In the early hours of January 6, l999, rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) launched an offensive against the Sierra Leonean capital, Freetown, capturing it from government troops and the soldiers of the Nigerian-led peacekeeping force known as ECOMOG, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Cease-fire Monitoring Group. The battle for Freetown and the ensuing three week rebel occupation of the capital was characterized by the systematic and widespread perpetration of all classes of atrocities against the civilian population, of over one million inhabitants, and marked the most intensive and concentrated period of human rights violations in Sierra Leone's eight-year civil war.
As the rebels took control of street after street, they turned their weapons on the civilian population. By the end of January, both government and independent sources estimated that several thousands of civilians had been killed. The rebels dragged entire family units out of their homes and murdered them, hacked off the hands of children and adults, burned people alive in their houses, and rounded up hundreds of young women, took them to urban rebel bases, and sexually abused them. As the ECOMOG forces counterattacked and the RUF retreated through the capital, the rebels set fire to neighborhoods, leaving entire city blocks in ashes and over 51,000 people homeless.1 And, while the RUF took with them almost no prisoners of war, they withdrew to the hills with thousands of abductees, mostly children and young women.
This latest rebel offensive brought to the capital the same class of atrocities witnessed in Sierra Leone's rural provinces over the last eight years and is the latest cycle of violence in an armed conflict that has claimed an estimated 50,000 lives and caused the displacement of more than one million Sierra Leoneans. Since launching the rebellion in l991, the RUF has fought to overthrow successive governments it accuses of widespread corruption, nepotism, and mismanagement of the country's vast diamond and mineral resources. However, since its inception, the RUF has failed publicly and clearly to articulate an alternative political agenda and has consistently committed gross and large scale atrocities against civilians.
In December l998, following the capture of the diamond rich Kono district and subsequently Makeni, Sierra Leone's fifth largest city, thousands of RUF fighters started moving towards the capital. By early January l999, they had reached the peninsula on which Freetown is located and gathered less than twenty miles west of the capital city. On January 6, the rebels broke through the highly stretched and poorly manned ECOMOG defenses, ill-prepared for a rebel offensive in force, and proceeded to march through the eastern suburbs and straight into the city center. Their efforts to capture the westernmost part of the capital, containing the ECOMOG headquarters, Wilberforce Military Barracks, and the suburbs housing the country's wealthy elite, were frustrated as ECOMOG launched a major counteroffensive and started pushing them eastward from where they came.
While the rebels were only able to occupy the city center for less than one week, it took ECOMOG forces over three weeks to flush them from the three densely populated eastern suburbs of Kissy, Wellington, and Calaba Town. It was in these three suburbs, particularly towards the end of the occupation, that the vast majority of atrocities occurred.
The rebels made little distinction between civilian and military targets. They repeatedly stated that they believed civilians should be punished for what they perceived to be their support for the existing government. While there was some targeting of particular groups, the vast majority of atrocities were committed by rebels who chose their victims apparently at random. The arbitrary nature of these attacks served to create an atmosphere of complete terror.
While it is difficult to ascertain at what level the perpetration of human rights abuses was ordered by the RUF high command, many of the attacks seemed to be well organized, and some were clearly planned and premeditated. Victims and witnesses described widespread participation and very few accounts of individual combatants or commanders trying to halt the abuses. Operations to round up civilians for mutilation, rape, and execution are well documented, as is the existence of units specializing in the perpetration of particular forms of these atrocities.
The RUF's incursion into Freetown was built around the use of civilian human shields. As they began their march, the rebels used gunfire to create panic and produce a mass civilian exodus westward towards the city center. The rebels then mixed in with and marched behind the thousands of civilians making up the human shield. The tactic was effective for the rebels, but proved frustrating for the ECOMOG soldiers, who were unable to see and properly engage their opponents; and deadly for civilians who were in the line of fire once the fighting began. Human shields were also used as defense against ECOMOG air power and during subsequent assaults on ECOMOG positions.
Upon gaining control of a neighborhood or suburb, the rebels went on systematic looting raids in which families were hit by wave after wave of rebels demanding money and valuables. Those who didn't have what the rebels demanded were frequently murdered. Civilians were also executed for resisting rape or abduction, trying to flee, trying to protect a friend or family member, or for refusing to follow instructions.
The largest number of killings took place within the context of attacks on civilians gathered in houses, compounds,2 and places of refuge such as churches and mosques. A study carried out in Freetown's biggest hospital found that some 80 percent of all war-wounded were survivors of mass killings and massacres. Human Rights Watch took testimonies from scores of witnesses to such atrocities including a January 6 attack on a family in which all but one of their seven children were killed; a January 19 attack on the church of the Brotherhood of the Cross and Star in Wellington, in which twelve people were gunned down; a January 21 attack on a compound in Kissy in which seventeen people were murdered and later burned; and a January 22 attack on the Rogbalan Mosque in Kissy, in which sixty-six people were massacred.
