U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 1998 - Sierra Leone

  At the close of 1997, nearly 300,000 Sierra Leoneans were refugees, including 190,000 in Guinea, 100,000 or more in Liberia, 5,000 in Gambia, about 1,000 in CÔte d'Ivoire, and 1,000 in Nigeria. An estimated 500,000 or more Sierra Leoneans were internally displaced. Nearly 15,000 Liberian refugees remained in Sierra Leone. Hundreds of thousands of displaced Sierra Leoneans returned to their home areas in early 1997, as did smaller numbers of refugees. The collapse of a peace accord between the government and rebels, and a subsequent coup by Sierra Leone's military, however, produced new violence, refugee flight, and internal displacement later in the year. Pre-1997 Events Violence in Sierra Leone grew out of the armed conflict in neighboring Liberia. In 1991, a Sierra Leonean rebel group, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), accompanied by Liberians and West African mercenaries, attacked towns and villages in eastern Sierra Leone. A rapidly expanded government army, supported by troops representing the Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS), battled the rebels. A subsequent coup by junior army officers in 1992 ushered in four years of military rule. RUF attacks against civilians were gruesome, sometimes including the amputation of limbs, apparently to intimidate residents and government soldiers. RUF fighters often captured children, using them as porters or unwilling sexual partners, or forcing them to take part in attacks. Government soldiers colloquially known as "sobels"‹short for "soldier-rebels"‹also attacked civilians, villages, and highway traffic, according to most observers. Responsibility for such attacks was often difficult to assign. A desire to control Sierra Leone's lucrative diamond mining areas was the cause of many armed encounters. Following significant RUF advances, the military government in 1995 hired South African mercenaries to defend important mining areas. The mercenaries effectively repelled RUF advances, and in some areas conducted offensive operations that weakened RUF significantly. Despite ongoing violence, Sierra Leoneans in February and March 1996 elected as president a civilian, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah. An ethnic Mende, Tejan Kabbah received overwhelming electoral support not only from members of Sierra Leone's ethnic Mende community, who live in much of the south and east of the country, but from other Sierra Leoneans disillusioned by four years of military rule. A cease-fire agreement between the government and RUF rebels generally held for much of 1996, although sporadic attacks persisted. The government and rebels, however, were slow to reach a final peace accord. Senior government officials supported the formation of an expanded civil defense force whose members were part of a predominantly ethnic-Mende secret society, the Kamajohs. In late 1996, large numbers of Kamajohs, supported by South African mercenaries, overran several important RUF bases. Increasingly, the Kamajohs also clashed with elements of the Sierra Leonean army believed responsible for attacking civilians. The Kamajoh offensive greatly weakened RUF's military position. In November 1996, the RUF leadership agreed to peace terms, signing an accord in Abidjan, CÔte d'Ivoire. The Abidjan accord called for disarming and demobilizing rebel forces, withdrawing foreign troops, creating an international monitoring body, and establishing joint government-RUF committees to oversee the peace process. A late 1996 USCR report warned that a peace agreement between the government and RUF was but one step in Sierra Leone's rebuilding process. "The next major step is reforming and reducing the size of the Sierra Leonean army," said USCR. "UNHCR's repatriation planning should set reform of the army as a prerequisite to initiating assisted repatriation to Sierra Leone," the USCR report added. Estimates of the number of people displaced in Sierra Leone are inexact. A late 1996 UN funding appeal estimated that 1.6 million Sierra Leoneans were internally displaced. A USCR site visit in late 1996 found that 1 million was a more realistic estimate. Peace Accord Implementation The signing of the Abidjan peace accord in late 1996 produced a palpable sense of hope in much of Sierra Leone. That hope, however, far exceeded the accord's actual implementation. By February 1997, South African mercenaries effectively withdrew from Sierra Leone, as the peace agreement mandated. West African troops affiliated with the ECOWAS military presence in neighboring Liberia (known as ECOMOG) remained, awaiting the proposed arrival of an international monitoring force. Although small numbers of hungry, ragged RUF fighters and "camp followers" came in from the bush seeking to reintegrate into society, no programmed demobilization of RUF combatants occurred. Sierra Leone's army was neither restructured nor reduced in size. That hundreds of thousands of uprooted people could return to their home areas had less to do with the peace accord than with the brute-force approach of the Kamajohs. Displaced Persons Return Hundreds of thousands of displaced Sierra Leoneans, capitalizing on the Kamajohs' advance, returned to their home areas in early 1997, often with remarkable speed. By late March, aid agencies reported that more than 650,000 persons had received at least one installment of the three-month food ration for returnees in their home areas. Three international NGOs‹Catholic Relief