dangerous place on Earth.

The RUF came out of Liberia in 1991 and overwhelmed the small Sierra Leone Army, the SLA. In very short order, the strength of the RUF grew from 300 to over 20,000 as it conscripted villagers, including children as young as eight to be their fighters. Many conscripts had the letters RUF carved into their chests, something that made them think twice about returning home. Conscripts were also forced to mutilate or kill family members. Surviving villagers were robbed and abused as directed or tolerated by local RUF commanders.

What’s more, RUF leadership prospered from plundering the country’s mineral wealth, especially from what has become known as blood-diamonds. These diamonds also financed international terrorist groups, including a network known as Al-Qaeda.

By 1996, the SLA had expanded from a constabulary of 3,000 trained regulars into a mob of 15,000 largely untrained youth, a force that was poorly equipped, fed, led and paid. Only a few hundred of the original regulars had survived while almost none of their infrastructure, equipment or documentation did. In 1997, many unpaid soldiers staged a coup and allied themselves with the RUF. This alliance was defeated in 1999 by a coalition of West African troops, mercenaries, self-raised militias and loyal SLA. Driven back into the eastern half of Sierra Leone, the RUF and former SLA agreed to a ceasefire and demobilization plan under the 1999 peace accord.

The UN set up a military force to enforce the accord. It also directed the government of Sierra Leone to seek assistance to turn the SLA into a self-sustaining, professional and accountable force. In response to the latter directive, Britain established in February 2000 the 150-strong International Military Advisory and Training Team, IMATT.

The Canadians put the “I” in IMATT when they arrived later that year. Since then, there have been four Canadian rotations, each involving up to 11 officers and non-commissioned officers. In fact, Canadians make up the team’s largest contingent after the British. The international community is also represented by American, Australian, Bermudian, French and Senegalese forces. Each has contributed up to three officers to IMATT.

Canadians serve six-month tours as a contingent, compared to individual three-year tours for some British officers and three-month tours for the Americans. The Canadians on our rotation–Roto 1– were in theatre from June 1 to December 6, 2001, and were even more dispersed throughout the country than members of Canada’s first tour, known as Roto 0.

With the team’s objective in mind, it took us several days to realize that IMATT was more than a group of advisers and trainers. We held appointments in the SLA, but unlike our British colleagues we did not wear SLA rank and cap badges. By preparing and leading “our soldiers” in operations to take back their country from the RUF, we trained and advised our SLA colleagues. The RUF claimed that IMATT staff were mercenaries and offered a bounty of $1,000 US to anybody who killed one of us. On the third day of our tour, we were in a field near Benguema when someone a kilometre behind us fired a mortar. We crouched down as the bomb whistled over us and into the base of a hill 100 metres away. Perhaps someone was trying to make a quick grand.

National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa assigned our mission the highest risk and second highest hardship ratings for a Canadian deployment while the British Army surgeon general stated that Sierra Leone was the most hostile medical environment of all their deployments. Due to these risks and threats, I had almost every vaccination known and carried a Browning pistol and C8 rifle.

After the RUF broke the ceasefire and fought the UN, the SLA and IMATT from May to July 2000, the British Army provided an additional 450 personnel to support IMATT operations. Later, during our tour we worked and lived with our British Force Protection escorts, travelling in open vehicles protected by three British soldiers and equipped with two mounted machine-guns near the front.

Maple House was the name of our contingent’s base in Freetown. It was a fortified home in a compound secured by four IMATT security staff and featured a four-metre high wall topped with broken glass and razor wire. The main doors were heavy metal slabs with up to six bolts extending into the concrete walls. The balcony doors were barred and fitted with padlocks, and each room had its own lock. These modifications were made by the owner following the 1997 coup when rebels blew out the front door with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, known as an RPG7.

All windows, except for the one in the third-floor common room, were barred, and the stairway to the third floor had a prison-style padlocked gate at the top. During frequent states of alert, or when only a few of the Canadians were in town, everyone slept armed. As few as three Canadians occupied Maple House at night as our duties took many of us to training areas or to frontline units for days or weeks at a time. Only at the start and end of the tour was the entire contingent ever together.

