Eyewitnesses Confirm Fresh Rebel Atrocities Against Civilians Despite Ceasefire
Human Rights Watch today called on the United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, to reject any peace agreement for Sierra Leone that includes a general amnesty. The organization also released fresh evidence of ongoing rebel atrocities in Sierra Leone.
In a letter to Annan written on the eve of his visit to Sierra Leone on July 8, Human Rights Watch urges him to disassociate the U.N. from any general amnesty for those who have committed atrocities during the eight-year civil war. Peace talks are currently underway in Lome, Togo. They are being facilitated by the U.N., the Organization of African Unity, and other organizations.
"The atrocities committed in Sierra Leone have shocked the world," said Peter Takirambudde, executive director of the Africa division of Human Rights Watch. "The United Nations must not sponsor a peace agreement that pretends they never happened."
The testimonies that Human Rights Watch released today describe abuses by the rebel forces of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), including executions of civilians and gang rape of children committed in violation of a ceasefire agreement which went into effect on May 24. A copy of several testimonies is attached, as well as the letter to Secretary-General Annan.
Human Rights Watch welcomed Annan's brief visit to Freetown as a sign of high-level U.N. concern for Sierra Leone. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, also visited Sierra Leone on June 24-25.
Human Rights Watch urged all parties at the Togo peace talks to insist that mechanisms of accountability, including trials and punishment for those who have committed the worst atrocities, be included in any final peace accord.
Human Rights Watch also suggested that the U.N. Secretary-General use the opportunity of his visit to Freetown to call for greater international support for the ECOMOG peacekeeping effort of mostly Nigerian forces, which have been deployed in Freetown since 1997. The organization also called on ECOMOG forces to respect international humanitarian law.
Sierra Leone Testimonies
Human Rights Watch has taken testimonies of survivors and witnesses from seven villages around the towns of Port Loko and "Mile 91," who describe civilians being hacked to death, shot as they tried to flee, and rounded up and executed in houses. Some women were also abducted, forced to carry looted goods and later raped.
A farmer described being one of seventeen civilians rounded up by the rebels on June 23, stripped and put in a room where ten people were later executed. One twelve year old girl described being abducted on June 25, forced to carry looted rice, and later gang raped by nine RUF rebels. The attacks took place during or after raids to obtain food, and were accompanied by widespread destruction of property.
One man, interviewed in Port Loko on July 5, described how a group of fifty rebels surrounded the village of Melikuru on June 23 and proceeded to round up seventeen men and women who were stripped naked and placed in a room. Ten of these civilians were later gunned down by a rebel who identified himself as the commander. The victim told Human Rights Watch:
At around noon as I was riding my bike to my house, about fifty rebels entered the town firing. We all started running but they caught those of us who couldn't get away. They stripped me completely naked and walked me to Mr. Sadigie's house where they pushed me into a room with fifteen other men and two women from our village. They were all naked too. The rebels were going house to house; looting every grain of food we had from our houses and even set many of them on fire.
A rebel calling himself the commander accused us of supporting the local militias and said he was going to kill us all. Three other rebels stood by the door so we couldn't run and we started to beg for our lives and recite prayers. A few minutes later the rebels took seven of us out, and said we would be used to carry the looted goods to their camp. Then the commander walked back into the house and opened fire on the ten men left inside. They went around the room to make sure all of them were dead. Only one man was still alive so another rebel set upon him with a machete until he died. I knew all of them: Abubakar Kanu and his father Hassan were both killed, Pa Santigie Fallah and Pa Gbassay Bangura, Brima Conteh, Pa Sullay and the others; all dead. They gave me a shirt, put a rope around my waist like a goat and forced me to walk over ten hours with a bag of rice on my head until we reached the rebel base at Lunsar.
A twelve year old girl and twenty-five year old woman interviewed on July 4 in the village of Rosar, three miles from Port Loko, described being abducted by RUF rebels on June 25, who forced them to carry looted goods and later gang-raped them. The twelve year old told Human Rights Watch:
At around 8:00 p.m. we heard gunshots and started to run into the bush but what seemed like about one hundred armed men came into our village from all directions. I was in my house with my mom and dad. We all tried to run into the bush but I was caught. They surrounded the village and went house to house taking everything; rice, palm oil, clothes. They said they were the RUF and I recognized one of them from the last time they attacked Port Loko. They shot Mabinty Kagbo and her husband right on their verandah; Mabinty died. She was the mother of three children. They rounded up three of us to carry away what they'd stolen and forced us to walk for over six hours. I carried a heavy bag of rice on my head until we reached their base. After we'd arrived they put me alone in a room and four of them raped me on the floor. They hit me with a stick and slapped me. They put a knife to my throat and said if I resisted they'd kill me right there. In the morning three more of them raped me. I was bleeding but they said they didn't care.
In the morning they made me and the two other women they'd taken from the village pound a bushel of rice. They offered us food but we refused. A few hours later after the rebels had eaten and played football, the commander told us to go back to our village. But on the way three more rebels chased after us and a few miles from the rebel base, took us into the bushes and raped me and my neighbor Fatmata. Two more of them raped me before they finally let us go. I could barely walk back to my village. Even now I'm not right.
A twenty-eight year old woman from Ropolon village, interviewed on July 4 by Human Rights Watch near Mile 91, described an attack around June 20, in which rebels hacked her uncle, Pa Mohammed, and two other male villages to death.
A group of them dressed in full combats entered the town in the early morning. They were the same rebels who'd attacked us at least five times over the last several months. We knew them, they were always looking for food. This time they had machetes and knives and as I was running I heard them say "just because it's a ceasefire it doesn't mean 'ceaseloot' or 'cease-cut-glass'" [ie. cut with machetes]. I hid in the bush with my grandmother and new-born baby girl and when we came back several hours later we found my uncle and two more young men hacked and stabbed to death outside their houses.
These atrocities are consistent with a long-standing pattern of gross and systematic abuses by the RUF, including the widespread and indiscriminate murder, rape, abduction and mutilation of the civilian population and constitute grave breaches of the laws of war and crimes against humanity.