Services, World Vision, and CARE‹and WFP supplied rations to returnees. ICRC provided cooking sets, blankets, and clothes to more than 100,000 returnees. Populations dwindled in large displaced-person camps, such as those in Bo, in south-central Sierra Leone, as displaced persons returned home. About two-thirds of all registered returns occurred in Sierra Leone's Southern Province, mainly in areas cleared by the late 1996 Kamajoh offensive. Fewer displaced persons could return to Eastern Province, however, where significant areas either remained under RUF control or were insecure because of sporadic conflict. Camp-dwelling displaced persons from such areas were permitted to continue drawing food rations in areas where they sheltered. Northern Province, which generally suffered less conflict and displacement than Sierra Leone's two other provinces, also saw fewer returns. Repatriation to Sierra Leone In early 1997, UNHCR began a limited repatriation for Sierra Leonean refugees in neighboring countries. In February and May, UNHCR assisted some 1,800 Sierra Leonean refugees in Liberia to repatriate. Renewed conflict and a subsequent coup in Sierra Leone later in May, however, forced UNHCR to suspend the program, which was stalled for the rest of the year. Security Deteriorates Although hundreds of thousands of displaced persons returned home, security deteriorated in large parts of the country. Fighting in Kailahun District, in Eastern Province, reportedly involved Sierra Leone's army, Guinean soldiers, RUF rebels, Kamajohs, and at least one Liberian faction. Clashes between Kamajohs and Sierra Leone's army in Moyamba and Bonthe Districts, in Southern Province, displaced thousands of recent returnees and other local residents, according to WFP. Some RUF leaders charged that the government had abandoned the peace accord in favor of a military solution, and that the Mende-dominated Kamajohs were attacking members of other ethnic groups, primarily northerners. The government rejected such claims as efforts to divide the country along ethnic lines. RUF's apparent intransigence in complying with the peace accord, however, gave the government little hope that the accord would ever be fully implemented. RUF leader Foday Sankoh rejected a UN proposal to station 720 UN troops in Sierra Leone to oversee adherence to the Abidjan accord. Sankoh repeatedly refused to meet with members of the joint government-RUF Committee for the Consolidation of Peace, alienating some members of RUF's external delegation. Authorities in Nigeria detained Sankoh in March, reportedly on weapons charges. Moderate elements of the RUF leadership announced that they had deposed Sankoh as RUF leader. Most RUF fighters inside Sierra Leone rejected Sankoh's overthrow, however. Sankoh remained in detention for the rest of 1997. New Violence, New Flight The impasse in carrying out the Abidjan accord, RUF's internal power struggle, and the simmering conflict between Kamajohs and Sierra Leone's army culminated in significant new violence and refugee flight. In May, the army and Kamajohs engaged in heavy fighting in Kenema, in Eastern Province, prompting the withdrawal of most aid agencies' expatriate staff from that region. ICRC staff remained, however. Members of a primarily ethnic-Temne society, the Kapras, clashed with the army in Northern Province. UNHCR suspended the repatriation of refugees from neighboring Liberia. An attack on a UN vehicle near Makeni, in Northern Province, killed one UN employee and wounded a senior UN aid official. Authorities suspended return movements of displaced persons from Freetown-area camps because of deteriorating road security. Suspected RUF fighters seized Kamakwie, in Northern Province, prompting thousands of Sierra Leoneans to flee. About 15,000 entered neighboring Guinea in May. Other attacks in Northern Province forced thousands of displaced persons to converge on Port Loko, along the road between Freetown and the Guinean capital, Conakry. A USCR statement urged donor and asylum countries to recognize that Sierra Leonean refugees would likely remain in Guinea and Liberia indefinitely. The widespread violence of May, touching all three of Sierra Leone's provinces and involving the army, RUF, and Kamajohs, demonstrated the failure of the Abidjan accord and set the stage for the next installment of Sierra Leone's increasingly complex conflict. Coup in Freetown Elements of Sierra Leone's army staged a coup on May 25, releasing from prison 600 inmates, including an army officer, Major Johnny Paul Koroma, who subsequently declared himself head of the "Armed Forces Revolutionary Council" (AFRC). Outnumbered ECOMOG troops in Freetown withdrew to bases at two nearby airports. President Tejan Kabbah fled to neighboring Guinea. Koroma, a member of a small northern ethnic group, asserted that the military overthrew Tejan Kabbah because his administration had failed to consolidate the peace agreement. Koroma invited RUF leader Foday Sankoh, still detained in Nigeria, to join his administration. Most informed observers, however, dismissed the stated rationale for the coup, believing that its roots lay not in the failed peace accord, but in the military's loss of prestige and power to the Kamajohs. A USCR statement issued two days after the coup provided policymakers, journalists, and aid workers with a summary of recent events, including a summary of the Kamajoh-army rivalry. Looting soldiers in stolen vehicles, joined by jobless youths, roamed Freetown's streets in the days following the coup, killing or injuring scores. Soldiers looted food aid intended for returning displaced persons. Hundreds of RUF fighters in ragged uniforms entered Freetown. RUF officials later received positions within the AFRC, including RUF leader Sankoh, named AFRC vice president-in-exile. Although RUF fighters rallied to support the coup, most Sierra Leoneans appeared to oppose it, and some elements of Sierra Leone's army reportedly declared their allegiance to the ousted civilian government. Kamajoh leaders vowed to march on Freetown unless ECOWAS restored Tejan Kabbah to power. Most Westerners left Freetown, many as part of a U.S.