FREETOWN, Sierra Leone -- Naked except for thong underwear, a teen-ager hefts a rocket launcher to his shoulder and curses loudly as he runs into the street. His fellow fighters, many wearing charms around their necks, swirl into a mob bristling with rifles.
Unruly and untrained, these traditional hunters are the ragged line of defense for Sierra Leone's weak elected government against brutal rebels who systematically slaughtered tens of thousands and maimed many more during nine years of civil war.
The recent scene at the headquarters of the Kamajor hunter militia is a recipe of how the pro-government faction prepares to battle the rebel Revolutionary United Front: First, liberally apply mysticism, then whip into a frenzy.
The fighters' gray-haired commander, Pa Harding, was shirtless; his pot belly was smeared with a greasy paste to give him the supposed magical ability to repel bullets.
The militia also known as the Civil Defense Force is made up of primarily hunters and uneducated teen-age boys. Most use juju (voodoo) fetishes to protect themselves from their enemies and some openly practice cannibalism, eating the heads and hearts of enemies killed in action. Often they execute suspected rebels first and ask questions later.
But in a country devastated by the rebels who have discarded three peace deals in four years, including last July's accord giving them amnesty for war crimes, many Sierra Leoneans revere -- or at least respect -- the Kamajors.
Part of that popularity stems from the fact that the other factions arrayed against the rebels are just as controversial and their loyalty less certain.
Many army members have previously fought alongside the rebels, and some committed the same atrocities -- cutting off hands, legs and lips of innocent civilians -- that have become the rebels' battle signature. The Kamajors have not veered in their allegiance to the government since the militia was formed in 1995.
The United Nations' troubled peacekeeping force, the world's largest at more than 12,000 troops, has also failed to inspire public confidence.
The U.N. has vowed to give more muscle to its force here and U.N. peacekeepers said Tuesday they had captured a strategic town from rebels. A rebel attack the night before forced government troops to pull out of Masiaka, which lies on a key junction 45 miles from the capital.
Kamajor strongholds, like the southern towns of Bo and Pujehun, are virtually the only areas of Sierra Leone unscathed by the civil war. In the rebel-held north, the group has had less success.
In Bo, Kamajors rule the streets, patrolling in elaborate headdresses and leather fetish tunics. All other pro-government factions are unwelcome.
At their Freetown base, the abandoned Brookfields Hotel, what was once a lively nightspot now has a swimming pool filled with garbage and rooms blackened by smoke from cooking fires. Young fighters while away spare time playing soccer inside the empty restaurant.
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