(Freetown) - Rebel attacks on refugees returning home to Sierra Leone cast doubt on a new United Nations plan for "safe passage" through rebel-held territory.
Human Rights Watch research found that Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels are raping, killing and abducting Sierra Leonean refugees fleeing desperate conditions in refugee camps in Guinea. The findings raise serious questions about the viability of so-called "safe passage" or humanitarian corridors through rebel territory for returning refugees, as proposed in February by the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Human Rights Watch documented abuses against refugees from December 2000 through mid-March 2001 in the Koinadugu, Kailahun and Kono districts of eastern Sierra Leone. It said RUF soldiers are attacking returnees in Sierra Leone as they trek for days, and sometimes weeks, in an attempt to reach the government-held towns of Kenema, Kabala and Daru.
"The so-called ‘safe passage' for refugees is far from safe," said Peter Takirambudde, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Africa division. "The United Nations must not lend its authority to a scheme that will only mean more suffering for traumatized refugees."
The returning Sierra Leonean refugees have been under siege in refugee camps in Guinea since September 2000, when cross-border attacks flared between Sierra Leonean, Guinean, and Liberian government forces, rebels, and militia groups. The Guinean government estimates that hundreds have died in this border violence, and that over 100,000 Sierra Leonean and Liberian refugees and thousands of Guineans have been displaced.
The recently appointed U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers, visited the sub-region in February 2001, to assess the refugee crisis described by UNHCR as the worst in the world. After meetings with the leaders of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, he proposed relocating the refugees to camps further within Guinea. Lubbers also suggested a strategy of "safe passage," allowing refugees to return to Sierra Leone both overland through RUF territory and by boat from the Guinean capital of Conakry to Sierra Leone's government-controlled capital, Freetown. UNHCR established contact with the RUF to seek a commitment to allow the "safe passage" of refugees.
Since early February, tens of thousands of refugees have been relocated from the border region by UNHCR. According to UNHCR, as of March 23, 2001, some 59,000 Sierra Leonean refugees had returned from Guinea to Sierra Leone since September 2000, many of them of their own accord. Some 40,000 have returned by boat from Conakry, and some 13,000 by foot to Lungi, north of Freetown. Some 5,000 are believed to have passed through RUF-held areas of Sierra Leone. However, more than 135,000 are still stranded in the Guinean refugee camps located in the Parrot's Beak region bordering RUF-held areas of Sierra Leone. These camps remain vulnerable to attack, largely cut off from food assistance and protection.
Based on its findings of continuing RUF brutality against returning refugees, Human Rights Watch believes that the protection of refugees would be seriously compromised if UNHCR goes ahead with plans to establish "safe passage" through RUF territory. Despite assurances received by UNHCR during its meetings with RUF leaders in Sierra Leone, any form of overland travel by refugees through RUF territory should be discouraged by UNHCR.
Instead, UNHCR should make as its priority the protection and relocation of the refugees to more secure camps further inland within Guinea. Refugees should be provided with full and objective information on which to base decisions about return, and those who wish to return should be assisted with transport to Conakry where they can safely return by boat to Freetown.
The international community, including UNHCR, should provide assistance to returning refugees, many of whom join the already over-crowded camps for displaced persons around Freetown.
Among the scores of returnees who gave detailed accounts of serious rebel abuses to Human Rights Watch, numerous men who passed through the diamond-rich district of Kono and the rebel stronghold of Kailahun described recruitment of able-bodied men and boys as young as fifteen to fight with the RUF forces or to carry out forced labor in the diamond mines or with the rebel army. Four men were killed for refusing recruitment, disobeying orders, or being physically unable to work. Human Rights Watch interviewed an elderly woman whose twenty-five-year-old son was shot and killed in front of her in December 2000, after refusing to be recruited. A woman described how her husband was executed in early December for refusing to hand her over to the rebels, while another woman described how her ailing husband was beaten to death in the mid-March 2001 for no apparent reason.
Numerous women returnees described being abducted, raped and/or sexually abused. Human Rights Watch interviewed six women who had been raped and numerous more who were either held or taken away to rebel bases, for a time span varying from a few hours to several weeks. One woman described how she was gang-raped by RUF rebels in Kailahun in late January 2001, after she and five other women were chosen from a group of returnees detained at a rebel checkpoint. Human Rights Watch interviewed a man who managed to escape in mid-January after two weeks of forced labor, but had to leave his wife behind in a rebel base in Kono.
