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Update No.99/01 on ICRC involvement in Sierra Leone

15-01-1999 Operational Update

 General situation  

The fragile security situation in Sierra Leone reached a climax once again in December 1998. Clashes occurred between troops from the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), allied with the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), and forces of the Economic Community Military Observer Group (ECOMOG). By the end of December 1998, the conflict, which spread mainly from the north of the country, had reached the outskirts of Freetown in the west. Following days of skirmishes in the hills around the capital, AFRC/RUF forces finally entered Freetown itself in the first week of January 1999. The streets of the capital have since been the scene of heavy fighting as ECOMOG has tried to drive the rebels out of Freetown.

On Wednesday 13 January 1999, the remaining five ICRC expatriate staff were requested by a member of the Sierra Leonean government to leave for security reasons, as the government and its allies were no longer able to guarantee the safety of humanitarian activities being carried out in the country. An ICRC-chartered helicopter was therefore sent from Conakry to evacuate them to the Guinean capital late on Wednesday evening, where they arrived safely. As a consequence, the ICRC is currently no longer in a position to comment on the humanitarian situation in Freetown or the rest of the country as all expatriate staff have now been pulled out.

 Humanitarian situation  

Before leaving Freetown, the humanitarian situation in the capital was of the gravest concern, with the population severely traumati sed by recent events. For nine days, there has been incessant fire from both light and heavy weapons from the ground and the air into the capital, causing casualties, war-wounded, panic, fear and serious destruction to civilian property and essential services. The capital has been heavily damaged by the fighting, and many parts have been pillaged and looted.

Most civilians have been trapped in their homes by the incessant fighting, ordered by the government to stay inside or forced into the streets by the opposition to show their support. Many have been unable to gather food or water, assist the wounded or simply bury the dead lying in the streets. Heavy fire from snipers now makes it virtually impossible to venture out and the streets of Freetown are littered with dead bodies. At the same time, a power and communication blackout has further exacerbated the situation. Wounded males over 12 years old are considered to be fighters, rendering their evacuation and subsequent medical care difficult or impossible.

Although the patients in the Netland surgical hospital and rehabilitation centre have continued to receive medical care, the ICRC and the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society have been unable to perform any other emergency humanitarian assistance over the last week. During the confused scenes, vehicles belonging to the ICRC and Sierra Leone Red Cross Society were also stolen and driven around Freetown by armed fighters.

In early December, before the conflict intensified, the ICRC had 35 expatriates and 280 locally- hired staff working in Sierra Leone. The ICRC reduced this figure on 6 January 1999, to a strict minimum of five expatriates, including a surgeon and an anaesthetist, as a direct result of the deteriorating security situation, before finally having to pull out all staff a week later. At the height of the fighting, the ICRC was the only international humanitarian organisation still present in Freetown.

However, the dangerous security situation in certain regions of the country and parts of Freetown meant that these areas have remained inaccessible to the ICRC and general information on the humanitarian situation in Sierra Leone has therefore been scarce. The full scope of human suffering is not known and one can only guess at the true scale of humanitarian needs. Unfortunately, previous conflicts in Sierra Leone have traditionally resulted in many war-wounded, internally displaced people and people deprived of their freedom, who require urgent protection and assistance.

 The ICRC's position  

The ICRC will endeavour to ensure that victims of the conflict in Sierra Leone receive the necessary protection and assistance.

Before being asked to leave Freetown for security reasons, the ICRC talked with or passed messages to representatives from all parties to the conflict in Freetown, Monrovia, Conakry, Abidjan and Lagos. It reminded them of their responsibility to abide by the rules of international humanitarian law , in particular:

 - to make a clear distinction between combatants and civilians;  

 - to spare persons who are not or are no longer taking part in hostilities;  

 - to respect persons and logistical means displaying the protective Red Cross emblem;  

 - to allow humanitarian workers to carry out the necessary surveys and to give unimpeded passage to urgently needed humanitarian assistance.  

In Abidjan, the ICRC has kept in daily contact with represen tatives from key West African foreign Ministries, the United Nations Special Representative for Sierra Leone and the most influential embassies in Sierra Leone to try and find a solution to the humanitarian situation by diplomatic means.

The ICRC has already informed the authorities in Freetown of its readiness to resume humanitarian activities in favour of conflict victims. It will strive to return to Sierra Leone in order to bring urgently-needed protection and assistance to:

 - the war-wounded;  

 - people deprived of their freedom;  

 - family members separated by the conflict;  

 - the civilian population.  

It is now only through the involvement of key political actors that the plight of the civilian population can be alleviated and essential humanitarian work allowed to be restarted.