Populations Affected by War in the Mano River Region of West Africa: Issues of Protection

Today, West Africa remains an intricately linked and complicated context, both politically as well as in terms of the humanitarian situation. While the war has been declared officially over in Sierra Leone and the biggest United Nations peacekeeping force in the world today (UNAMSIL) has been deployed throughout the country, the conflict in Liberia is gaining momentum. New waves of Liberian refugees are moving into Sierra Leone, Côte d'Ivoire and Guinea looking for safety. Thousands of others are being displaced again and again inside of Liberia. Tens of thousands of Sierra Leoneans are going back to their homes, either from neighboring Liberia and Guinea, or from the internally displaced camps within Sierra Leone. Hundreds of thousands of people are moving in the sub-region at the same time, often through the same towns and the same camps. Many questions are being raised about the manner in which these movements are taking place. Do these people, who have been fleeing conflicts for over ten years, have a chance to decide for themselves if they are ready to return to their homes? Are the necessary conditions in place for these movements to take place in a humane and adequate way, according to international standards? Who is responsible for ensuring the protection of these people in such a politically charged environment? The human aspect of this conflict, the rights of the people to protection and humanitarian assistance, seems to have been lost in the political shuffle. Sierra Leone 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. 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. For the majority of the people returning to their homes today in Sierra Leone, they are going back to nothing. Their houses have been burned to the ground and entire villages destroyed. There is often no safe drinking water available, no medical facilities, no schools and no jobs. Liberia Since 2000, the war has greatly destabilized Lofa county, and more recently has made steady progress in Grand Cape Mount, Bomi and Bong counties, causing people to flee in front of the advancing hostilities. The voyage that has brought them to IDP camps has taken months, and in some cases years. Many people have passed through a series of camps, always just one step in front of the fighting. Many families have been attacked by several different groups during the past year, and these attacks not only involved abductions but also rapes, killings and burning people alive in their homes. Many families have had great difficulty escaping. The final driving force for people to risk passing through such dangerous areas seems to be lack of food. Even after they reach a camp, the assistance and protection the people can expect varies, depending on which camp they go to. For those who reach the camps close to Monrovia and close to the offices of humanitarian organizations, there are many assistance programs. But [in other places] you will almost never see any NGO or UN presence. The problems discussed in this report are not new to people who work in the humanitarian world. In fact they are depressingly common, especially in the complicated Mano River region. In Sierra Leone, the international community is injecting huge amounts of money, but it is going primarily to the military part of the peace process. Military operations on this scale are not only extremely important, but also very expensive, and very important to be seen as being successful. But will their success be measured against human suffering and the denial of human dignity? In Liberia, the issues of protection are even more life-threatening. Civilians have been running from one camp to the next for years now, still with the international community hiding from their faces and their stories of horror behind a thinly veiled game of terminology. How long will political issues continue to overshadow the humanitarian needs of the people? The war in this sub-region does not seem to be going away. As long as the violence continues the people will remain in need of humanitarian assistance and protection. The needs which we see today, and that we know will be there tomorrow, will not go away. "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]. Finally, we decided to cross into Guinea. We saw that there was no food for us in Guinea either. My husband and I decided to go back and try to get food. We turned back into Sierra Leone and went to our village. We were there for two days when the RUF attacked again." Hannah, 25, a returnee, Kailahun, Sierra Leone - April 9th 2002. "They told us to be in the repatriation program we had to first go and register in another camp in the north of Guinea and pay our own transport. But we had no money, so we decided to return to Sierra Leone on foot. It took us two days because of our heavy load. As [we] were are not registered we have no right to any aid. In Kailahun we have installed ourselves in this house with another family. There are 27 of us who sleep in three rooms." Returnee woman, 25, Kailahun, Sierra Leone - April 26th 2002. "Sometimes fighters would come and round up people out of the bush camps and take them to Kolahun. This was either to work for them (washing clothes, carrying supplies, cooking) or to just go and sit down with them. The fighters do not like to live alone and they told us that the civilians are their protection from the enemy. We decided to leave three weeks ago because things were quiet. Also, there is no food. We have been living on bush yams and mangos because the fighters took all our rice, and life is getting too difficult. Look at my children [three are malnourished; one of them severely]. Even outside of town, the fighters can take anything from you, even the clothes you are wearing." Liberian refugee woman, Tekoulu transit camp, Guéckédou, Guinea - March 17th 2002. "I want to go home but I have a lot of questions and a lot of frustration. My place is burned down. Who will help me to get tools and material to rebuild it? I do not want to go home until after elections to see if the peace stays. I also do not want to go back to an empty village. I am old and do not want to be alone." Sierra Leonean refugee woman, age approximately 65, Boreah camp, Guinea - March 1st 2002.