Africa, Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights, Population

SIERRA LEONE: Long Reach Of A Distant War’s Anguish

LONDON, Jul 19 1996 (IPS) - Her hair dishevelled, eye-shadow blackened tears slowly streaming down her face, Baindu Bangura cut a sad figure as she sat quietly with hands folded across a matronly chest. Mourners steadily occupied the chairs around her.

Very soon there was nowhere else to sit. A couple offered to go fetch some more chairs. The news was spreading fast that Baindu’s younger brother — Abu, aged 18 — had been brutally cut down in Sierra Leone’s bloody civil war.

According to news reaching his sister in south London from her home in Bumpeh, eastern Sierra Leone, the youth had died from machete blows to the head sustained during a raid by a group of armed men.

The motive for the attack was not clear, as was the identity of the men who carried it out. Although the incident had been blamed on rebel troops, many people keep an open mind as it took place in an area where renegade members of the Sierra Leone army have carried out attacks in the past.

Baindu was too distraught to talk, but Mamie, a middle-aged woman who described herself as a long-time friend of the Banguras spoke for her and many others.

“They say there is a ceasefire in the war but they still kill our children,” she told IPS. “Did our people elect a new government so that they will continue to be killed like cockroaches? Have our people not suffered enough? When will we be able to rebuild what they have destroyed?”

The killing last week of Abu Bangura is not an isolated case. All around the country, particularly in the east and south, innocent Sierra Leoneans continue to be targeted in random hit-and-run attacks by armed groups who aid agency sources say have all but shattered the fragile truce between the new government and the rebels.

Since April when a ceasefire agreement between the government of President Ahmed Tejan Kabba — elected the preceding month — and rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) came into force, thousands of people in the Bo, Kenema and Moyamba districts have fled their homes following a wave of attacks.

“The attacks are mainly in the eastern and southern provinces and things do not seem to be getting any better,” says Rob Reitemeier, Action Aid’s Africa regional director, in Sierra Leone this month. “We can only hope the peace talks succeed.”

Amnesty International maintains that both sides have committed human rights abuses. The international human rights group has confirmed that the attackers are increasingly resorting to killing, torturing and maiming their victims.

One aid agency source, who prefers to remain anonymous because she fears their Sierra Leone-based staff could suffer “reprisal attacks”, says the perpetrators are often in uniforms, making it difficult to tell whether they are rogue soldiers or RUF rebels.

“It is true that some of these groups are only looking for food, but its seems others are simply attacking civilians just for the fun of it — or to tell the government they are a force to be reckoned with.”

The intensity of the attacks has forced the government to dispatch troops to several villages in the Bo, Kenema and Moyamba districts. Although president Kabba claims the attacks amount to ceasefire violations by the RUF, he not allowed the attacks to disrupt the peace process, which is at a critical stage.

Many analysts contend that peace will only return to the mineral- rich West African nation when the bulk of the rebel army is demobilised and the rest subsumed into the political and military establishments.

However, the negotiations between the government and the RUF, which are taking place in Cote d’Ivoire, have reached an impasse, with the rebel leadership refusing to demobilise their estimated 10,000 fighters until all foreign troops, in particular the South African mercenary army Executive Outcomes, leave Sierra Leone soil.

This is a tall order for the country’s new civilian leadership, who know well that the reason the RUF failed to take the capital Freetown during the five-year civil war was the ‘wall of steel’ set up around the city by West African soldiers and the mercenaries.

“If these foreign troops leave, what is to stop the rebels going for the kill and taking power?” says Professor William Gutteridge, director of the Research Institute for the Study of Conflict and Terrorism in London.

“Which side will back down in order to break this deadlock? The rebels may be calculating that the longer the deadlock, the more the pressure will mount on the government to back down. I think the only way out of this is for both disarmament and the withdrawal of foreign troops to be carried out in tandem.”

The civil war in Sierra Leone — which has claimed at least 50,000 lives and devastated the economy — was launched in March 1991 by RUF leader Foday Sankoh in a bid to end the 23-year, one- party hegemony of the All Peoples Congress government.

A year later incumbent President Saidu Momoh was removed in a military coup by young army officers who, bowing to internal and international pressure, handed over power to a democratically- elected government in March.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has put on hold plans to help the return of some one million refugees — a quarter of the country’s pre-war population — scattered in Guinea, Liberia and Cote d’Ivoire.

The government has ordered the agency to stop its operations in the country, claiming that ICRC activities in RUF-held areas in the eastern and southern Sierra Leone were sustaining the rebels. Other aid agencies are concerned the move could affect their operations.

“It is a puzzling move by the government, and certainly anomalous because they have never been proactive like this before,” said Susan Jones, a spokeswoman for the aid NGO Cafod in London, said. “It could have serious implications for us as we also have programmes in Bo and Kenema.”

These concerns are far from Baindu Bangura’s mind. All she wants, she says, is for Abu’s killers to be made to answer for their crime. However, with the government considering a blanket amnesty for war-related rights abuses, there is little, if any, chance her wish will be fulfilled.

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