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Update No. 99/03 on ICRC activities in Sierra Leone

02-07-1999 Operational Update

 General Situation  

On 17 May, the ICRC sent a team of expatriates to Freetown to resume its humanitarian operations on a permanent basis. Since its withdrawal from Sierra Leone in January 1999, the ICRC has striven tirelessly to secure acceptable working conditions to pave the way for its prompt return to the country. Two meetings held in Freetown in April with the highest representatives of Sierra Leone's civilian and military authorities laid the groundwork by clarifying relations, and all accusations made against the organization in early 1999 have been publicly refuted by the authorities.

In a major military breakthrough, following consultations within the ranks of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) between April and May, a cease-fire agreement was reached between the rebels and the Government in May. The ensuing cease-fire, set up as a prelude to the peace talks between both parties which began on 25 April, has generally been complied with.

At the beginning of the negotiations, a noteworthy political initiative to solve the conflict was the pledge by the Government to pardon and free RUF leader, Foday Sankoh.   However, the issue of power sharing between the Government and the rebels, and the formation of a transitional government were sticky points on which the two parties had difficulty in striking a compromise. An agreement has now finally been reached, with the RUF accepting the offer of four cabinet seats and three junior ministerial posts. The details of the agreement have still to be discussed between Foday Sankoh and his field commande rs.

In the course of the ongoing peace talks, the Government and the rebels have formed three joint committees - for political affairs, military affairs and humanitarian affairs - to ease the task of finding solutions to the current problems.

On the humanitarian front, both parties have agreed to the release of detainees. A " committee for the release of prisoners of war and non-combatants " has been set up under the aegis of the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNOMSIL). The committee has sought the ICRC's involvement in the initiative to release detainees.

Also worthy of note is the recent extension, by the United Nations Secretary General, of UNOMSIL's mandate until mid-December. The presence of ECOMOG has been under discussion in the peace negociations. During a recent visit to Freetown, Nigerian President, Olusegun Obasanjo asserted that ECOMOG would remain in Sierra Leone to consolidate the fledgling peace and provide security.

 Humanitarian situation  

Between January and the signing of the cease-fire agreement, attacks and clashes mainly in the eastern and northern parts of the country caused large population waves. Internally displaced people gathered, particularly in Freetown, Waterloo, Kambia, Yele, Bo and Kenema. Displaced persons outside the capital were rarely provided with any form of assistance. However, the security situation along the highways linking Freetown, Bo and Kenema has recently improved, thereby opening up the roads eastwards to traffic again. This enabled humanitarian actors to send the first substantial consignment of relief food to Bo and Kenema in mid-June. Whether the roads can be used safely will dictate the food situation upcountry. With the impending rainy s eason, non-food assistance to help make the life of the displaced more bearable is of utmost importance.

The war-wounded and the disabled are still among the main victims of the conflict. The plight of those living upcountry is of particular concern in view of the fact that most medical structures outside Freetown are likely to be inoperative and to have run out of medical stocks; medical evaluations are inexistent. The plight of amputees is critical and the problem enormous considering the number of amputees one routinely sees in Freetown alone and the fact that the majority of cases are upcountry. Once the population is able to move freely, alternative treatment such as reconstructive surgery will have to be considered as a priority for double amputees.

An issue of particular concern to the ICRC is unfettered access to all victims of the conflict throughout the country. Although humanitarian access to the victims was an element in the recent cease-fire agreement, various issues such as security guarantees are still to be worked out.

 Red Cross response: January to May 1999  

In accordance with the Seville agreement, the conflict situation prevailing in Sierra Leone during this period demanded that the ICRC assume the function of lead agency for the international activities of the components of the International Red Cross Movement. Within the framework of a coordination unit , the ICRC, the International Federation and the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society have consulted each other regularly at field and headquarters levels in order to devise a coordinated, coherent and transparent Movement response to the needs of the Sierra Leonean population following recent eve nts.

 Sierra Leonean Red Cross Society (SLRCS) activities  

During their absence from Sierra Leone, the international components of the Red Cross Movement extended support to the victims of the conflict (in the period December-January) on the basis of action plans drawn up by the SLRCS. Internally displaced people in Freetown were the main focus of the Movement's activities. Emergency food and non-food items were supplied to various camps for the displaced, and medical care was provided for wounded and sick displaced people. The National Society's usual activities, such as the voluntary blood donation programme, community health care projects and dissemination continued during this period of time.

With the support of Participating National Societies, non-food items were put at the disposal of the SLRCS. The ICRC defrays the operational costs of the emergency relief/rehabilitation and resettlement programmes while the International Federation meets the structural needs of the SLRCS, mainly capacity building.

