On this day in 1991, rebel forces of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) entered Sierra Leone, a diamond-rich country on Africa’s western coast. Intent on overthrowing the weak central government, the RUF was supported by a group of commandos under Charles Taylor, a Liberian politician and guerilla warfare expert. In the opening months of the conflict, the RUF advanced hundreds of kilometres through the jungles and brushed aside resistance from the Sierra Leone Army (SLA). By March of 1985, the RUF was a day’s march away from Freetown, the capital city; panicked, the central government (with money from the International Monetary Fund) hired a contingent of mercenaries from Executive Outcomes (EO), a South African paramilitary company. Within days of fighting, the veterans of EO managed to push the RUF far back into the countryside and recapture the largest diamond mines.
The Sierra Leone Civil War dragged on for a number of years after EO’s initial successes. In 1986, the government was forced to terminate EO’s contract due to allegations of war crimes. Supported by the United Nations (UN), the central government made efforts to broker peace deals with the RUF. These arrangements quickly fell through due to noncompliance and, by May of 2000, the RUF and members of the West Side Boyz (a guerrilla faction) were on their way to Freetown again. A direct military intervention by the UK – codenamed Operation Palliser – managed to stop the rebel offensive and by early 2002, the civil war was finally declared over. The central government had prevailed, but only with significant aid from the international community.
As an underdeveloped nation rich in diamonds, Sierra Leone suffered from the resource curse, a legacy of the colonial era. The British had ruled the country prior to its independence, and Western intervention during the civil war was at least partially motivated by the country’s production of “blood diamonds”. During the conflict, both sides utilized thousands of child soldiers and committed war crimes such as mass rape and murder. Charles Taylor, the infamous Liberian fighter, was eventually charged for war crimes in his home country. At the end of hostilities, a Truth and Reconciliation commission was established with help from the UN to investigate war crimes and attempt to heal the severely divided country. Although the commission made some progress (according to some sources), Sierra Leone remains in relatively the same spot it did prior to the civil war – and its “blood diamond” trade remains just as lucrative (and violent) as ever.