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Update No. 99/02 on the Red Cross activities in Sierra Leone

11-03-1999 Operational Update No 99/02

 General situation  

In mid-January 1999, with the security situation in Sierra Leone crumbling, the ICRC was requested by the government of Sierra Leone to leave the country. In the few weeks that have passed since the withdrawal, little has happened to pave the way for the return of the ICRC to Sierra Leone and the resumption of its activities.

Consequently, it is difficult to have a clear picture of the situation in the field. Some military developments have taken place, but these are unlikely to drastically change the status quo. The situation remains volatile in Freetown despite the recapture of Waterloo, the gateway to the Freetown peninsular, on 23 February by the forces of the Economic Community Military Observer Group (ECOMOG) and signs of normality, as evidenced by the government's request that people return to work and children to school . Rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) are currently still scattered throughout the peninsular and as such the capital remains under threat. Upcountry, ECOMOG is reported to have further dislodged rebels from key towns like Moyamba, Newton and Magbuntoso close to the western part of the peninsular during the first week of March, while the nothern district of Kambia was overrun by rebels during the first half of February. No information is forthcoming concerning the south, east and north, which may all be involved in the fighting owing to the presence of different forces throughout the country. What is certain is the precariousness of the security situation notably along country roads, and the inability to supply such areas of the country with food, basic commodities and drugs.

On the political front, President Ahmed Tejan Kabah has agreed to authorize a meeting between Foday Sankoh and his field commanders, probably in Togo, as a prelude to peace talks. His proviso, which has been rejected so far, is that Sankoh has to return to jail after the meeting.

As part of the United Nations efforts to find a negociated solution to the conflict, Francis Okello, special envoy of the United Nations Secretary-General, held talks with a spokesman of the RUF in Abidjan in late February. The meeting was reported to have been constructive.

 Humanitarian situation  

Humanitarian action in Sierra Leone is still restricted. The absence of the ICRC and of most other humanitarian organizations from the field and the limited access to most regions of the country leave the population deprived of assistance and protection. A 60-day humanitarian plan-of-action, formulated by the United Nations, non-governmental organizations and donors was presented to the government of Sierra Leone whose initial reaction has been to question its reference to the principles of neutrality, impartiality and transparency. Discussions are under way with the United Nations Special Representative to find a solution to this impasse. Furthermore, restrictive regulations have been introduced by the government concerning, inter alia, the use of communications equipment and compulsory monitoring of the movements of humanitarian players.

The scant information available on the humanitarian situation concerns Freetown, where there are still large numbers of internally displaced people (IDPs) living in makeshift shelters mainly in the central and eastern districts of the city. Main hospitals are operating at full occupancy as they strive to cater for the sick and the war-wounded. Given the sporadic eruption of fighting in various parts of the country, it is likely that the humanitarian needs outside Freetown are substantial.

 Action of the Red Cross Movement in response to the situation in Sierra Leone  

Given the conflict situation prevailing in Sierra Leone, the ICRC, in accordance with the provisions of the Seville agreement is " entrusted with the function of lead agency for the international activities of the components of the International Red Cross Movement " . In this capacity, the ICRC " carries out the general direction and coordination of the international operational activities " . The ICRC as the lead agency is charged with the task of finalizing the Movement's objectives, overseeing their implementation and mobilizing the requisite financial and human resources. It is also incumbent upon the ICRC to maintain contact with the parties to the conflict. At present, the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society is the only component of the Movement operating in the country.

In late January, a meeting was held between the ICRC, the Federation and some of the Participating National Societies (PNS) most concerned, to share information, clarify the activity coordination process and prepare for the resumption of Red Cross action in Sierra Leone. The meeting defined an approach for the provision of emergency support to the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society.

 The ICRC's response  

Notwithstanding the ICRC's absence from the field, there are activities being undertaken on its behalf. To respond to emergency needs, it handed over surgical activities at the Netland hospital to MSF. The hospital's management is in the hands of a Sierra Leonean doctor. The ICRC continues to pay rent for the premises and the salaries of the l ocal staff of the hospital which has approximately 80 patients.