There were also frequent accounts of people being burned alive in their houses, often after having been wounded. Children and the elderly were particularly vulnerable. Witnesses described rebels throwing civilians, sometimes children, into burning houses and shooting at those trying to escape. Family members trying to rescue their children or other relatives from a burning house were threatened with death and forced to abandon them to the fire.
The rebels carried out large numbers of mutilations, in particular amputation of hands, arms, legs, and other parts of the body a horrific practice developed during offensives in the rural parts of Sierra Leone. In Freetown, several hundred people, mostly men, but also women and children, were killed and maimed in this way. Hospitals registered ninety-seven victims of hand and leg amputation, including twenty-six civilians both of whose hands were hacked off. Among those who had reached a hospital were a two-year-old toddler who had lost one arm, and at least twelve children under the age of eleven who had either lost a limb or suffered serious lacerations from these attacks.
Throughout the occupation, the rebels perpetrated organized and widespread sexual violence against girls and women. The rebels launched operations in which they rounded up girls and women, brought them to rebel command centers, and then subjected them to individual and gang-rape. The sexual abuse was frequently characterized by extreme brutality. Young girls under seventeen, and particularly virgins, were specifically targeted, and hundreds of them were later abducted by the rebels.
While most victims were seemingly chosen at random, the rebels directly targeted a few groups, namely Nigerian nationals, unarmed policemen, and journalists. At least sixty-three Nigerians, most of whom were traders or businessmen, were hunted down and murdered in particularly brutal ways. The rebels also killed at least eighty-five unarmed police officers, and several local and one international journalist. Witnesses described seeing rebels with lists containing the names of journalists who had criticized them in the past and of other pro-democracy and human rights activists. The Catholic archbishop, four Xavierian fathers, and six Sisters of Charity were abducted and held for over ten days. The rebels later killed four of the sisters and wounded one Xavierian father.
As the rebels withdrew, they took with them thousands of civilians, mostly young people and particularly young women. The abductions were often violent, and family members attempting to resist the abductions were often beaten or killed. Families who had more than one child abducted were not uncommon, and there are several cases of entire family units being taken. By June l999, the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender, and Children's Affairs had registered 573 adults who had either been abducted or gone missing, and UNICEF had classed as abducted some 1,500 children registered as having gone missing during the offensive. In March l999, rebels released fifty-one of the abductees; since then, hundreds more have managed to escape.
The rebels ignored medical neutrality and threatened hospital personnel. Freetown's largest hospital was turned into a temporary rebel base for hundreds of combatants. There, and in other hospitals, rebels tortured, robbed, and removed patients from their beds, and, in at least one case, dragged a patient out of the hospital to be killed. They ordered hospital personnel at gunpoint not to treat civilians and threatened them with death if rebel commanders died. Hospitals and clinics were looted, ambulances were destroyed, and several medical facilities were set on fire.
As the rebels withdrew from the capital they set entire city blocks and suburban streets on fire. Housing authorities registered the destruction of 5,788 homes and residential buildings within the greater Freetown area. Within the eastern suburb of Calaba Town, the authorities calculated some 80 percent of residential structures had been left in ashes, and within densely populated Kissy the estimate was over 65 percent. According to the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Transport, extensive damage to at least eight of Freetown's factories, set ablaze by retreating rebels, has resulted in the loss of over 5,000 jobs. Embassies, government buildings, churches, mosques, and historical landmarks were also targeted, including Freetown's Big Market, built in l802, and the Holy Trinity Church, built in l877.
Witnesses and victims described the presence and participation of foreign mercenaries fighting with the RUF. Victims of arm amputations, killings, and massacres said some of their assailants were from Liberia and Burkina Faso. Others observed the presence of white mercenaries, believed to be from Ukraine, several of whom were seen giving orders and directing the battle during the ECOMOG assault on the temporary rebel headquarters at State House.
While the RUF committed the vast majority of atrocities and other violations of international humanitarian law during the battle for Freetown, those defending the capital also committed serious abuses, both during and after the rebel incursion. Members of the Nigerian-led ECOMOG peacekeeping force, and to a lesser extent members of the Civil Defense Forces (CDF) and Sierra Leonean Police routinely executed RUF prisoners and their suspected collaborators or sympathizers. Human Rights Watch has documented over 180 of these executions. Most were carried out by ECOMOG forces. While the victims were mostly young men, witnesses confirm the execution of some women, and children as young as eight.
Prisoners taken by ECOMOG, some of whom had surrendered and many of whom were wounded, were frequently executed on the spot. Suspected rebel collaborators and sympathizers were often killed with little or no effort to establish their guilt or innocence. Executions usually took place at checkpoints, or during small Amopping up operations. Officers to the level of captain were present and sometimes participated in these executions.
