(New York) - Sierra Leone rebels are regularly committing atrocities against civilians in areas less than 40 kilometers outside the capital of Freetown.
Human Rights Watch has documented numerous rebel abuses committed during the months of January and February 2000 in Port Loko district, an area allegedly under government control, 40-65 kilometers from Freetown. The abuses include fourteen cases of rape (including of girls as young as 11 years old), 118 cases of abduction of villagers, and three murders, as well as several cases of mutilation, forced labor, massive looting, ambushes, and the training of child combatants. A sampling of witness testimony is attached.
Most of the victims were civilians living in camps for internally displaced people, who were attacked when they ventured out to get food, wood and/or water. Several of the attacks occurred less than one kilometer from checkpoints manned by ECOMOG [the West African peacekeeping force], Sierra Leonean Army soldiers, and/or UNAMSIL peacekeepers.
"These atrocities are taking place practically under the noses of government and international troops," said Peter Takirambudde, Executive Director of the Africa division of Human Rights Watch. "Innocent civilians are suffering, and it's the responsibility of these troops to protect them. They should do their job."
Victims told Human Rights Watch that most of the perpetrators had identified themselves as members of the ex-Sierra Leonean Army. Some witnesses and victims were told the rebel units also included members of the rebel Revolutionary United Front.
Human Rights Watch interviewed several abductees who were either released or escaped. They said that female abductees were usually raped, and the male captives were primarily used as slave labor to carry looted items, or remove and carry zinc roofing material from abandoned villages. This roofing was later taken to a main Freetown highway and, according to witnesses, sold by the rebels to soldiers of the loyal Sierra Leonean Army and ECOMOG who were aware of and spoke with the abducted civilians.
All of the abductees interviewed said the rebels have established bases in the towns of Gbere-bana, Rofurawa, Mogboni, and Mabingbera, all within the Port Loko District.
Sierra Leonean authorities acknowledge the presence of some 1000 rebels within the Port Loko area. However, since the July 1999 signing of the Lome Peace Accord, neither government, ECOMOG, nor UNAMSIL forces have been willing to actively pursue the rebels or intervene to protect the civilian population.
"Everyone is afraid of undermining the disarmament process that was laid out in the Lome agreement," said Takirambudde. "But what good is the peace agreement if many civilians are living as though the war had never ended?"
Witnesses and victims frequently quoted their captors as saying that they were unwilling to participate in the disarmament process until after the elections planned for spring 2001.
Human Rights Watch urged the Sierra Leonean Police, Army, ECOMOG, and UNAMSIL to be more aggressive in protecting civilian and displaced populations who continue to be terrorized by rebel units.
While local authorities bear the primary responsibility for keeping the peace, Human Rights Watch said, the mandate of UNAMSIL was expanded under a February 7 resolution of the United Nations Security Council to include the protection of civilians. These "Chapter VII" responsibilities include: "to coordinate with and assist, in common areas of deployment, the Sierra Leonean law enforcement authorities in the discharge of their responsibilities." (10.d) and "... within its capabilities and areas of deployment, to afford protection to civilians under imminent threat of physical violence, taking into account the responsibilities of the Government of Sierra Leone." (10.e)
Primary responsibility for the internally displaced lies with the Sierra Leonean authorities. However, where governments are unable or unwilling to protect human rights, the international community is legally entitled, if not obliged, to become involved. In accepting that human rights is part of the UNAMSIL mandate, the U.N. must put into place tangible operating procedures to create a safer environment for Sierra Leone's internally displaced.
Human Rights Watch said the success of the Lome Peace Accord should be measured not only in terms of how many combatants participate in the "disarmament, demobilization and reintegration" process, but also how human rights protection and the rule of law are established.
The government of Sierra Leone and rebels signed a peace agreement on July 7, 1999 in Lome, Togo which commits the rebels to lay down their arms in exchange for representation in a new government. The agreement also included a controversial general amnesty for all crimes committed during the war.
The implementation of the agreement has been marred by serious delays in deployment of the UN peacekeepers, slow progress within the disarmament program and the implementation of most other areas of the accord. Nearly half the country remains under the control of rebel forces.
Testimonies from Sierra Leonean Victims of Rebel Abuses
Fatmata, 11, who lives in a displaced persons camp near Port Loko, was one of three children abducted on January 25 when they'd gone in search of food and wood. Both she and her 12-year-old friend Kadi were raped by the rebels. She described her abduction which lasted for nearly three weeks:
We went to find wood and potato leaves in a village called Mathiaka... one of the men grabbed me, I got away but then more of them came and surrounded us. They beat me, hit me hard on the back of the neck with a gun and then later gave me a bushel of rice to carry to their camp in Rofurawa. The one who caught made me pound rice and wash his clothes and he was the one who had sex with me. I begged him to let me go to my people but he said "I'm going to have sex with you until they disarm us." I wanted so much to escape but I didn't know the bush around that place and he kept saying he'd kill me if I ever tried to get away. Some days I complained to his wife. She was so nice... she sympathized and said she too had been abducted. I was with them for twenty days. I was bleeding so much and still feel so weak. I'm only 11 years old... I haven't even seen my period yet.