-run evacuation. The balance of power among the pro-coup elements tilted in favor of RUF, according to observers. Troops representing ECOWAS episodically clashed with both RUF and AFRC forces, leaving an uneasy stalemate in and around Freetown. Sporadic shelling in Freetown killed scores of civilians. An ICRC statement said, "[T]he situation throughout the country remains chaotic.Š No supplies are entering the capital, fuel is running short, and there is no commercial traffic." USCR wrote in June to U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, urging her to recommend that nationals of Sierra Leone in the United States be designated as eligible for temporary protected status (TPS). USCR had first made such a request in late 1995. In a separate letter to U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, USCR argued that a TPS designation "might save the lives of at least a few Sierra Leoneans." USCR wrote to U.S. INS Commissioner Doris Meissner in August, asking that she recommend TPS be granted to Sierra Leoneans. In November, five months after USCR's request, Attorney General Reno announced that she had designated Sierra Leoneans in the United States as eligible for TPS. Sierra Leoneans Flee The anarchy in Freetown and the belief that a large scale ECOMOG attack was imminent led tens of thousands of Freetown residents to flee to interior regions, including Kambia, near the western border with Guinea, Bo, in south-central Sierra Leone, and Makeni, in Northern Province. Sierra Leoneans also fled to other countries in the region. Continued conflict in the east between the army and Kamajohs sent thousands of Sierra Leoneans fleeing toward Liberia. An estimated 10,000 to 25,000 Sierra Leonean refugees entered Liberia in 1997. At least 50,000 Sierra Leoneans were able to enter Guinea, while several thousand fled by boat to Gambia. All told, at least 65,000 Sierra Leoneans fled their country in 1997. Some reports said more than 100,000 fled. Aid agencies also reported more than 20,000 newly displaced persons in Kenema, and some 35,000 in the Kambia area. Although violence in Freetown and elsewhere produced new flight in 1997, the large-scale presence of RUF fighters and AFRC soldiers in Freetown meant that significant portions of Sierra Leone's interior were notably more secure than in previous years. The return of hundreds of thousands of displaced persons early in the year, and a projected increase in agricultural production in many rural areas, produced relative stability in some areas. By year's end, UN agencies reported that some 157,000 internally displaced Sierra Leoneans were "relief dependent." This significantly understated the total number of internally displaced persons, however. UNHCR, which had no significant presence in Sierra Leone after its international staff evacuated in June, reported that at least 1.5 million Sierra Leoneans were internally displaced as of November. The U.S. Department of State reported that 1.4 million Sierra Leoneans remained internally displaced at year's end. These and other reports were unverifiable. Based on reports of the number of displaced persons who returned to home areas in early 1997 and the apparent effects of renewed fighting, USCR, in the absence of definitive reports, estimated that 500,000 or more Sierra Leoneans remained internally displaced at year's end. This estimate, like others, was speculative. ECOWAS-AFRC Relations ECOWAS, led by Nigeria, vehemently opposed the AFRC coup, demanding that Tejan Kabbah be restored to power. Following the coup, ECOMOG immediately began to ferry thousands of mostly Nigerian troops to Sierra Leone from bases in neighboring Liberia. ECOMOG's mandate, however, did not yet officially extend to Sierra Leone. ECOMOG ships and planes operating from Liberia nonetheless imposed a partial blockade on Freetown. ECOWAS foreign ministers in June established a committee to monitor developments in Sierra Leone and negotiate on behalf of the regional governments. Although ECOWAS and the AFRC agreed to a general cease-fire, confrontations continued throughout the year. When the AFRC announced in July that it intended to retain power until 2001, ECOWAS vowed to strengthen the blockade. ECOWAS in August officially extended ECOMOG's mandate to include Sierra Leone. ECOMOG artillery and aircraft periodically bombed blockade busting vessels. ECOMOG commander Major General Victor Malu declared humanitarian supplies exempt from the blockade, but said that ECOMOG must first inspect them. The UN Security Council in October imposed an arms and oil embargo on Sierra Leone, authorizing ECOWAS to enforce it. The Security Council also forbade AFRC members and their families from traveling internationally. Conakry Agreement Serious ECOMOG-AFRC/RUF fighting preceded an ECOWAS-AFRC agreement to end the crisis. The agreement, reached in Conakry, Guinea in October, provided for a cease-fire, the restoration to