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CANADA 2002 Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

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Founded on freedom

Sierra Leone is about the same size as New Brunswick and lies between Liberia and Guinea on the western coast of Africa.

History: In 1787 the British brought 400 slaves freed in the United States, Nova Scotia, and Great Britain to settle what they called the "Province of Freedom." Disease and hostility from the indigenous people nearly eliminated the first returnees, who were later joined by other freed slaves in what soon became known as Freetown.

Known as Krio, the ex-slaves were from all parts of Africa. Cut off from their homes and traditions by the experience of slavery, they assimilated some aspects of British lifestyles and built a flourishing trade. In 1792, Freetown became one of Britain's first colonies in West Africa and later served as the residence of the British governor of the Gold Coast (now Ghana) and Gambia.

Colonial life in Sierra Leone was not placid. The indigenous people mounted several unsuccessful revolts against British rule and Krio domination. Most of the 20th century history of the colony was peaceful, however, and independence was achieved without violence.

Ethnic groups: 20 native African tribes 90 per cent, Krio or creole (descendants of freed slaves) 10 per cent, plus some Europeans, Lebanese, Pakistanis, and Indians.

Modern era: The country lived under a series of dictators from the day it gained independence from Britain in 1961.

In 1991, civil war broke out in a bid to end the tyranny, but then Liberia's infamous leader Charles Taylor got involved, the rebels (Revolutionary United Front) gained access to the country's legendary diamond fields, and their ideology dissolved into a thuggish quest for wealth and power.

Sierra Leone's war fast became the benchmark for grotesque brutality against civilians. It resulted in tens of thousands of deaths and the displacement of more than 2 million people (well over one-third of the population).

Now, the UN's largest peacekeeping force protects the capital and key towns in the south while Britain helps to reinforce security and train the Sierra Leone army.

Sources: Stephanie Nolen, U.S. State Dept., World Fact Book

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