July 13, 2000

Civilians in Sierra Leone Are Victims of Rebel Atrocities and Government Bombings

New York/Amsterdam, 14 July, 2000 — As a result of recent fighting in Sierra Leone, over 200,000 people are estimated to have been driven from their homes by fear, violence and hunger. Some 45,000 people have gathered around the town of Mile 91, and another 60,000 around Port Loko to the east of Freetown. The displaced have arrived in the towns frightened, tired, hungry and often sick. Their situation remains precarious and there is a desperate need for security, shelter and humanitarian assistance.

In June at Mile 91, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) conducted approximately 8,000 consultations during a two-week period (200-400 consultations per day in each of four clinics), and found high numbers of malaria, respiratory infections and exhaustion. There were also several cases of watery and bloody diarrhea.

In addition, the clinics have received 35 cases of severe malnutrition, but MSF teams suspect that there are many more cases going undetected. This nutritional problem will continue to be a growing concern as those arriving at Mile 91 often arrive weak and hungry, and food is in short supply and expensive. Thus far only a small number of the displaced have benefited from food distributions.

Some of the displaced reported that the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF) continues to be widely implicated in serious abuses -- including extra-judicial killings, rapes, amputations, forced labor, flogging and looting -- that contributed to the fleeing of the population. Other ill-disciplined militia groups, allegedly fighting on the side of the government, have also created insecurity in the areas where the displaced have gathered.

However, most of the displaced persons that MSF interviewed indicated that the main reason for fleeing their homes was attacks carried out by two helicopter gunships controlled by the Sierra Leone armed forces. The attacks mostly took place during the first two weeks of June. Places attacked included Makeni and its surrounding villages, Magburaka, villages around Kabala (Koinadugu district), and Rokupr, Kambia and Mange (Kambia district).

One account reported by MSF described an attack near the central mosque and cemetery in the town of Makeni:

"MK saw the helicopter gunship approaching. When it began dropping leaflets, he ran to the nearest house to hide. About 15 people were inside. Then the bombs started exploding. The second bomb fell very close and the pressure of the blast lifted him from the ground. He was bleeding from his eyes and shell fragments had pierced his buttocks and shoulder. Four of those he had been hiding with had been killed by the blast, including a cousin and a neighbor."

The renewed fighting has worsened an already tenuous situation for the newly displaced and the population in RUF-controlled areas. The populations are trapped in a precarious situation between warring parties, and humanitarian organizations have limited access to provide assistance. MSF is deeply concerned about the health and security of displaced populations at Mile 91 and Port Loko. All parties to the conflict must ensure the protection of internally displaced persons and must guarantee access to humanitarian organizations.