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As Sierra Leone celebrates its 50th birthday, a look back

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Bai Jingshan/Newscom

(Read caption) Sierra Leonean President Ernest Bai Koroma (r.) meets with Han Changfu, special envoy of Chinese President Hu Jintao in Freetown, Sierra Leone, on April 26.

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Fifty years ago, a flag of green, white, and blue unfurled for the first time against a sultry West African sky. The clock struck midnight on April 27, 1961, and Sierra Leone, a British colony for 150 years, became its own country.

Tonight in Freetown – Sierra Leone’s dusty, sprawling, and party-loving capital – the independence festivities will continue well past midnight.

The city’s beaches are already packed with revelers dancing to ear-numbing blasts of the country’s reggae-like tunes. The president, Ernest Koroma, will address a crowd of thousands inside the National Stadium, where traditional dancers provided entertainment under the midday sun. Tri-colored streamers have adorned the city’s streets for weeks.

Sierra Leoneans have much to celebrate: nearly a decade of peace, billions of dollars in new foreign investment, and the tentative return of tourists to the country’s forgotten white-sand beaches.

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These gains are perhaps that much sweeter because Sierra Leone has been deeply wounded over the past half century – by profound poverty, brutal conflict, and rapacious leaders.

But life still pulses in the streets of Freetown, a city that was founded in the late 1700s by freed slaves who had come from the New World in search of a better life. Hundreds died of disease and hardship, and many gave up and left. But the tough ones stuck to the land they had chosen, and their children did the same.

The fledgling city on the coast soon became the capital of a British colony that reached 200 miles inland, a mishmash of cultures and languages cobbled together into a single state.

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