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Update on ICRC activities in West Africa: Sierra Leone - Guinea - Liberia

15-12-2000 Operational Update

 The last few months have seen worrying developments in western Africa as the complex interrelated conflicts in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia threaten to spread and destabilize the region.  


 In Sierra Leone, the thirty-day ceasefire agreement signed in Abuja, Nigeria on 10 November by the Government and the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) seems to be holding. Results are expected from direct talks between United Nations and RUF representatives. However, there has been little progress regarding implementation of the various other points in this accord, such as the deployment of the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) forces in RUF areas to verify the ceasefire and the resumption of the disarmament and demobilisation process. At the same time, both sides maintain their commitment to the Lomé peace agreement signed in July 1999.  


 Meanwhile, half of the country (the north and eastern regions) remains under effective RUF control and humanitarian organizations are still unable to provide urgently needed assistance in these parts.  


 Tension in the region has mounted as Guinea's borders with Sierra Leone and Liberia have witnessed an increasing number of armed incidents and clashes between dissident elements entering from both neighbouring countries and Guinean armed forces.   

 In Liberia, little is known of the fighting that has been going on since July between the Liberian government forces and dissidents from neighbouring Guinea. In Lofa county several thousand people are alleged to have been displaced. Liberia accuses Guinea of harbouring dissident groups who it claims cross over from its neighbour's territory.  


 In August and especially September, a series of cross-border raids were staged from Sierra Leone and Liberia into Guinea (in and around Macenta and Yomou, east of Guéckédou, and in the Forécariah and Kindia regions), and for the first time against villages at some distance from the frontier, prompting forceful reactions by the Guinean military and political authorities. Guinea accuses Liberia of aiding attacks launched across its borders with Liberia and Sierra Leone in which it says more than 600 people have been killed since early September. At the time of writing, Guinea's porous borders with Sierra Leone (around Forécariah, Pamelap, Benty, Kindia, Dar Salam and Madina Woula) and Liberia (Guéckédou, Nzérékoré and Macenta) remain extremely volatile and sporadic cross border raids by insurgents are continuing. At the same time, cross-border attacks in the Yèndè region of Guinea Foréstière have recently been followed by major assaults deeper and further into Guinean territory against Guéckédou and Kissidougou.  


 Diplomatic initiatives to defuse the growing crises have been led by Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) members. An ECOWAS specialist team has been sent to the Guinea-Liberia border area to prepare for an international observer mission to check on armed incursions.  


 Humanitarian situation  


The conflict in Sierra Leone has affected millions of civilians in many ways: death, injury, mutilation, abduction, forceful displacement, separation of families, loss of personal property, recruitment of child soldiers, destruction of economic infrastructure, and the collapse of institutions and essential public services, especially health-related. This is particularly true in the north and east and has caused widespread, immediate needs related mainly to economic assistance, health and protection.

An estimated 500,000 people remain internally displaced in Sierra Leone, some 200,000 of whom have been forced from their homes since the beginning of the year. Most fled the northern area and the eastern diamond-fields occupied by the RUF. Observers estimate that 150,000 civilians are still living in RUF-held areas where humanitarian needs are thought to be considerable. In August, violence in eastern Sierra Leone also forced several thousand people to seek refuge in the Guéckédou region of Guinea. The displaced in Sierra Leone fall into different categories: those recently displaced living in camps who are unable to resettle in the foreseeable future; displaced people accommodated in host communities who are able to temporarily settle as they have access to land; those displaced people returning to their community of origin if it is safe enough; and returnees - refugees from Guinea or Liberia - who return to Sierra Leone but for security reasons cannot go back to their community of origin.

The attacks against Guinean villages close to the borders with Sierra Leone and Liberia continue to result in deaths and injuries, material destruction and the displacement of local residents and refugees (estimated 50,000 people), who are forced to flee their villages to seek refuge in regions away from the borders and stay mainly in host communities. According to UNHCR, there are some 400,000 refugees still living in Guinea, concentrated in the Guinea Forestière and Forécariah regions. These include 340,000 refugees from Sierra Leone, 5,000 of whom have arrived since the renewal of violence in May 2000, and 60,000 Liberian refugees. UNHCR is planning to relocate some 130,000 refugees towards Kissidougou, Nzérékoré and new sites in the Forecariah area away from the border trouble spots.

The recent attacks on Guéckédou and Kissidougou are reported to have resulted in over 200 victims, mostly civilians, destruction to public infrastructure, looting and major population movements into the interior of the country. Following the attack on Guéckédou, the 50,000 inhabitants, together with many refugees from local camps, are thought to have fled either to Macenta or to Kissidougou, and in the panic people from Kissidougou have moved further north to Faranah or Kankan.


