The Sierra Leone Web


Action needed against Sierra Leone atrocities

Friday, 22 May 1998: Outraged by the latest reports of atrocities in Sierra Leone that get "worse and worse", UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy called today for concerted international action to ensure that children are protected.

The depravity of the atrocities has been escalating, as evidenced by recent news stories describing how 17 civilians, including women and children, were brutally tortured and mutilated, some suffering amputations of their hands, ears, breasts and genitals.

In the past two weeks, over 300 people, a large number of them women and children, have been treated for wounds inflicted by groups of armed men, remnants of the ousted Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) and the rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), who continue to operate in the eastern Kono district and in the north of the country. And the toll could be even higher; the 300 known casualties include only those who were able to reach a hospital.

Last February a Nigerian-led force known as ECOMOG pushed the rebels from power in Freetown and restored Sierra Leone’s Government.

"The children of Sierra Leone have had three strikes against them during these long years of civil conflict," Ms. Bellamy said. "First, they were made into child soldiers; then they became targets during recent atrocities; and now they are largely forgotten by the international community." She again supported the call for an International Criminal Court which could bring to justice those who commit such horrific acts against the young and helpless.

Because of what is happening in Sierra Leone, Ms. Bellamy welcomed the planned mission next week to the country of Olara Otunnu, the United Nations Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict. She sees this as an opportunity for the UN to work with the Government to implement the recent commitment by the Deputy Minister of Defence to demobilize children in the Civil Defence Forces.

Ms. Bellamy remarked on Otunnu’s recent success in winning commitments in Sri Lanka from the Government and the leadership of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), including agreements not to use children below 18 in combat and not to recruit them below 17. The LTTE leadership also agreed to receive instruction on the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).

"In almost all conflict zones, the world is daily confronted with unspeakable violations of the rights of children," she said. "We desperately need in Sierra Leone the same kind of commitment to children made by the combatants in Sri Lanka."

In addition, she called on donors to respond generously to UN intera-gency appeals for Sierra Leone. So far, in response to the present flash appeal, March-May 1998, UNICEF has received only US$765,000 of the US$ 4 million requested. "In light of what is happening in Sierra Leone, donors should collectively contribute the required amount in order to permit UNICEF and other agencies to do their work," Ms. Bellamy said.

In Sierra Leone even babies have been victims of atrocities. One report in early May said that rebels chopped off the limbs of four children and more than 10 adults as they were going to morning prayers. Of this group, 10 people died. The wounded were admitted to the regional hospital where hundreds have sought refuge, in Makeni, in the north of the country.

Families have been rounded up, locked into houses and then burnt alive, according to victims' reports. Hospitals can hardly cope with the influx from the fighting. UNICEF and its NGO partners report a severe shortage of drugs, dressing items, plastic sheeting, mattresses and blankets. Many of the wounded have to sleep on the floor.

Living conditions have deteriorated dramatically during the past year. Only 10-15 per cent of Sierra Leone’s 4.5 million people have access to basic health care. The mortality rates, even in the main hospitals, are very high. In Freetown’s children’s hospital, 76 deaths were reported in March for 350 admissions. The main causes of death were anaemia, acute respiratory disease and malnutrition. Five new-born babies died of neonatal tetanus within a five-week period, reflecting the low level of vaccination among pregnant women even in the capital.

Measles epidemics are on the rise, particularly among the tens of thousands of internally displaced people. Thirteen deaths from measles have recently been confirmed. UNICEF supported a district health team to immunize children at the camps. And mass immunization campaigns continue in safe areas. UNICEF is also working with the communities to chlorinate wells to prevent an outbreak of cholera as the rainy season approaches.

Schools have been destroyed and teachers killed or displaced during the war. Over 55 per cent of children age 6-14 years are out of school.

"Our commitment has always been to the most vulnerable," Ms. Bellamy said. "The only way to keep this commitment in Sierra Leone is to work on every level to bring a stop to the killing and maiming of the children there."