According to witnesses, the RUF routinely screened returnees, and sometimes forced them to move to other locations where they were pressured to settle within rebel territory. Returnees who had been detained described being held for anywhere from several hours to several weeks. In addition to the abuses suffered along the way, most refugees described being robbed of some or all of their possessions.
Fuller testimonies of refugee victims of RUF abuses:
Thirty year old Mani, who suffers from a speech impediment, had traveled from Katkama camp in Guinea to Soardu camp, closer to the border, in search of food. In late February he decided to leave Guinea and crossed into Sierra Leone's Kono District. He encountered the rebels in the town of Gbamandu and described what happened:
"I traveled with six other men and three women when we met a large group of rebels. They accused us of supporting Tejan Kabbah from Guinea. Many of them then took the three women into the forest. The women had their clothes on. We were pleading to be released. Five came up to me and said that I was useless to them, because I am not well. They tied my ankles to my hands and started hitting me with their guns and boots. It all took a long time and my head was spinning, but I can remember seeing the women again coming back from the forest with the rebels. They were naked and their eyes were red and running, and I saw that they had some scratches on their bodies. They then left with the others and left me behind, unable to move. After lying there for three days, my relatives found me. They put me on a wheelbarrow and brought me here. I still can't walk because of the beating."
Sixty-seven year old Kumba left Nyaedou camp with her eldest son Sahr and crossed into Markor, Kono district late February 2001. She was beaten and they arrested her eldest son, whom she hasn't seen since. She explained:
"We met them [the rebels] at a checkpoint. They took our luggage and they told me that they would beat me, because old people tell their children not to cross the border. They pushed me to the ground and hit me three times on my back with the butt of a gun. My son Sahr ran up to me and tried to stop them. They immediately arrested him and tied his hands to his feet. They told him that they would deal with him later. I managed to get up and I fled into the bush. The last thing I saw was that two of them lifted Sahr by the arms and carried him away. I haven't seen him since."
Fatmata, thirty-seven, fled Nongoa camp in the Parrot's Beak region of Guinea with her husband and baby shortly after the camp was attacked on March 9. At Manowa in Kailahun, Sierra Leone, the RUF detained a large group of some sixty returnees. The rebels then targeted her ailing husband. Fatmata described what happened:
"My husband was very sick when we crossed the border into Kailahun. His eyes and fingernails were yellow. All of us were told to sit on the ground and wait, while armed rebels were all around us. Four rebels then came up to my husband and told him to stand up and run. He stood up, but they knew that he could not run. Then they started beating and kicking him and said that they would continue for as long as he would not obey their orders. One of them was in his late twenties. The other three boys were very young, around seventeen. It did not take long. He bled from his nose and mouth and did not move anymore. They said that if one of us would touch his body, that person would be dealt with in the same way. None of us said a word. We were kept there the rest of the day and the following night. Nobody moved. We received some water but no food. Then the next morning, they let all of us go. I left my husband's body behind, which had been lying there all that time."
Due to food shortages in the refugee camps, thirty-year-old Princess and her family decided in mid-January to leave Nyaedou camp and travel back to Sierra Leone. After stopping over in the Koloma camp in the Parrot's Beak, they crossed into Kailahun district. After being stopped by the RUF, she was selected with five other women of the same age, taken into the bush and gang raped by five rebels. After one week, they were allowed to pass through. She narrated her ordeal:
"We had traveled from Nyaedou camp to a few other camps in Guinea to flee from rebel attacks and to find food. Finally we left Kolomba camp mid January and crossed the border into Gelema, Kailahun. The same day we met armed rebels there, some ten in number. We were with around thirty people, including my husband and two sons. Rebels took our property right away, then they walked up to me and told me to come. They pointed out five other women. They said that they were not going to kill us, but that they were going to use us until they would be satisfied. They also said that they wanted peace, but that they would not let us go for nothing. Then all six of us were taken deep into the forest by five of them, while our husbands stayed in Gelema town. They said that we would not escape, since our relatives were still in Gelema town. Then deeper into the forest, all of them raped me, one after the other, it did not take long. When they were finished with me, they told me to go. I found my way back to town and found my husband and youngest son, but I was told that my ten-year old son Vandy was missing. I haven't seen him since. I met the other women in town later that evening. The only thing they said is that they [the rebels] had done the same to them as they had done to me. The rebels did not allow us to leave, but they gave us water and cassava to eat, and left us alone. There were no commanders among them in Gelema town. After one week we were allowed to pass through. But my son was still missing."