 ICRC activities in Sierra Leone since January 1999  

From the time it withdrew from Sierra Leone, the ICRC continued to maintain some activities in Freetown. It deployed a delegate in Conakry to monitor ICRC activities and the situation in Sierra Leone, and to help pave the way for its return to the country. The delegate was also charged with the task of coordinating, in collaboration with the International Federation and the SLRCS, the Movement's humanitarian response - effected through the National Society - to the crisis.

The immediate needs of the war-wounded in Freetown have been taken care of th anks to the sustained support given to the Netland Hospital since the ICRC's departure last January. The ICRC has continued to pay the rent for the premises and the salaries of the local hospital staff. ICRC local medical staff have supervised work carried out in the medical rehabilitation centre in the premises of the previous ICRC delegation. The local staff continue to provide patients, mainly amputees, with medical care after their hospitalization.

 Ongoing activities  

 Internally displaced persons in Freetown  

According to preliminary estimations, several thousand displaced people in Freetown are still living in precarious conditions and are urgently in need of non-food assistance. The onset of the rainy season threatens to further worsen their plight. In accordance with the SLRCS plan of action drawn up for April to July and within the framework of the emergency relief/rehabilitation and resettlement programme , the ICRC, in collaboration with the SLRCS, completed the provision of shelter and non-food items for the benefit of 14,600 displaced people in Waterloo camp on 16 June. Blankets and soap have been distributed to about 1,500 displaced people in the trade centre field camp. The ICRC has started providing assistance to Grafton camp.

 The wounded and sick  

The ICRC will pursue its activities in favour of the wounded and sick in Sierra Leone. A medical delegate has recently completed a medical needs evaluation mission in the capital and in Kenema. Particular attention was given to patients at the Netland Hospital, the Princess Christian Maternity Hospital, four former ICRC health centres in Freetown, camps for the displaced and the general prevailing water and habitat situation in Freetown. These findings will be the basis for a medical plan of action to be drawn up by the ICRC.

In the meantime, a visit was paid to Kenema hospital, the main referral centre in the east serving 350,000 inhabitants, where large numbers of civilians and war-wounded are in need of treatment. For instance, Kenema Hospital with a capacity of 265 received an average of 60 war-wounded patients per month. The ICRC provided one tonne of medicines and surgical materials to support the hospital.

Cooperation with the SLRCS in the field of first-aid emergency preparedness will be resumed as soon as possible.

 Dissemination/information  

In a volatile environment such a the one that has prevailed in Sierra Leone, it is essential to promote understanding of the ICRC's role, its principles of action and the Red Cross Movement and help to improve the general humanitarian working environment by focusing on access to the victims. Special emphasis is placed on dissemination and communication activities to the general public and the armed forces. Evaluations by a dissemination delegate on the feasibility of carrying out dissemination activities to ECOMOG forces are planned. A dissemination seminar held by the ICRC/SLRCS for the National Society's disseminators in mid-June culminated in the development of a plan action, based on realistic priorities identified by the seminar participants, for the next six months. A meeting was recently held between the ICRC, SLRCS and the Ministry of Information to discuss the issue of the media.

 People deprived of their freedom  

Within the framework of the current peace negociations in Lomé, all the parties concerned have committed themselves to releasing and transferring all persons held for reasons related to the conflict. The ICRC has studied the document entitled " Plan of action of the Committee on the Release of Prisoners of War and Non-Combatants " issued by the UNOMSIL. In accordance with the relevant provisions of international humanitarian law, a number of points have to be clarified. The ICRC will soon submit a position paper to the parties in Lomé.

The ICRC is committed to ensuring that its involvement complies with its role as a neutral, independent intermediary. It wishes to ensure that the release of detainees conforms to the provisions of international humanitarian law.

 Cooperation with the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society  

The ICRC is working on various action plans concerning its traditional cooperation activities with the National Society. These will include the restoration of contacts among families scattered by the conflict, dissemination activities and first-aid preparedness. Also under preparation are action plans for relief and medical activities.

 Future activities  

The ICRC is continuing to assess the humanitarian needs in Sierra Leone and developing a new action plan whose objectives may slightly differ from the goals stated in the Emergency Appeal 1999. Starting from the end of July, when distributions provided for by the SLRCS emergency plan of action will have been completed, the ICRC will conduct its relief activities on the basis of its own action plan. The number of ICRC staff will be increased to help expand activities, particularly medical, and to provide for personnel upcountry as so on as the situation allows.