ECOMOG troops also violated medical neutrality during a January 11 operation in which they stormed a hospital, proceeded to drag wounded rebels from their beds, and executed them on the hospital grounds. At least twenty-eight rebels, including two children and a few who had already surrendered, were executed.
In the aftermath of the offensive, civilian witnesses also complained of looting by members of the CDF during routine search missions and some excessive use of force by ECOMOG forces when passing through checkpoints.
During the rebel incursion, children were both the victims of serious abuses committed by all parties to the conflict and, in some cases, the perpetrators of these abuses. RUF rebels raped girls as young as eight, singled out children for mutilation, and murdered children alone and with other family members. RUF child combatants, armed with pistols, rifles, and machetes, were witnessed actively participating in killings and amputations. Some of these child combatants captured by ECOMOG forces were later executed or beaten by members of the local community. Some children abducted by the rebels and taken to the bush have already been observed to be undergoing military training.
The atrocities committed during the January RUF offensive follow a now painfully familiar pattern in Sierra Leone. Relatively protected from such abuses in the past, Freetown residents can now bear witness to the level of brutality and destruction which has threatened residents of the rural areas over the past eight years. In the capital city, the scale of these abuses both in absolute numbers and in the percentage of the population affected and the level of sheer brutality, was simply staggering.
In Sierra Leone, a war is being waged against the civilian population, and particularly horrific and inhumane methods are being used to fight it. Human Rights Watch calls on all parties to the war, but especially the RUF rebels, who have been guilty of the worst abuses, to respect international humanitarian law as laid down in the Geneva Conventions and its protocol. In particular, parties to the conflict must distinguish at all times between civilians and combatants and desist from targeting civilians for attack. Although influencing the actions of the rebel forces in Sierra Leone is difficult, international pressure must be maintained to convince them to cease indiscriminate killings, rape, mutilation, the abduction of civilians especially children for use as soldiers, laborers, sexual slaves, or other purposes and other violations of the laws of war.
In attempting to negotiate an end to the civil war, the international community and the Sierra Leonean government must insist on the need to bring the perpetrators of gross human rights abuses and war crimes to justice. RUF members suspected of having committed human rights abuses and former RUF collaborators must be given fair trials and punished according to national and international law. Allegations that members of the government's forces and Nigerian-led ECOMOG forces perpetrated abuses of international human rights and humanitarian law must be investigated and appropriate action must be taken.
The physical and psychological scars left by eight years of war in Sierra Leone are profound and far-reaching. In order to end the cycle of violence, there must be an analysis of the root causes of the conflict and a sincere effort on the part of the government and international community to address them. It is owed to the hundreds of thousands of people whose lives have already been torn apart by this war and essential for the future stability of both the country and the region.
Research for this report was conducted by Human Rights Watch during the months of April, May, and June 1999. Several hundred witnesses and victims were interviewed, within their homes and centers for the displaced, in hospitals and clinics, market places, churches, mosques, and places of work. Interviews were conducted with government and United Nations officials, journalists, human rights activists, social workers, and members of national and international nongovernmental organizations. The names of all witnesses and survivors, except where noted, have been changed in order to protect their identity and ensure their privacy.
The conduct of all combatants in the Sierra Leonean conflict is governed by international humanitarian law also known as the laws of war; the 1949 Geneva Conventions and their two Protocols. A cardinal principle of humanitarian law is that civilian persons who are in the power of a party to the conflict are entitled to be treated humanely in all circumstances and to benefit from a series of fundamental guarantees without any discrimination. Under the laws of war the following acts in particular are prohibited under any pretext whatsoever:
a) violence to the life, health, and physical or mental well-being of persons, particularly murder, torture of all kinds, whether physical or mental, corporal punishment, and mutilation;
b) outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment, enforced prostitution, rape, and any form of indecent assault;
c) the taking of hostages;
d) collective punishments;
e) threats to commit any of the foregoing acts.
Combatants have an obligation to distinguish at all times between the civilian population and combatants in order to spare the civilian population and property. Neither the civilian population as such nor civilian persons shall be the object of attack. Attacks shall be directed solely against military objectives, and the use of civilians as human shields is specifically banned.
Medical personnel, establishments, transports, and equipment are also covered by the protection afforded by the laws of war.
Members of the armed forces or rebel groups who are captured or placed hors de combat are entitled to respect for their lives and their moral and physical integrity. They must be protected and treated humanely without any adverse distinction. It is absolutely forbidden to kill or injure an enemy who surrenders or who is hors de combat.
All these fundamental guarantees without exception, have been grossly and systematically violated during the RUFs offensive against Freetown and ECOMOG's counterattack. The unthinkable atrocities described in this report constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity.
1 Human Rights Watch interview, United Nations Humanitarian Assistance Coordination Unit (HACU), Freetown, May 18, l999.
2 A collection of rooms or small dwellings, often behind one wall, which houses members of an extended family or several families and which share cooking, washing, and toilet facilities.
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