(New York, February 28, 2001) - The Guinean military has killed and wounded dozens of Sierra Leonean civilians in indiscriminate attacks against rebel-held areas of northern Sierra Leone, Human Rights Watch said today.
The Guinean military was apparently attacking in the vicinity of Sierra Leonean rebel forces, which have been launching attacks across the border and causing massive refugee flows from camps inside Guinea back to Sierra Leone. Witnesses said the helicopter gunship and artillery attacks had caused little damage to rebel forces, but had killed at least 41 civilians, including 11 children, since September 2000.
Human Rights Watch called on the Guinean government to halt all indiscriminate attacks and to ensure that its forces respect international humanitarian law, and called on the Sierra Leonean government to demand that its civilians be protected. The Government of Sierra Leone has yet to condemn the attacks against its own citizens.
"Instead of attacking the rebels, the Guinean military has attacked the victims of the rebels," said Peter Takirambudde, executive director of the Africa division of Human Rights Watch. "Civilians have borne the brunt of ten years of civil war in Sierra Leone, and unfortunately, the Guinean government is now making things worse for them."
Human Rights Watch has spoken with witnesses and victims from twelve attacks, all within areas under the control of rebels from the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). The attacks, which took place in the Kambia, Bombali and Koinadugu districts of the country, also caused serious destruction of property and resulted in the displacement of thousands of civilians. These attacks, five by helicopter gunship and seven using artillery, took place in and around the towns of Rokupr, Yeliboya, Makasa, Kakuna, Sabuya, Mambolo, Rokel and Kamakwie. In the most recent incidents, on February 15, four civilians all from the same extended family were killed when an artillery shell crashed into the village of Sabuya, in Northern Kambia district. On the same day, artillery shells killed a three-year-old girl in Rokel village, also in Kambia district. The most serious attacks involved the use of helicopter gunships including the November 30, 2000 attack on the town of Rokupr, which killed thirteen civilians, and the January 26 attack against the town of Kamakwie which killed twelve.
While many of the victims and witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch confirm the presence of RUF rebels in the area around the time of the attacks, none of the attacks documented seem to have accurately targeted RUF bases or areas of concentration. Instead the gunship rockets and artillery shells slammed into neighborhoods, marketplaces, restaurants and boat wharfs. Witnesses and victims interviewed by Human Rights Watch could only confirm the death of one RUF rebel in the twelve attacks documented.
The Guinean government claims RUF rebels and Liberian security forces have been launching attacks against its territory since September 2000. The attacks have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Guinean civilians, and massive displacement of tens of thousands of Sierra Leonean and Liberian refugees.
Human Rights Watch also strongly condemned RUF attacks against Guinean civilians and refugee camps. In addition, it said the RUF had attempted to impede civilians on Yeliboya island from fleeing after a gunship attack.
The Geneva Conventions prohibit indiscriminate attacks, and require that armed forces take precautions to limit the danger of attacks to civilian populations. Specifically prohibited are attacks "by bombardment by any method or means which treats as a single military objective a number of clearly separated and distinct military objectives located in a city, town [or] village." Also prohibited are attacks that "may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, [and] damage to civilian objects, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated."
1. Hassan, a twenty-nine-year-old boat owner, described the November 30, 2000 helicopter gunship attack on the town of Rokupr, which left at least thirteen people dead and eleven wounded:
At around l0:00 am, three helicopters approached the town and spread out into different directions. Then one headed straight to the wharf where hundreds of travelers and traders were busy doing business. It was then we realized, though too late, that it was coming for us. There was panic and pandemonium. I heard three deafening booms and then it fired a big gun. After some minutes I came out from hiding and saw what'd happened.
I saw four persons who died on the spot and wounded lying all over; some wailing, some just totally confused. On bomb hit a building under construction and a man who'd tried to hide there was blown to bits. There were some rebels mingling with the civilians but most weren't armed. I heard one rebel had been wounded in the attack. A boat left with the wounded but by the time they reached Lunghi, seven had already died.
2. Sorrie, a twenty-five-year-old student saw the bodies of 12 people killed when on January 26 the town of Kamakwie was attacked by two Guinean helicopter gunships. He confirmed the presence of significant numbers of RUF rebels but said their headquarters was untouched and none of them were injured in the attack.
