Update No. 97/01 on ICRC activities in Sierra Leone
03-06-1997 Operational Update
Coup d'état in Sierra Leone
On Sunday, 25 May a military coup d'état was carried out by the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC). Its leader, Major Johnny Paul Koromah, took over from President Kabbah as head of State. Fighting and heavy looting were reported in Freetown.
The international community pressed for a peaceful resolution of the crisis. However, no agreement had been forthcoming by Sunday, 1 June and the build-up of Nigerian troops, who had already been present in Freetown, continued. Forces from other countries in the region joined them. Evacuations of foreigners started on Wednesday, 28 May and have been gaining momentum.
On Monday, 2 June, at dawn, military operations had started, with shelling and gunfire echoing in the streets of Freetown. Fighting broke out around the Mammy Yoko hotel, where civilians and Nigerian troops were sheltering: the hotel was attacked and apparently damaged by fire. Following lengthy negotiations with all the parties concerned - the coup supporters, RUF combatants and Nigerian military representatives - the ICRC succeeded in arranging the evacuation of civilians and wounded. Some 250 people were taken out of the hotel under the ICRC's protection, and returned to the city under their own steam. Some 300 more took the opportunity to leave for another hotel called the Cape Sierra. In addition, of 12 wounded soldiers, six were evacuated to the military hospital and were to be visited again by the ICRC on Tuesday, 3 June.
On Wednesday 28 May the ICRC had started to facilitate the evacuation of foreigners from Freetown to Conakry, Guinea. In all, by Thursday some 134 had been taken out under the ICRC's protection. Security guarantees had been obtained from the AFRC, representatives of whom the ICRC met on 28 May, and members of the Nigerian military forces on the spot.
In Freetown: the ICRC's immediate response to the situation
On Monday, 26 May emergency units of the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society (SLRCS), using vehicles put at their disposal by the ICRC, collected some 20 wounded people from the streets and evacuated them to medical facilities. The ICRC gave the units blood bags and first-aid materials to treat several hundred war wounded.
An ICRC team was able to reach the Connaught government hospital in the centre of Freetown, where it found about 40 wounded people in a very serious condition. Others had apparently come to the hospital but had left again, as it was full, and few staff had been able to get to work. Basic medical materials and drugs were running low, and the ICRC provided the hospital with an emergency kit for about 200 war wounded (anaesthetics, antibiotics, dressings, etc.).
On Tuesday the ICRC and the SLRCS transferred 33 patients from the Connaught hospital to Netland hospital, in a slightly safer area, where two surgeons started to perform much needed operations. The surgical team consisted of a Sierra Leonean surgeon and the European Community Humanitarian Office representative in the country, who is also a surgeon. The nurses were seconded by the ICRC. On Friday, 30 May the team - by then composed only of ICRC staff - was still dealing with emergency cases. The ICRC provided the hospital with material to supplement its stock.
A major problem is enco uraging qualified medical staff to work, as they have been subject to intimidation and fear for their safety. The ICRC is therefore to send out a three-strong surgical team, which will leave Europe on 3 June for Conakry, Guinea, where it will be poised to enter Freetown as soon as the security conditions allow. The team consists of a Netherlands Red Cross surgeon, an ICRC anaesthetist and a Norwegian Red Cross theatre nurse. In addition, two ward nurses are on standby in Europe.
The ICRC has had to temporarily suspend its activities in the rest of the country. It had been providing agricultural assistance, distributing seeds and resettlement packages, and carrying out tracing and dissemination activities. At the weekend it was able to make contact with RUF representatives in Kailahun to obtain guarantees of respect for the Red Cross in the field.
ICRC expatriates are nevertheless still based in Freetown (six), Kenema (five) and Zimmi (two): two are French, two Icelandic (from the Icelandic Red Cross) and one Portuguese.
Two hundred local staff are working on the ICRC's operation in Sierra Leone.