power of President Tejan Kabbah by April 1998, the resumption of large scale humanitarian assistance, the demobilization of combatants, immunity from prosecution for the coup leaders, and an ill-defined role in the peace process for RUF leader Sankoh. Almost immediately, the AFRC and ECOWAS reached an impasse on three major points: the release of Sankoh, the role of Nigeria within ECOMOG, and the demobilization of AFRC troops. With the two sides unable to agree, the stalemate continued. Koroma, head of the AFRC, announced in December that he would probably not yield power by April 1998, because implementing the accord was well behind schedule. Kamajoh leaders launched new attacks throughout the country, vowing to restore Tejan Kabbah to power. Humanitarian Aid The coup and associated violence thwarted aid agencies' attempts to provide food to needy Sierra Leoneans. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization warned in June, "The food situation in Sierra Leone is deteriorating rapidly.Š There is a real possibility of famine." In June, WFP announced that it was considering a cross-border feeding operation, in part to "curb the flow of those who might decide to seek asylum in neighboring countries." USCR wrote to WFP to express concern over the agency's linking of the universal human right to seek asylum abroad and the desire for food assistance. "Clearly, ongoing human rights abuses and conflict areŠthe main reasons that Sierra Leoneans are fleeing their country," USCR wrote. "The international community, including the UN specialized agencies, must not lose sight of this fact." USCR urged UNHCR in July to revise an inter-agency assistance strategy for Sierra Leone. That assistance strategy asserted that the "preferred option is to provide assistance within Sierra Leone to IDPs [internally displaced persons] through cross-border operations in order to prevent refugee influxes." USCR noted that the approach appeared "to confuse the flight of refugees from persecution and violence with the movement of persons searching for food." USCR warned, "This could be misinterpreted by governments or other actors who lack a commitment to the right to seek asylum." UNDHA reported that the AFRC was intensifying pressure on food-aid agencies, and that "most agency warehouses are visited by armed men on a daily basis." Food stored in Freetown was particularly susceptible to looting, and aid agencies attempted to move supplies to locations in Sierra Leone's interior. WFP reported in September that 3,000 metric tons of food aid‹enough to feed 250,000 people for one month‹were looted in the preceding three months. WFP and NGOs nonetheless conducted limited food distributions in Freetown, and also in Bo, Kambia, Makeni, and Kenema, where newly displaced populations gathered. ICRC distributed food in historically RUF held areas in August, the first time since early in the year. WFP warned in September, however, that it was running out of food. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan warned in October that Sierra Leone's health system was "near collapse." AFRC authorities accused NGOs of collaborating with Kamajohs in the Bo area, and attempted to block NGO access to Kamajoh-held territory. AFRC officials falsely claimed responsibility for some food distributions. Although most looting of food aid was attributed to AFRC and RUF fighters, Kamajohs also impeded aid efforts, at times commandeering aid agency vehicles. Kamajohs also harassed aid agency personnel at some food warehouses in Kamajoh-held territory. ECOMOG authorities stymied aid efforts as well, denying NGOs permission to fly to interior regions of Sierra Leone isolated by road attacks. Despite October's Conakry agreement, which called for large scale cross-border humanitarian aid shipments to resume in mid November, ECOMOG failed to implement clearance procedures by year's end. Except for some medical supplies, ECOMOG prevented the movement of humanitarian assistance into Sierra Leone from Guinea. UNDHA reported in December that feeding programs for the most needy had virtually halted because there was no available food aid inside Sierra Leone. The 14,000 metric tons of food aid distributed following the coup met only 40 percent of the country's needs, UNDHA estimated. Refugees from Liberia Nearly 15,000 Liberian refugees were believed to be in Sierra Leone at year's end, according to UNHCR. Widespread violence in Sierra Leone, however, forced UNHCR expatriate staff to withdraw at mid-year. Prior to May's violence, some 2,500 Liberian refugees lived at Jui, a camp outside Freetown, where UNHCR assisted them. UNHCR also assisted about 5,000 Liberians living in Freetown itself. Additional thousands of Liberians reportedly lived in Freetown, Bo, Kenema, and elsewhere, most without assistance. Following UNHCR's evacuation from Sierra Leone in June, ICRC and the Sierra Leonean Red Cross distributed food to Liberian refugees at Jui. Fighting near Jui between Sierra Leonean forces and ECOMOG troops, however, forced most Liberians to flee. About 1,000 relocated from Jui to Waterloo, a site farther from Freetown that Liberian refugees had abandoned two years earlier because of fighting between RUF rebels and the Sierra Leonean army. Liberian refugees in Freetown and elsewhere in Sierra Leone suffered the same kinds of threats, abuse, and food shortages that Sierra Leoneans faced. Their condition at year's end, like that of many other civilians in Sierra Leone, was precarious.

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