Tongo in a Time of War
On one of the last days of January 1994, the people of the small but important diamond mining town of Tongo, in the eastern part of Sierra Leone, were alarmed by gunshots coming from the outskirts. It did not take long for them to discover that their town was under attack by a rebel movement named the Revolutionary United Front of Sierra Leone (henceforth RUF).
Three years before, on 23 March 1991, the RUF entered Sierra Leone across its border with war-torn neighbouring Liberia, seeking to overthrow – as it proclaimed – the one-party All People's Congress (henceforth APC) regime of President Momoh. During the first months of the insurgency the ranks of the rebel forces swelled rapidly through a mixture of voluntary recruitment and forcible induction of predominantly young people – many of whom were under 18 years of age, the widely agreed minimum age to bear arms. Many recruits were young people who had dropped out of school or left their villages to survive on a day-to-day basis in the urban informal sector, or through small-scale illicit mining. The RUF – reinforced by more experienced combatants (Special Forces) from Liberian warlord Charles Taylor's rebel movement in Liberia – soon gained a reputation for cruelty and war crimes, respecting neither the lives nor the property of civilians.
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