Despite our security precautions, thieves broke into the house early one morning and stole some electrical equipment that had been written off due to damage from power surges and several lightning strikes. Freetown, I should point out, is known for its violent storms and unpredictable power grid. Several times, members were thrown across rooms as a result of faulty groundings and power spikes. Over half of the contingent’s electrical equipment, including a quarter-ton surge protector, had to be replaced after the rainy season. Clothing, boots and packs had to be replaced also as they had rotted apart after weeks of wet and warm weather.

As the training adviser for the SLA, I was responsible for developing the SLA’s training and education system, including policies, plans, units, staff and budgets. But the urgent task was to create courses and find the resources to train infantry platoon and section commanders and more than 2,000 illiterate soldiers. Many of the tactical leaders had been field promoted because of valour or because they were the senior soldier left alive after an ambush or a battle, and many of those tested were completely illiterate. This growth of untrained, illiterate leaders over 10 years had contributed to the heavy losses, successive defeats and disintegration of the SLA. I designed and ran courses within weeks, including a literacy program that was delivered at the front.

Touring frontline units, discussing operational needs with unit personnel and accompanying operations were among the best ways to quickly and accurately design these courses. It was also the best way to assess how much the courses I designed contributed to operational success. Wading the Songo River with 600 SLA soldiers under the cover of heavy machine-gun and mortar fire was one way to spend one morning in mid-July. For the second time I saw mortar bombs fly over and land dangerously close to me, but the smokescreen they laid was appreciated. We used jungle-vine ropes and bamboo ladders to get up the opposite bank of the river. And despite the deafening noise, I was able to follow the firefight in the jungle by the ebb and flow of firing and who was where by the distinct sounds of the various weapons. I also took note of what to add, change or drop from this live-fire training.

Getting around the forward areas by road was tough, not only because of RUF threats and the rainy season, but because of the state of the roads and bridges, many of which had been destroyed or damaged by the RUF or by swollen rivers. Long stretches of road were a series of overlapping craters and rocky ridges, often hidden by muddy torrents that bumped stones and other debris against the side of your lurching vehicle. Elephant grass grew 10 feet high right up to the road and almost hid the roadside wrecks that indicated the favourite ambush sites. Each bridge seemed too narrow, too old and too dilapidated to let us cross, but we only once had a bridge drop out from under us. It could take days to drive what should have taken minutes or hours. My travels to and from the front also led to one robbery and a confrontation with a dozen “disarmed” rebels waving machetes, pickaxes and shovels. There was also an encounter with a 10-foot-long cobra and an escape from incineration among five aircraft fuel trucks. On many days, the front seemed safer than the rear.

By the end of our tour on Dec. 6, 2001, the SLA had squeezed the RUF into a narrow corridor down the middle of the country, exploiting the terms of demobilization without violating the ceasefire. We had helped stop the degradation, death and injury of Sierra Leoneans at the hands of the RUF and constrict the blood-diamond trade at its source. Six weeks after we left Sierra Leone, the RUF completely demobilized. This success cost IMATT and the SLA more than just time, money and effort. One IMATT member was killed during these operations while a number were injured and nine held hostage for several weeks. As far as we are concerned, our IMATT dead, injured and traumatized were the prominent part of that bill.

In short order, IMATT members helped to reorganize, re-equip, retrain and redeploy a shattered army of 15,000. And they did it with few resources. The people of Sierra Leone now realize that the new SLA is there to defend them and treat them well. Indeed, the IMATT motto, Trust and Teamwork, had extended beyond the advisers and the SLA to include the people of Sierra Leone.

The experience gained while serving with Roto 1 was more than fair exchange for the advice and training we contributed. I often remarked that in Sierra Leone there was never a dull day. Those who have served in IMATT agree it was a worthy cause and the experience of a lifetime. The fifth Canadian rotation for IMATT–Roto 4–was scheduled to arrive in Sierra Leone in December 2002, and it is expected that IMATT will be in Sierra Leone for several more years.

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