January 15, 1999
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ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (Reuters) -- As Sierra Leone's rebel war shatters lives in one of the world's poorest countries, the military commander of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), Sam Bockarie, is thriving on it.
After trying his hand at diamond mining, disco dancing and hairdressing, Bockarie, alias "Mosquito," finally made a career for himself by joining the RUF in 1990.
Now, at the age of 35, he is the rebels' battlefield commander with the rank of brigadier-general.
He had always dreamt of becoming a man who counts.
"I never wanted myself to be overlooked by my fellow men," said Bockarie, talking from his jungle command post by satellite telephone -- an essential item for a guerrilla chief in African wars.
"Now I think I am at a stage where I am satisfied. I have heard my name all over, I have become so famous," he said.
Bockarie is a classic product of West Africa's first post-independence generation.
He left school prematurely to scrape a living, first upcountry then in the big city.
Sadly, he is also one of a growing number of the continent's marginalized youths who take up arms.
The son of a diamond miner, Bockarie was born in 1963 in eastern Sierra Leone and followed in his father's footsteps after he dropped out of secondary school.
He left the mines in 1985, joining a troupe of professional dancers touring the diamond region's many discotheques.
A year later he was moving on, part of the rural exodus. Not to Freetown, the capital of his own poor country, but to his uncle in Monrovia in neighboring Liberia -- a wealthier country at that time.
Monrovia was to be his springboard to Abidjan, the glittering capital of Ivory Coast. There, in common with many contemporaries, he dreamt of making it to Europe.
After working as a waiter and as a hairdresser, he had just started training to become an electrician when Liberia was plunged into civil war on Christmas Eve, 1989.
Instantly, he was fascinated.
"My heart told me to join," he said. But not being a Liberian he refrained from doing so.
Several months later he was hanging out at an Abidjan bus station when a truck full of Sierra Leonean men came by.
"I knew that a Sierra Leonean called Corporal Sankoh was looking for young Sierra Leoneans to be trained and liberate their motherland," he recalled.
Realizing these must be Sankoh's recruits, he jumped on the truck and was driven for three days and three nights to what turned out to be the training camp of the newly created RUF, somewhere in the jungle of Liberia or Sierra Leone.
"Now, I am one of the strongest fighters in the RUF. They call me Mosquito because of my style of fighting. I don't suck the real human blood but if you look at my fighting, it is just that," he said, with a characteristic laugh.
"I kill for purpose, my aim is to liberate my country of unscrupulous politicians and other people who send all our money to foreign lands," he added.
"I cannot tell how many people I have killed. When I am firing during an attack, nobody can survive my bullets," he said, adding that he was sympathetic but strict.
"It is only that I am strict in maintaining law and order. Raping, unnecessary killing, if you do that, you have to die."
With Foday Sankoh in custody in Nigeria and Sierra Leone for the past two years, Bockarie runs the show in the bush.
In 1993, he married 17-year-old Awa -- a "soldier like me" -- with whom he has three children.
Meanwhile, the fear of not counting, of being "overlooked," is not completely gone.
He said he had taken up weight-lifting to try to put on some muscle.
"People must not overlook me for my age or my body," he said.
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