The Lakka rehabilitation centre, now transferred to the annex of the ICRC delegation, has four local ICRC nurses and a physiotherapist providing care to 50 patients and 30 of their family members. The ICRC arranged with the WFP to make food deliveries to the patients and their families admitted to Netland hospital and the annex (160 people).

Having confirmed that its substantial stocks of non-food in Freetown are intact, the ICRC has taken steps to put these at the disposal of the National Society for distribution to 40,000 IDPs in the Bailor Barrie's Compound.

Since March, an ICRC delegate has been based in Conakry to help gather firsthand information on the situation in Sierra Leone and facilitate contact with high-ranking representatives of countries concerned with Sierra Leone. He is also in charge of co-ordinating the work of a core group of ICRC local employees based in Sierra Leone.

 Response of the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society  

The Sierra Leone Red Cross Society has operated for as long as the situation has permitted, seeing to the medical needs of the wounded and the non-food needs of IDPs. With a staff of 6 nurses and 50 volunteers, the National Society operates three health centres in the National Stadium, Howe Street and Bailor Barrie's Compound, in the western, central and eastern districts of Freetown, respectively. During a three-week period, 1,200 patients were treated in National Stadium health centre alone. The National Society has two additional teams of 17 first aid workers and dressers who assist the medical staff of the Connaught hospital. A blood bank is operational at this hospital.

The National Society has distributed used clothes to 120 amputees and the war-wounde d in Netland hospital. Additionally, it has distributed food supplies provided by the World Food Programme to 14,600 IDPs in eastern Freetown and is currently managing a camp sheltering 40,000 IDPs in the Bailor Barrie's Compound, in the same part of the city.

 The Federation's response  

The Federation has served as a link between the Movement and the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society. One of the Federation's action was the release and transfer of 25,000 USD as an advance from the Disaster Relief Emergency Fund (DREF) to Conakry. The funds are being used to cover the National Society's running costs. The Federation has also dispatched two British Red Cross containers with medication, clothing and blankets from Abidjan to Conakry for onward shipment by its delegation to Freetown.

In collaboration with the ICRC and a group of interested PNS, the Federation successfully carried out the medical evacuation of the President of the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society to London.

 Conditions for the resumption of activities by the Movement  

It is reiterated that the ICRC withdraw from Sierra Leone on the request of that country's government. During the insecure period that preceded the withdrawal, the ICRC, the Federation and the National Society had all been affected, both in human and material terms, in Freetown as well as upcountry.

The ICRC promptly took various measures aimed at easing the way for the resumption of its operations in Sierra Leone. The measures included meetings held in February in Geneva, Brussels, Lagos, Conakry and Abidjan with representatives of the government of Sierra Leone, of the Economic Community of West African States and of various governments involved in Sierr a Leone. Currently, ICRC efforts are under way to organize meetings with the hierarchy of the government of Sierra Leone and ECOMOG, with the object of discussing the possibility of and the modalities for the resumption of ICRC operations.

The resumption of ICRC activities would be contingent upon compliance by all warring parties with the basic principles of neutrality, impartiality and independance.

The ICRC is trying to secure the commitment of the government of Sierra Leone, ECOMOG and all warring forces to obtain the people's pledge of respect for the red cross emblem.

 Short-term perspectives  

Before redeploying its expatriate personnel to the field to resume operations, the ICRC will devote itself to supporting the Movement's (ICRC, Federation and PNS) efforts. Such support will focus on two groups of beneficiaries: initially, the internally displaced persons in Freetown; and, the National Society in its areas of intervention. As soon as reliable information is gathered on the humanitarian situation upcountry, and if the circumstances permit, steps will be taken to provide the assistance required.

 IDPs  

The ICRC will also provide non-food supplies from its stocks in Freetown to benefit 40,000 IDPs currently sheltered in Bailor Barrie's Compound. It will also defray transport costs involved in the distribution of relief items, and provide for incentives for the National Society's volunteers.

The PNS are requested to offer contributions in cash and kind to provide for medical, non-food and capacity support.

 The National Society  

The National Society will receive material and financial structural asssistance from the Federation to upgrade its operational capacity. The Federation will also offer technical assistance as soon as the situation permits.

The ICRC foresees the resumption of cooperation with the National Society in other core areas of Red Cross activities such as tracing and dissemination.