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Update No. 98/02 on ICRC activities in Sierra Leone

26-02-1998 Operational Update

 General situation  

In some parts of Sierra Leone, civilians and war-wounded are still caught up in the fighting between Economic Community of West African States troops (ECOMOG), Kamajors, the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) and other forces allied to Major Johnny-Paul Koroma such as the Revolutionary United Front. Between 5 and 14 February (when ECOMOG advanced on -- and finally took control of -- Freetown, ousting Koroma's military junta), intensive fighting caused chaos with large numbers of people either converging on the town-centre or scattering throughout the countryside in an attempt to escape the violence. Considerable population movements have been noted over the last month but it is as yet impossible to give precise numbers. Whilst the situation is now calm in the capital, renewed fighting between junta troops and ECOMOG is again taking place in the country's interior. 

On 17 February, President Kabbah, who has been living in Conakry since Koroma's coup d'état on 25 May last year, appointed a task force to take charge of state affairs until his return. The task force is headed by the country's vice-President, Joe Demby and carries out its functions with the assistance of ECOMOG commander, Colonel M Khobe. ECOMOG is currently controlling Freetown and very few security incidents have been reported this week. The ICRC is making the most of the opportunities presented by this more stable environment in order to carry out distributions of relief items and assessments on behalf of the city's most vulnerable. 

Elsewhere though , operations are severely hampered by considerable tensions which look set to persist. Continued clashes and ambushes are reported from north-east of Waterloo on the main highway to Kabala and Kambia District (Northern Province) right across to Kono District and down to Bo (Southern Province). Many villages have been pillaged, burnt to the ground and destroyed and there are numerous reports of crimes such as rape and murder being perpetrated against civilians. Several expatriates working in Lunsar are still missing following their kidnap earlier this month by an unidentified group. It was in anticipation of such systematic looting and repeated physical threats that the ICRC was forced to evacuate its expatriate staff from Segbwema, Kenema and Makeni on 11 February and finally, a further delegate from Bo on 21 February. 

 ICRC ACTIVITIES  

 During the first wave of fighting (5-14 February)...  

During ECOMOG's advance on Freetown , an estimated 4,500 people took refuge in the ICRC delegation compound. Medical and first aid attention on the spot provided treatment for over 200 war-wounded. After a week of confinement to their base, ICRC delegates were finally able to resume activities on 13 February prior to ECOMOG forces taking full control of the capital the following day. At this stage they managed to evacuate the most serious cases of civilian wounded from the compound to Connaught hospital, taking fuel for the hospital's generator and medical supplies with them. Sierra Leone Red Cross Society (SLRCS) volunteers, who have been particularly active throughout the crisis, assisted the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) team at the hospital. Seven bodies were buried. A first-aid point was set up in Kissy , treating some 35 wounded people.

Over 20 disarmed soldiers surrendered and asked to be handed over to ECOMOG under the auspices of the ICRC. A memorandum reminding those involved to respect international humanitarian law was also passed to the governments of those countries seconding troops to ECOMOG forces. The ICRC has made initial contact with the relevant authorities in Freetown with a view to gaining access to people detained in connection with the fighting.

 Segbwema - operations had to be abandoned on 11 February when expatriate delegates were evacuated first to Liberia and then to Conakry.

 Kenema - a medical post was set up in the delegation compound but again, evacuation of delegates to Conakry (via Liberia) on 11 February forced the suspension of operations.

 Bo - a delegate remained on the spot and worked with SLRCS volunteers to organize the transfer of the wounded to medical facilities and the evacuation of the dead for burial before the new upsurge of violence.

 Presently...  

At the same time as dealing with damage caused to ICRC property and stocks in the aftermath of looting and fighting, the ICRC has already made considerable headway in alleviating the suffering of the most vulnerable. 

 Relief assistance  

Evaluations are being carried out to assess the need for medicines and food at various establishments such as hospita ls and orphanages. ICRC medical teams have managed to resume support to some 10 clinics and other health centres in Freetown. Whilst life is returning to normal in terms of security and calm in the capital, trading and transportation by road are not. Scarcity of food is the main immediate problem for the city's 650,000 population. Shops have been looted and many traders have left the town. In addition, the lack of fuel and the closure of the main road to the rest of the country will severely limit deliveries, a problem which is being addressed by the government, the international community and humanitarian organizations.

A ship loaded with 750 mt of foodstuffs donated to the ICRC by the WFP reached Freetown on

19 February. Distributions have been ongoing since 24 February with the help of the SLRC and are being made to:

- 7,500 people in 65 institutions

- 6,000 people whose homes have been completely destroyed (families have received food assistance for a month, plastic sheeting, blankets, hygiene items and a kitchen set)

- 120,000 under-fives

- 20,000 Sierra Leonean displaced on the peninsula

- 5,000 Liberian refugees on the peninsula

A second ship chartered by the ICRC and various other NGOs arrived with medical supplies on Monday 23 February. Deliveries such as this should enable the ICRC to continue to support the Connaught hospital and various other clinics with essential items.

 Protection  

ICRC delegates have already begun visiting detainees held by ECOMOG. The ICRC team, including a doctor and a nurse, went to Freetown's central prison, where several hundred people arrested in t he course of February are being held. The detainees include both combatants, notably regular members of the Sierra Leone armed forces and the Revolutionary United Front, and civilians. The ICRC also succeeded in securing authorization to visit all persons held on territories under ECOMOG's control. Similar approaches have been made to the governments of neighbouring countries to access any detainees possibly held in conjunction with the conflict.

 Perspectives  

The fulfilment of ICRC's planned objectives for 1998 will depend upon how the situation evolves. Currently the ICRC is responding to emergency needs in cooperation with the SLRCS. Further activities are conditional upon the prevailing security situation upcountry and on needs which have not been addressed by other humanitarian organizations.