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Tribal Hunters Bank on Mysticism

November 28, 1998

KENEMA, Sierra Leone (AP) _ His war room is a dimly lit warehouse where sneak attacks and tactical retreats are conceived on a shabby couch surrounded by posters of guns and women.

Lounging beside a refrigerator of beer and a battered television set, Sierra Leone’s deputy minister of defense, Chief Samuel Hinga Norman, directs an unusual war effort.

On one side are Hinga Norman’s volunteer militiamen, the ``Kamajors.″ Armed with a motley arsenal of slingshots to rocket launchers and clad in anything from traditional hunters’ garb to female wigs and frilly skirts for supposed fearsome looks, they are fighting with religious fervor on behalf of Sierra Leone’s cash-strapped government.

Their enemy is the Revolutionary United Front, a shadowy rebel group that gained power in a bloody coup in May 1997, only to be toppled earlier this year by a Nigerian-led military force from West African nations. Since then, the rebels have gone on a brutal revenge campaign, killing randomly and hacking off limbs.

Almost daily, new warriors are initiated by Kamajor clerics in secret rites that combine elements of Christianity, Islam and tribal religions. The fighting men believe the ceremonies impart a magical ability to repel enemy bullets and become invisible in battle.

The recruits, many completely untrained, are shuttled off in battered dump trucks and Toyota sedans to a ragged battlefront in the lush forests of eastern and northern Sierra Leone. They aren’t paid, and get by on food and small monetary contributions from villagers.

Veterans revel in tales of supposed superhero-style feats. Some carry nicknames like ``Naked Killer″ and ``Dr. Blood″ while others have adopted more subtle names like ``Scatto″ (scatter) and ``Penny,″ referring to the way they dispatch their enemies as if picking up coins.

Whether real or imagined, the Kamajors’ cult-like belief in their own invincibility is their greatest weapon.

Many militiamen are armed with nothing more than machetes, although some carry machine guns, rocket launchers or other captured weapons. Many Kamajors are young boys barely old enough to hold a gun; others are potbellied grandfathers.

The Kamajors have reported few casualties, and claim those who were killed had broken their protective spells by committing acts forbidden to the fighters such as touching a woman or eating bananas.

Before the war, Joseph Lahai was a nurse in a white uniform. Now he wears a leather tunic with red charms sewn like rubies onto a traditional warrior’s headdress.

He has also dropped his birth name and goes by the battlefield moniker Dr. Blood. ``I like to play with blood,″ he said with a smile.

The war is a bloody one for Sierra Leone’s 4.5 million people. The United Nations says untold thousands of unarmed civilians have been disemboweled, maimed, raped or burned alive this year.

U.N. officials also estimate more than 500,000 people have fled their homes and many villages are charred ghost towns. The capital, Freetown, and major centers have swelled with refugees, while other people have fled to neighboring Liberia and Guinea.

The vast majority of the atrocities are blamed on the rebels, although the Kamajors are admittedly ruthless with their enemies. They take few prisoners and cut off heads as trophies. Aid workers say children and women kidnapped as slaves by the rebels have been killed indiscriminately in Kamajor ambushes.

The militia is bearing the brunt of the war effort while the government tries to come up with the money and trustworthy former soldiers to assemble a regular army. The West African intervention force now plays mainly a security role in major population centers.

Hinga Norman founded the Kamajors and says the force numbers around 20,000. A Mende tribal chief and former military captain educated in Britain, he is a charming speaker equally comfortable discussing 16th century European military history as his own fighting force.

Recently, at his headquarters tucked behind a United Nations food distribution center in the sleepy eastern town of Kenema, a kickboxing movie in an Asian language that no one in the room understood prompted a discussion between the commander and his officers.

Hinga Norman believed his grizzled captains _ men who wear talisman-studded tunics and heft rusty shotguns and cutlasses while watching television _ could learn something from the film’s karate-chopping hero.

``I wanted you all to see that, because that was about the making of a man,″ he said.

Few fighters admit joining the Kamajors either for the rite of passage or cult fame among villagers in this West African country the size of West Virginia. Many simply want revenge.

Eleven-year-old Mustafa Gbesay says he joined two years ago after rebels attacked his town and butchered his mother and poked his grandmother’s eyes out in front of him.

Gabriel Tommy, 16, once dreamed of becoming a Roman Catholic priest but has settled for the Kamajor fraternity, which he say permits him to practice his religion, carry a gun and ``make bullets turn around and go the other way.″

``I like killing the wicked men,″ Gabriel added, saying he had killed three rebels in battle.

Women are taboo for the Kamajors and cannot be touched. Several of the militiamen jumped back in alarm to keep from brushing the arm of a woman news photographer who accompanied them on recent military maneuvers.

The Kamajors also maintain a strict diet that forbids many local foods, including bananas.

Some soldiers wear brightly colored headdresses and their bodies glisten from ``liquid talismans″ used for protection. Others prefer women’s wigs and colorful frocks.

``My RPG is for offense and the wig for defense,″ said a teen-age recruit explaining his RPG-7 rocket launcher and his coiffured black plume of hair. ``If you like to, you can try to shoot at me, but you won’t hit me.″

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