Thirty-five year old Sia who had been staying in Katkama camp, north of Gueckedou, in Guinea, was abducted and raped by RUF rebels after crossing the border at the end of December 2000. She was taken to Koidu town together with some twenty-five returnees, while her husband was forced to stay behind with other rebels. She described her ordeal:
"We were with some thirty refugees in our group. All of us were arrested by armed rebels at Kamanjendoh, after they had taken most of our belongings. Some three days later we were taken to another village. There they separated the married men from the women and the unmarried young men. I was in a group of sixteen women and some ten young men. Our husbands were forced to stay behind with other rebels. We were told that we had to join them to become their wives, that we would leave for Koidu. While we were taken away, my son was crying for his father, I was the only woman carrying children. We had traveled for a few days when we arrived in Koidu, this was early January. There the men were taken away somewhere else while the women were put into a big house. After a few days, some men came in with clothes and cooking materials. The man who gave me the items was callied Sorie. He told me that I would be his wife. The next day he took me and my children to his house, where he raped me the same day. I had no choice since I was afraid for my children, but he treated them well. After two days, nine of the women of my group came by at night and told me to join them. The other six stayed behind because they were too afraid to escape. We managed to leave Koidu and traveled through the bush until we reached Kenema. On the way, the other women told me that they were not raped but beaten since they refused. They were older than me. My children and me are here now, but I am worried about my husband."
Fifty-year-old Kumba left Katkama camp on December l0. She traveled with her husband and four children for several days through Kono district in Sierra Leone, until they met a group of rebels in Tongoma town. She described what happened to her twenty-five year-old son Sahr:
"The rebels were many in Tongoma, they carried guns and wore combat trousers. They took our shoes and clothes, some of us were stripped down to our underwear. Then they surrounded my eldest son, Sahr Allieu, and told him that they were going to train him how to fight. Sahr told them that he would refuse to be trained. They argued for a short while, and then one of the rebels shot him from behind in the head. The rebels around him scattered and my family and I went up to Sahr in distress. He was dead. The bullet came out in the front. We stayed there to bury my son, but most refugees were allowed to pass through after their belongings were taken away. While burying Sahr, the rebels dropped the body of another man next to Sahr's body. We had to bury that man as well. His name was Tamba [also a refugee]. I knew him because he was the son of an old lady I knew from Kono. Besides Sahr and Tamba, I saw two more dead bodies that day in Tongoma town."
Twenty-nine year old Njama left Katkama camp in Guinea and crossed into Kono with her husband and two children at the end of November 2000. In early December, they arrived at Kamanjendoh, where the returnees of their group were detained and the young men and women separated from the elderly. Njama's husband refused to be separated, she described what happened:
"At Kamanjendoh, all of us were put in a house where the rebels selected the young men and the young women. The two groups were separated by a mat. They told the young men in our group that they would be trained. They then choose the women they preferred who would cook for them. We, the women who came with a husband, were told to forget about them, because we were with them [the rebels] now. My husband became upset when they separated us. He told them that he was legally married to me and that nobody would stop him from being together with me. I could hear them arguing. My husband was angry with them for doing this to us. The next morning, early, I just heard one gunshot. Some refugees who had been washing at the river ran up to me and told me that they had killed my husband. I went to the back of the house to where the sound came from. He was there, they had shot him in the chest because he had argued with them. They warned me not to cry for I would be killed too. My husband's name was Kai Sam, he was in his thirties. One rebel felt sorry for me. He was also a Kono by tribe, just like me. My husband was also a Kono. He wrote me a letter to help me pass through the other checkpoints. A few days later, I sent my children into the bush to fetch water. They understood, and I followed soon after. I arrived here in this camp [in Freetown] at the end of February."