I was sitting on the verandah when we heard what we thought was the sound of a load car backfiring. Then we realized it was the chopper and just then saw two of them heading for town from the West. I ran in and hid under the bed and then heard three loud explosions - everything shook. I was only thinking of my life. After it was over I went around town to see what had happened. The first one fell directly on a house in Section #2; it killed two women and wounded three more. The second one hit near the sacred bush - a place just behind town where we perform our rituals. I stood there while the others dragged l0 bodies out. They were all cut up and many had burned when the bush caught fire. Two more bombs lay unexploded near the Kamasury and Kamayasi streams. One rebel wanted to shoot at it but then another yelled at him and grabbed his gun away. The RUF HQ is in a two story building in area #3 which was about 150 meters away from where the closest bomb dropped.
3. Fatmata, a forty-year-old mother of five, described being hit by shrapnel in the neck and then having her head scarf catch on fire during the January 20 attack by two helicopter gunships on Yeliboya island. There were four civilians killed and at least 11 seriously wounded in the attack.
The first time the gunships came I ran inside my house to hide but my husband rushed in and told me and my two children to come out and stand in the water near the boats. He said it was safer there. I grabbed the children and followed him to the wharf. When my husband was frantically looking for a boat to be able to flee, we saw them approaching again. I was so frightened that I just took off running with my children. Just before reaching the bush for cover, I felt something hot piercing my neck and then fire took over my body. My headscarf had caught fire and then it spread to my arm and hand. My two children were also wounded by fragments and I saw the bodies of two children killed in the attack; one was about eight years old and the other, about one, had been burned when my neighbors house caught fire..
4. Forty-five-year-old Mani, another victim from the Yeliboya attack, described the destruction caused by the gunships' rockets.
In the afternoon, just after prayers, I saw two choppers coming from the direction of Guinea. They got to the wharf, turned, dropped down a little and seemed to hang a little in the air. Then there was dust and explosions and the town began to catch fire. After the first bomb we ran to the bush, but then I decided to try to salvage some of my possessions from my house, which had also caught fire. I ran back to my house but the smoke was too heavy and I had to get out. As I tried to run back to the bush, there was another explosion. It was then I realized I'd been hit. I was bleeding heavily. Five of us from my family were wounded at the same time and my little niece was killed. The 10 or so rebels who lived in Yeliboya live in Pa H's house and in a few houses near the wharf. There were over 50 houses burned that day but none of the ones the RUF used were damaged.
5. A Twenty-five-year-old trader was wounded in the back by shrapnel while trying to protect her children during a December 30, 2000 gunship attack on the village of Makasa:
At around l:00 pm we heard the sound of bombing some distance away in Kambia. Then about 30 minutes later and very suddenly I heard the sound of the chopper approaching our village. I jumped from the verandah and rushed to get my children together so we could run and hide in the bush. I grabbed the two smallest ones but the six year old broke loose and stared running away. When we reached the bush I fell to the ground and got on top of my children to protect them. Then the first one hit. I tried to get up but felt like I was being pressed to the ground. I looked back and saw blood everywhere and was so afraid because I thought it was the blood of my children. Five from my family were wounded that day but at least my children were unharmed.
6. Kadi, a forty-year-old trader, described a February 15, artillery attack on Rokel village which left one child dead and three adults wounded.
I was inside my house cooking when I suddenly heard a long whistling sound, then shhhhhhhh and then a huge explosion. Then there were two more explosions. The bombs fell one after another. The first fell in a small rice paddy in back of the village, the second one in the village and the third, near my house, about 25 meters from the second bomb. I saw that the fragments crushed the head of a little three year old and wounded an old grey-haired Mammy. While the RUF pass through our village they don't really live here - they live in good numbers about 4 miles away in a town called Mambolo.
"Instead of attacking the rebels, the Guinean military has attacked the victims of the rebels. Civilians have borne the brunt of ten years of civil war in Sierra Leone, and unfortunately, the Guinean government is now making things worse for them."
Africa division of Human Rights Watch