The repatriation of Liberian refugees from Guinea which began in May was suspended in July. As a result of the rising tensions in the sub-region and exacerbated xenophobic feelings among host populations, since September a steady flow of Sierra Leonean refugees in Guinea and Liberia have returned to Sierra Leone. However most of them cannot return to their homes owing to safety reasons and they settle in already overburdene d host communities, where hundreds of thousands of people already live in precarious conditions.


Although it is difficult to gather reliable information on the events in Lofa county, Liberia, there are indications that following the violence there in July a number of displaced people headed towards Kolahun (near the Sierra Leonean border) or towards the central part of the country (Zorzor, Gbarnga). They are since reported to have returned home.

 Humanitarian response  

In light of the instability in the region, the three ICRC delegations are working closely together to provide a comprehensive response to the many common humanitarian problems.

Since the resumption of hostilities in Sierra Leone in May, the organization has refocused its activities on emergency aid and protection for war-affected civilians. It also continues to promote self-sufficiency among affected farming communities through agricultural aid, and supports surgical and medical facilities. In 2001 the ICRC is planning to assist up to 200,000 displaced people (34,000 families) in need of emergency assistance countrywide, among whom a third (10,000 families) are expected to secure access to land in their host community. Among its other activities, the ICRC tracing services, through the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society (SLRCS), assist thousands of people, including Sierra Leonean refugees in Liberia and Guinea, to re-establish family contacts.

Since May, delivery of assistance to populations confined in RUF-controlled areas has been put on hold until safety guarantees for ICRC staff can be once again secured. Meanwhile, the total absence of essential services makes the humanitarian situation in these areas very precarious. General insecurity, which is a partic ular problem in RUF-held and bordering areas, has been a constant constraining factor in gaining access to the victims.

In neighbouring Guinea, an operational delegation is currently being set up to respond to growing humanitarian needs. The ICRC focuses on assistance to displaced people who have been victims of violence, visits to persons deprived of their freedom, developing the Red Cross tracing network for refugees and unaccompanied children, and dissemination activities for the armed and security forces, political authorities, the media and the general public.

Few other humanitarian organizations are present. The security of humanitarian organizations, particularly in the Guinea Forestière area, is a worrying issue. Aid agencies assisting refugees have been accused of supporting rebels and several humanitarian convoys have been attacked. Recent tragic events have demonstrated the dangerous working environment only too clearly. On 17 September, during an attack on the town of Macenta, east of Guécékdou, 10 people were killed, including a Togolese expatriate working for UNHCR.

Liberia has been in a post-conflict situation since a peace agreement in 1996 ended years of hostilities. Nevertheless, owing to the instability in the region, the ICRC remains ready to step up its operations to assist people in need. It also works at promoting international humanitarian law, the ICRC's mandate and work, carrying out visits to all places of detention and following up on security detainees, and supports the activities of the Liberian Red Cross Society. The ICRC is also looking into the water and sanitation situation in villages hosting the displaced. The Federation and the ICRC assist the National Society with operating clinics in 12 districts (ten funded by the Federation and two by the ICRC). The Federation has the lead role regarding the National Society's ins titutional development.

In Sierra Leone, where the Seville agreement applies, the ICRC as lead agency addresses the emergency needs of displaced people and has defined an assistance policy in coordination with other components of the Movement. In Guinea and Liberia a coordination mechanism exists between the different components of the Movement to deal with organisational issues on a case-by-case basis. In Guinea, the International Federation also works with the National Society and in partnership with UNHCR, carrying out programmes for refugees in camps, while the ICRC concentrates on assisting recent victims of armed conflict and internal violence in the country. In Liberia the ICRC assists displaced victims of violence in Lofa county. In October, the ICRC provided non-food assistance to 7,200 people displaced and had started distributing food donated by WFP, however, distributions currently remain on hold for security reasons.

The ICRC delegations in the region are currently staffed by: Sierra Leone (26 expatriates, 150 national employees), Guinea (9 expatriates, 13 national employees) and in Liberia (1 expatriate, 22 national staff).

 ICRC activities  


 People deprived of their freedom  

Since July, prison visits have restarted in Guinea . A complete series of visits to all detainees held in the main places of detention, including police stations, gendarmeries and facilities under the charge of the Ministry of Justice is planned over the coming months, together with a detailed evaluation of sanitation conditions in the seven central prisons. In Liberia the ICRC carries out regular visits to all detainees held in 25 prisons, police stations and military barracks in Monrovia and upcountry. Where necessary, ad hoc medical and non-food assistance is provided and minor rehabilitation work is carried out to detention facilities. In Sierra Leone , the ICRC has recently been granted access to persons detained in relation with the conflict in accordance with the institution's standard procedures, including private interviews with the detainees and visits should commence in the near future.

