Itís been said that Sierra Leone has nothing going for it except a plentiful stock of diamonds. This isn't strictly true - it has a cool name, some cool islands (the island of Tiwai has the densest population of primates on earth) and an exciting new growth industry: the international email scam whereby crooks ask for 'advance fees' to transfer huge (actually non-existent) sums of money out of the country.
For for most of us, Sierra Leone (which means 'Lion Mountains' and was the name given to the country by a Portuguese explorer impressed by its mountain ranges) is a byword for teenage nutcases with AK-47s hacking peopleís limbs off with machetes. But it wasn't always thus.
During it its period as a British colony, Sierra Leone was quite advanced. The first college for higher education in West Africa was established in Sierra Leone in 1827, and thanks to its educational achievements, particularly in medicine and law, it was dubbed 'the Athens of West Africa'.
So where did it all go wrong?
Sierra Leone is currently dealing with the aftermath of a 10-year civil war, just one of many armed uprisings that have dogged the country since it became independent in 1961 and a military coup promptly deposed the government.
The latest conflict dates back to 1991, when the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) led by Foday Sankoh, launched a rebellion. Soon after the president was replaced by a military government - the snappily titled National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC).
Despite the change in government, the RUF attacks continued. And readers of last weekís chirpy look at Liberia might be interested to know that throughout the horrors of the civil war, the Liberian president Charles Taylor funded and trained the RUF.
Pressure from inside the country and abroad forced the NPRC to hold general elections in 1996. It was then that Sierra Leone really achieved international notoriety when the rebels started cutting off peoples hands/arms. The practice was a ghoulish response to the government's campaign slogan for the election, 'The future is in your hands'.
The amputations were an attempt to make people to abandon their support for any civilian government of Sierra Leone, although the teenage rebels who make up the bulk of the RUF are also known for committing hideous crimes just for the hell of it.
Despite the terror spread by the RUF, a new civilian government was formed under Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, which was the first freely elected administration for 34 years.
However, the war dragged on and a year later a group of disaffected Sierra Leone soldiers led by Major Johnny Paul Koroma seized power, styling themselves as the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC). The Kabbah government managed to flee into exile while the AFRC invited the rebel forces to join them. Pillage, rape and terror became the norm.
Unfortunately for Sierra Leone, international intervention was slow in coming. The West was preoccupied with the Bosnian crisis, and the USís misadventures in Somalia meant it was reluctant to get involved in Sierra Leone.
But the West, via the UN, did persuade the local African economic organisation, ECOWAS, to send in its ECOMOG troops and restore the democratically elected government of Tejan Kabbah.
By this stage the official army in Sierra Leone was in chaos, and the government had to rely on a small militia called the Kamajohs, who used a strange combination of modern weapons and what is politically correctly referred to as 'fetishism', ie. magic. We suspect guns and mortars were more effective. Kabbah also engaged the euphemistically titled Executive Outcomes, i.e. Hard Mercenaries Ltd., to supply 200 foreign professional soldiers to lead the Kamajohs. The capital, Freetown, was retaken in 1998 and Kabbah was reinstated as President.
Many of the defeated junta were captured, tried and eventually executed. Those of the AFRC who escaped retreated to the bush where they formed an uneasy alliance with the RUF and continued to terrorise the countryside and destroy Sierra Leoneís infrastructure.
But the war wasn't over. In 1999, the rebels took much of Freetown. ECOMOG troops and the Kamajohs fought hard to recapture the capital. Unfortunately the ECOMOG troops overstepped their role as peacekeepers and carried out brutal reprisals.
In 1999 all parties signed a cease-fire agreement (which included an amnesty for all crimes and human rights abuses committed during the civil war) but the war was not formally declared over until 2002 following military intervention by the UN.
However, the country is still recovering from the horrors of war. Perhaps worst of all, the rebel factions have not released the large numbers of children they abducted to become soldiers. As many as 15,000 children are thought to have been kidnapped during the war.
The latest news from Sierra Leone is that RUF leader Foday Sankoh died this week while waiting to be tried for war crimes. To get some idea of the absolute fucking mentalness of the people who terrorised Sierra Leone, itís worth recalling a comment that Sankoh made. At one court hearing he said he was "surprised that I am being tried because I am the leader of the world".
Sierra Leone is slowly recovering from the bloodbath instigated by Sankoh and people like him. But for the time being, don't reply to any emails offering you £10,000,000 if you pay £1,500 banking charges.