Finda, twenty-five years, left Baladu camp, north of Gueckedou, with her three children at the end of January. She was arrested with over twenty other refugees at Jagbwema, Kono district. She described:
"They [the rebels] were ten in number. They took our luggage from us and split the group in two. Five young boys from the group were separated and the rebels said they were going to mine. Two of the boys were around twenty years, the other three were somewhere between twelve and sixteen. I don't know what happened to them. That night they [the rebels] discussed what to do with the rest of the group. We could hear them talking about the message they had sent to ‘Burkina Faso', which is a base just behind Gandorhun (Kono). The message was about whether they should take us along or release us. Than we heard that more troops were on their way. That made us so afraid that we planned to escape. That same night, many of us managed to get out through the bushes."
Bintu, twenty-seven years, fled Masakondou camp, with many other refugees. In early February on their way to Sierra Leone, they were stopped by RUF rebels at the border town of Dangadu. Bintu described how she was raped by two RUF rebels.
"We came in by truck, some forty of us. We met the rebels at Dangadu, which is at the border with Kono but still in Guinea. There we had to offload. Most refugees had to strip naked and we were searched. They took most of our property, even the clothes of my children I was carrying. Then two of them came up to me and held me. I resisted and pointed at my husband, telling them I was married. They went up to him and tied him up. Then they took me off the road far into the bush. I was carrying my seven months old baby on my back. Inside the bush, they took the baby of my back and pushed me to the ground. They said that they would deal with the refugees today. Then they raped me in turns. It lasted for a couple of hours, after that, they let me go. I picked up my baby and went back to the road where I met my husband. Everyone else was gone, I don't know where to. We left for Koquima, which is some 50 miles from Dangadu. It took us 15 days to reach the hospital in Koquima. I was in pain so we could only travel for a few miles per day."
Twenty-nine year old Sia left Baladu camp on the December 6. The next day, she crossed through Koardu, into Kono with her family, where they encountered a large group of RUF rebels. She described what happened then:
"All our bags were searched. They took property from us, and told the men not to move. Then they took us, some thirty women, away under gunpoint to the village of Koardu. Once there, one of them called me into the bush. He told me to come with him to collect my belongings, which would be returned to me. When I was close to him, he grabbed me by force and took me into the forest. If I would scream he said he would kill me. He raped me once, then I was let go. When I arrived at the village again, the other women had left already, but I managed to join them further down the road. My children were with them. None of us decided to go back to where we had left our husbands. We had no choice but to move on. On the way, we talked about what had happened to us. A number of women spoke about being raped, just like what they did to me. I can't exactly tell how many but it was more than five. Others complained about the loss of their belongings. All of us went to Koidu, which was a two-day-walk. My father, who lives in Koidu, took me to Freetown to get a medical check-up. I was treated in Connaught hospital. My husband is still missing."
Kadiatu, thirty-two-years, left Kissidougou town in Guinea in early January. She crossed the border into Koinadugu district with some thirty refugees. On their way to Kabala, they met rebels who screened the returnees; looking for Guineans and weapons. Kadiatu and at least one other woman from their group were screened separately from the others and gang-raped. She narrated her ordeal:
"All of us arrived at Dankawali checkpoint where rebels told us to stand in line. They were checking whether there were any Guineans among us. They checked our properties and took whatever they could use. They occupied an old school building and asked the women in, one by one. A woman name Fati was called in before me. It took a long time before she came out. Then it was my turn. There were five men inside the room. One of them lifted up my skirt to see whether they liked my thighs. They found my legs smooth. They said that they needed me to have a good time, and ripped my clothes of. The first one who was called, ‘Hold Me Cap', raped me three times while he was asking all kinds of questions about Guinea. He told me not to worry since they [the rebels] would retaliate. Then the second raped me twice. He was called ‘Lebanese'.I started to feel pain so I offered the third one the little money I had left so he would stop after one time. The fourth man asked me what tribe I was. He then said that he would use me only once since he had a good friend who was a Temne by tribe, just like me. By the time the last one used me, I was dizzy and in a lot of pain. I hardly reacted anymore and I think he noticed because he did it slow to me and got up after a few minutes and left. I was released but could barely walk. All of us were released the same day and were told to move on. In the next village, Fati was complaining about pain in her abdomen. Then of course I knew. There was no chance to hide it from each other. I have a painful infection ever since during that day."