Haja, seventeen, was one of ten young women taken off a bus after being ambushed near Rogberi by rebel soldiers on Jan 17. She described how all ten were abducted and later raped:
I was on my way up-country to attend my father's funeral when at around 10:30 am a group of about 40 rebels with RPG's [rocket-propelled grenades], guns and machetes stopped us and forced the driver to go off the road until we reached an abandoned village. He ordered us to come down and walk single file inside a house. We were so frightened and some were crying, so he said, "Why are you crying? Are you bereaved? Because now we're going to cut your throats so you'll really have something to cry over." The rebels searched us and separated all the young girls from the rest of the group. Then they walked the ten of us to another abandoned village where they made us sit and started calling us into a house one by one. The first one was a girl named Isatu. We saw five of them go in and heard her crying. I was the third to be called. They told me to lie down on a dirty brown cloth. I said I don't know man business. I started bleeding after the first one and screamed that I was going to die. I pleaded with them but they told me to shut up and that they'd do whatever they wanted with me. Four of them used me that day. I just prayed, "Father save me from these people and return me safely to my home."
Abu, an elder from the village Lalbanka, was one of seven people abducted by the rebels on February 14 and forced to carry zinc roofing panels stripped from abandoned villages. An elderly woman, also abducted from his village, was severely beaten and later shot because she was unable to carry the load. Abu described what happened:
At 3:00 pm I'd gone into the field to use the toilet and on my way back they surrounded me. They led me at gunpoint and I saw that six more people from the nearby villages of Lalsoso and Yingesa had also been caught. First they forced us to take zinc panels off the houses and then they gave us bundles of 20 to carry. My neighbor, Hawa, tried walking with that big bundle but she couldn't and dropped it along the way. Then they took away some of the load and told her to walk but some time later she just collapsed from exhaustion. Two of them started beating her with sticks. They made us stand around and watch. They ordered her to dance and to kiss them. She tried but blood was streaming out of her head. I am a village elder and she came over and grabbed onto my pants and said "They're killing me... help me." I said she was my daughter-in-law and begged them to stop but they said they would kill me too. We left her there - unconscious and bleeding - with one rebel. Later that night that rebel, who called himself "Junior," boasted that he had killed her and told us that that is what happens to the ones who don't work. She was the mother of six and grandma of seven. I still had her blood from where she held onto my pants.
According to testimonies by other abductees, her decomposing body was later shown to them as an example of why they should not run away or defy the orders of the rebels.
Hassan, thirty-five, described how his daughter was abducted in a raid on Mabenkia Village on January 10, and how his brother was killed a few weeks later when they ventured back to see if the village was safe.
At around 5:00 pm I was with my children when about 60 of them in full uniform and with guns and RPG's surprised us. We all ran into the bushes and from where I was hiding I saw my sixteen-year-old daughter being dragged away by those people and heard them shouting about President Tejan Kabbah not having given them what they wanted. We fled to a displaced camp near Freetown with the rest of my family but because we didn't have enough to eat, my brothers, cousins and I decided to venture back to try to salvage some of what we'd planted and to see if it was safe to return. We went by canoe but were unfortunately caught from behind - the rebels had another canoe and they held us under gun point until we reached the shore. As we were arriving, one rebel shot my twenty-year-old brother Mani. He fell, wounded into the shallow water and as we jumped down to try to rescue him, the rebel yelled "Don't touch him. Get up - I'm going to finish you." And then he shot him at close range. Then another rebel came and grabbed my ten-year-old cousin who stated screaming "Don't let him kill me," but the rebel told us he wanted the boy. Then they ordered us to leave and said, "That body is going to rot here and if you ever came back to try and bury him, we'll kill you all." Now we're displaced people with no fishing nets or boats. All I want is to see my daughter and to go back to our village. What kind of ceasefire, what kind of peace is this?
Twelve-year-old Osman, who lives in an internally-displaced-persons (IDP) camp near Port Loko, was abducted at the end of January in Mathakan village, when he and his sister ventured out to pick cassava. Before being able to escape, five days later he was given military training by rebels who identified themselves as being both ex-SLA and RUF. He described the training:
While in Furawa camp, which they call "combat camp," they took five of us for military training. We were all given war names; I was called "Ceasefire," and the other boys who were all about my age were called "Stop the War," "Gunshot," "Lay Ambush," and "Roughneck." The commander gathered us for training in the early morning every morning, and taught us how to load, cock, clean and shoot an AK-47. I even fired it in the air one day. They taught us how to salute, stand at attention and said, "Don't worry about going home to your people... We'll provide for your education." They said they were training us so we'll be part of the rebel force, and that they weren't leaving the rebel life until after the elections. I didn't like the idea of war, of all this. I just wanted to go home to my people.
Vandi, was one of fourteen men abducted from a coal pit in Lalsoso on February 20. He was used as slave labor for six days and forced to work long hours removing zinc panels off the roofs of houses in abandoned villages. He described how the panels were then sold to individual soldiers from both ECOMOG and the loyal Sierra Leonean Army. He had whip marks in at least five places on his neck, arms and face where he said he'd been beaten by the rebels.
We went village to village unroofing the houses. The rebels would sit down and watch us as we worked and then force us to walk long hours; sometimes throughout the night, with 25 zinc panels on our heads. Sometimes I could barely move and they would beat me with a whip or the blunt end of the machete. Their base was Gberi-bana. An hour before reaching the main road, where they sold the panels for 1,000 leones (US$0.80) per sheet, the rebels stashed their guns and took off their uniforms. When we arrived at a village called Sumbuya, which was about a kilometer from the main highway, they told us to sit, and put two or three of them to guard us. Then we'd wait until the SLA soldiers and ECOMOG soldiers, who you could tell by the marks on their faces and the way they talk, to come to buy from the rebels. A few times the SLA's and ECOMOG's came to talk with us; once they asked me what had happened to my arm and neck and I told them I'd been abducted and beaten. One of the other abductees, who was from my village, even knew one of the loyal SLA's and he pleaded with him to convince the rebels to release us. The loyal SLA said he was sorry and on our way back into the bush one of the rebels beat my friend and said they'd never take him to the highway again.