Mano River Report: "I am from Sierra Leone"
24 May 2002
1. Current Context Today, Sierra Leone is trying to put the war behind it and move forward. The Presidential and Parliamentary elections took place on May 14, and people are looking to the future and trying to rebuild their lives. Yet, a major part of the legacy of this war still remains: the more than one million Sierra Leoneans who left their homes during ten years of bitter fighting. There are those who fled to Liberia and Guinea while running for their lives, and others who fled within Sierra Leone and have been living in camps throughout the country. As of February 2002, the UN estimated that there were 250,000 Sierra Leoneans in neighboring countries and approximately 140,000 internally displaced people. In advance of the elections and subsequent withdrawal of UNAMSIL, displaced Sierra Leoneans were sent back to their regions of origin by the UN and the government of Sierra Leone resettlement programs. However, it is difficult to consider this a resettlement program in anything but name. Driven by national and international political agendas and rife with problems, this process has been poorly planned, badly organized and ineffectively implemented. The casualties are the hundreds of thousands of IDPs and returnees, who in this whirlwind of mismanagement and misallocated blame have had their rights and their protection undermined. The situation is especially troubling in light of the recently released Save the Children and UNHCR report on sexual manipulation of refugees in the sub-region, which highlighted the lack of protection for these people and their resulting vulnerability to exploitation. The background to today's situation is a history of horror and humiliation. For ten years these victims of the war have watched loved ones die, endured prolonged hunger, suffered through physical violence and repeated escapes from various armed groups, no matter where they turned. Testimonies are the only way to truly understand this constant struggle to survive and what the war has meant and what life has been like for people since they left their homes. Hannah, age 25 Returnee woman Kailahun, Sierra Leone April 9, 2002: "My mother doesn't want me to tell you what happened to me. But I want to tell you, and I want people to know what happened to us. "I left my village, in Kailahun District, in 1993 when we were attacked ... I was raped and my brother was killed. We fled into the surrounding bush while the attack continued (for three days) ... For two weeks we moved only at night because the RUF were everywhere. We moved every time that we felt in danger. There was fighting going on everywhere, and at times we were chased by the fighters ... we had only bananas to eat. "Finally ... we decided to cross into Guinea. We saw that there was no food or help for us in Guinea either. Some of the new arrivals from our area told us that there was no RUF in our village any more so my husband and I decided to go back to try to get food ... we turned back into Sierra Leone and went to our village. "We were there for two days when RUF attacked again. At this time they were killing all the men, so my husband ran away on his own to Guinea to save his life. I ran to Kailahun to join my family ... but there was no one really to take care of me ... so I decided to go back to the village ... [she was only 16 at time]. The place was quiet, so I would go into the village, take food and then go to the bush and stay hidden with others ... . "For one year, a group of about 15 of us moved around in the bush together, living in bush camps, eating only bush yams and bananas. We moved and cooked only at night to avoid RUF finding us. Even the smoke from a fire could mean your death. During this time, the RUF had what they called a 'secret society' of women in the region, meaning that all the women belonged to them (RUF), and they would rape any woman that they found. Rape was happening everywhere. I myself was raped too many times to count. There were even cross border attacks into the camps after I got to Guinea, looking for women to rape, including old grannies. We finally decided to go to Guinea because we were so hungry. [When Hannah was asked why she did not leave Sierra Leone during that one year, she explained, 'I could live with the RUF, but I could not live without food.'] Besides widespread rape and being forced to live with serious and protracted hunger, Sierra Leoneans were also victims of brutal mutilations, and a seemingly endless series of escapes. Sia, age 30 Returnee woman Tiama camp, Sierra Leone February 12, 2002 "I am only 30 years old. If you look at my face you will think I am older, but that is because of the hard life from the war. I am from Bomanja village, Sando Chiefdom [near to Koidu] in Kono District. [It should be noted that Sando Chiefdom was one of the first areas very heavily affected by the amputations carried out in 1998]. I first left my village in 1998 early in the morning when AFRC and RUF attacked us. I left with 14 people in my group. We ran to the bush ... My aunt had her hand amputated before being pushed out to the bush. It took us two weeks to get to the border [with Guinea] and we lived on bush yams and mangoes. Our biggest problem was hunger. One of my daughters was captured by RUF before they could get to Guinea. The rebels also had started the bush on fire to clear the bush camps, making no place safe for us." Not everyone was able to reach Liberia or Guinea. This was most often due to their geographic location at the time they were attacked, or when they chose to flee their homes. Often, during different stages of the conflict, these displaced were in areas that had sporadic access, at best, for the humanitarian communities, resulting in little or no help for many people who in turn watched their family members die again and again as they made their flight towards safety. Dauda, age 32 Displaced male Lebanese School camp Kenema, Sierra Leone April 4, 2002 "I left my village in 1992 when we were attacked by the rebels. There were 15 of my family with me. We decided to head to Koidu because it is the district headquarters and we thought there would be more security there. We stayed here for some months (almost a year) living mostly on wild food. Three people in my family died here from sickness. "Koidu was attacked in 1993 and I ran away with seven people from my family. The others were scattered in the confusion (there is still no news from these five people). We decided to go to Kenema where we had friends ... We walked for 14 days living on bananas and plantains. We saw many wounded people in the bush at this time who had no one to help them make their way. When we arrived in Kenema we went to the RTI camp where we slept in a field for three days before we were moved into the camp. We stayed here for two years. Two people in my family died of sickness while we were here."