 Internally displaced and residents  

In order to improve the protection of and respect for civilians living in the different countries of the region, the ICRC gathers firsthand information about violations of humanitarian law and submits its findings to the relevant parties in order to ensure full respect for civilians moral and physical integrity. The ICRC also advocates for the safe intermediate settlement of displaced persons and refugees.


The plight of children in Sierra Leone, particularly those enrolled in armed forces has been a cause for concern. Meetings are held with representatives of the various parties involved in the conflict on a bilateral basis in order to increase their awareness of the subject 

 Unaccompanied children  

As part of its cross-border tracing activities in the sub-region, unaccompanied children from Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia have been documented in each of these countries for cross-border reunification. Efforts are being pursued to trace their families in the respective country. In this regard, the ICRC works closely in Freetown, Guinea and Lib eria with the relevant Ministries of Social Welfare, the International Rescue Committee, Save the Children Fund, the UNICEF and the UNHCR. On 16 November, the ICRC completed the first successful cross-border family reunification since May 1999 by bringing three children from the refugee camps in Guinea back to their parents in Sierra Leone.

 Persons separated by the conflicts  

The Red Cross tracing network in the three countries of the region is instrumental in restoring family links between displaced people, refugees and returnees and their relatives who have been separated. Between January and September, the ICRC, together with the Sierra Leone Red Cross, handled more than 46,000 Red Cross messages (RCMs) inside Sierra Leone as well as between Sierra Leone and other countries. In Liberia 2,437 RCMs were handled in cooperation with the Liberian Red Cross Society and 7,638 RCMs were handled by the ICRC in Guinea over the same period.


 Internally displaced - emergency support (Sierra Leone/Guinea)  

In order to respond to the immediate needs of thousands of people displaced by the renewed conflict in Sierra Leone, the ICRC, together with the SLRCS, has put in place an emergency programme to provide shelter and material assistance. Between May and October 2000, shelter material, blankets and other non-food items were distributed to more than 100,000 newly displaced people on the Freetown Peninsula, the Mile 91 region and Kenema District. In 2001, the ICRC will have the capacity to respond to an influx of 200,000 IDPs.

In support of several local organisations taking charge of vulnerable groups, such as handicapped people, women and children affected by the war, the ICRC and t he SLRCS have also donated clothing, kitchen sets, buckets, blankets, mats and tarpaulins to meet the identified needs.

Immediately following the recent armed attacks in Guinea, the ICRC, working in close collaboration with the Red Cross Society of Guinea (RCSG), evacuated the wounded to hospitals at Forécariah and Conakry, came to the aid of displaced persons and provided essential medical items to Forécariah Hospital to treat victims of the fighting.

Over the next few months, the ICRC hopes to quickly increase and extend its activities throughout Guinea on behalf of victims of armed conflict and internal violence. Evaluations are currently taking place in Guinea Forestière to assess the extent of the humanitarian problems and needs. The ICRC had planned to concentrate on assisting returnees to rural areas which had been affected by the violence, providing them with non-food and food assistance. After further evaluations, seeds and tools will be provided to encourage the resettlement and recovery of returnees. However, the above needs to be reviewed according to the evolving situation. A food and non-food stock is presently being built up to respond to the emergency needs of up to 40,000 vulnerable people.    

 Refugees - returnees from Guinea to Sierra Leone  

Owing to a deterioration in the situation in neighbouring Guinea, many Sierra Leonean refugees there chose to return home. Working with the SLRCS and the Federation, the ICRC launched a returnee reception operation, intended to provide them with emergency goods (food and non-food), first aid and immediate health care. By the end of October, more than 11,000 Sierra Leonean returnees from Guinea had been assisted upon their arrival in Freetown. Approximately 70% of these benef iciaries are women and children.

 Residents and internally displaced in Sierra Leone - helping vulnerable farmers  

Since April 2000, the ICRC has supplied seeds and tools to 35,500 displaced and vulnerable resident farming families in Tonkolili, Kenema and Pujehun districts (about 215,000 people). The agricultural assistance is meant to restore self-sufficiency and facilitate the resettlement of displaced and resident farming families who have been most affected by the conflict. The provision of shelter and basic non-food was also part of the agricultural programme. Unfortunately, the security situation has prevented assistance to reach 8,700 farming families living in the eastern district of Kailahun. A similar programme will also be implemented next year for 45,000 families.

 Women - agricultural assistance (Sierra Leone)  

The ICRC, in collaboration with the SLRCS, has provided vegetable seeds, tools and technical training to 17 associations consisting of 11,730 vulnerable and displaced women in the Freetown area. This operation aims to raise this vulnerable group's coping capabilities through eventual self-sufficiency and help should be extended to 60,000 women in 2001.

 Medical assistance  

 Civilians - emergency medical response (Sierra Leone/Guinea)  

Owing to the renewed conflict in early May, the ICRC has reactivated the running of ten SLRCS first-aid posts in Freetown and two additional first-aid posts in the Lungi peninsula. In June, the ICRC also supported the construction of an SLRCS semi-permanent dispensary in Lungi peninsula, due to the sudden influx of newly displaced people in the area. Sinc e July, the ICRC has supported the National Society in setting up an emergency clinic for children under five and running an expanded programme on immunization (EPI) in Mile 91. The ICRC continues its supports to the clinic through the provision of essential drugs and logistical means to ensure access to medical care for the newly displaced people and their host community in the area.

Immediately following the recent armed attacks in Guinea, the ICRC, working in close collaboration with the Red Cross Society of Guinea (RCSG), assisted the war-wounded from the Kono region of Sierra Leone treated at Guéckédou Hospital; provided medicines and medical materials to Forécariah Hospital to treat the war-wounded and gave them two meals per day; transported war-wounded to Macenta Hospital and hospital structures in Conakry.

 Surgical patients - Kenema Government Hospital  

Between January and September, the ICRC's surgical team has operated on a total of 650 destitute patients requiring surgical care, mainly war-related injuries, obstetrical and gynaecological operations, and life-threatening interventions. The clashes in the Kailahun region in July resulted in a large increase in the number of new war-wounded. In addition, the ICRC has upgraded and rehabilitated the operating facilities at the hospital and expanded bed capacity with the construction of a 48-bed ward. The construction of a five-kilometre independent pipeline to provide safe water to the hospital compound is currently in progress.

 Women - Princess Christian Maternity Hospital in Freetown  

As a project delegated to the Canadian Red Cross, the ICRC continues to manage a 20-bed ward, providing free medical and surgical care to hundreds of destitute pregnant women in life-threatening conditions (a tota l of 476 treated between January and September). This programme aims to reduce maternal and perinatal mortality.

 Medical patients - primary health care clinics (Sierra Leone/Liberia)  

The ICRC supports four health centres in Freetown with essential drugs and training. The centres provide medical care for more than 84,000 destitute residents. Because of security concerns and lack of access to RUF-held regions, the ICRC had to suspend its activities in support of clinics in Daru, Segbwema and Pendembu (Kailahun district) in May.

The ICRC continues to assist two clinics run by the Liberian Red Cross with medical supplies and staff incentives. During the rainy season there was a large increase in the number of patients treated, with one of the clinics treating 2,000 people per month between July and September. The ICRC has also provided similar assistance to a health post run by the National Society in Lofa county.

 Civilians - water and habitat (Liberia/Sierra Leone)  

In Liberia, the ICRC carries out water and habitat programmes around Monrovia and in remote areas in the counties of Bong, Grand Geddeh, Sinoe and Rivercess, drilling and repairing wells, installing hand pumps and building community latrines. In Sierra Leone the ICRC plans to provide water and sanitation material in Freetown for 60,000 newly displaced people by April 2001 and maintain sufficient material pre-positioned for 20,000 people in case of emergency. It also hopes to   carry out water and sanitation projects and health awareness programmes in rural areas.

 Preventive action  


Among its various target audiences for dissemination activities, in Sierra Leone the ICRC works with the new leadership of the Sierra Leone Army and the army's British trainers. ICRC participation in several workshop sessions for senior officers, the first 1,000 troops of the new national army and officials of the Ministry of Defence, also helped raise awareness of humanitarian law and of the ICRC's mandate. UNAMSIL military authorities have also incorporated an ICRC presentation on humanitarian law and ICRC activities in their training programme for new peace-keepers. The ICRC carries out dissemination activities for the authorities and by means of information sessions with the media, press releases and radio spots, the general public was regularly informed about ICRC activities. Similar efforts were made to reach traditional chiefs.

In Guinea, priority has also been placed on raising awareness of humanitarian law and the activities of the ICRC and the Movement among the general public, authorities, armed forces, police and young militiamen. In Liberia, the delegation carries out an extensive information/dissemination campaign, focusing in particular on the authorities, the armed forces and police, the media, general public, local and international NGOs, university students and secondary school teachers and pupils.

 Cooperation with the National Societies  

Together with the Federation, the ICRC has helped the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society to reopen local branches. The ICRC has focused efforts on tracing, dissemination and conflict preparedness and response. In Guinea, the ICRC plans to increase support and training for local Red Cross teams to enable them to provide vital first aid and emergency material assistance to their communities. Financial and material support is also given towards dissemination activities, and in 2001 the ICRC plans to assist the National Society to set up an efficient tracing service. Cooperation with the RCSG is carried out in close coordination with the Federation. In Liberia, the National Society and the ICRC have maintained their collaboration in conducting tracing and dissemination activities and strengthening their capacity to deal with emergencies in volatile regions.