Violence and insecurity in the West African sub-region continues to escalate. In a complex web of alliances, the governments of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone accuse each other of harboring rebel groups and supporting cross-border incursions. The U.N. estimates that one in every five persons (three million out of a population of approximately fifteen million people) in the Mano River Union countries of Liberia (population 2.7 million), Sierra Leone (5.1 million), and Guinea (7.1million) are currently displaced and destitute as a result.1
Refugees, Guineans, and humanitarian workers at Guinea's border area have been targets and victims of the fighting by all sides. For the past year, a combination of Sierra Leonean Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels and armed Liberian forces have repeatedly attacked and burned refugee camps and Guinean villages along the border, killing, injuring, abducting, and forcing their residents to flee. Humanitarian workers have also fallen victim. In September 2000, the head of the UNHCR office in Macenta was brutally murdered by unknown assailants, believed to be a combination of RUF and armed Liberian forces. In separate incidents, two UNHCR staff members were abducted by unknown assailants, one in Macenta and another in Guéckédou; both were later released in Liberia. UNHCR and most aid agencies pulled out of the border area for their own safety in late 2000, leaving refugees trapped in the conflict zone with no international protection or assistance for several months.
The border destabilization has also resulted in rising hostility among Guineans of all walks of life toward the estimated 300,000 Sierra Leonean and 125,000 Liberian refugees, reversing Guinea's long-standing history of welcoming these refugees over the past decade. In September 2000, Guinean President Lansana Conte made an inflammatory speech indiscriminately blaming refugees for the border destabilization, proclaiming that most were rebels and calling on the Guinean population to defend their country against foreign invasions.2 Thousands of refugees in the camps and in Conakry were subsequently attacked, beaten, raped, and rounded up by police, soldiers, and armed civilian militias following the speech.3
Guinea has come under attack by Liberian government forces and by Sierra Leonean rebels, particularly since September 2000. RUF rebels, supported by the Liberian government and Liberian mercenaries, have launched attacks into Guinea. The Liberian government has also launched cross-border attacks, accusing Guinea of hosting and providing support to a Liberian rebel group, the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), reportedly composed of former civil war fighters, mainly ethnic Krahns and Mandingos, from the officially disbanded rebel faction, the United Liberation Movement for Democracy in Liberia (ULIMO-J and K factions).
The Guinean government has responded to cross-border attacks on its territory by trying to set up a buffer zone within Sierra Leone, including by launching indiscriminate helicopter gunship and artillery attacks on Sierra Leone since September 2000.4 Guinea is also backing anti-RUF Sierra Leonean civil defense forces, including the Kamajors, the largest and most powerful of them, and Donsos, traditional fighters from the Kono region, to push the RUF rebels back from the border and pursue them into Sierra Leone. There have been reports of the Kamajors recruiting within the Guinean refugee camps for fighters against the RUF, assisting the Guinean military at checkpoints within Guinea, and fighting alongside LURD rebels in Liberia. There is also evidence to suggest the Guinean government is supporting armed proxy groups sympathetic to its own political and military objectives operating around the border area; namely some Liberian refugee camps around Macenta where LURD rebels have been allowed to operate, and some of the Sierra Leonan refugee camps, where armed Kamajor and Donso fighters have received Guinean government support.
The escalating violence at the border area ultimately prompted UNHCR and the Guinean government to decide in February 2001 to relocate the refugee camps to the interior of the country as a priority-a move called for by various nongovernmental organizations including Human Rights Watch since June 19985-and to encourage refugees to move. By the end of May 2001 when the relocation process officially ended, UNHCR had relocated some 57,000 refugees of the estimated 90,000 from the border region. At the same time as UNHCR was emptying the border area of refugees, hundreds of new Liberian asylum seekers attempting to enter Guinea were being turned away at the border by the Guinean military, in violation of refugee law.6
Kountaya (with 27,000 refugees has reached its planned capacity);
Refugees are allocated a plot of communal land and tools to build their homes and cultivate (although Human Rights Watch encountered some refugees in Kountaya camp who had not been provided with tools). Community structures, such as markets and schools are being constructed, and social and cultural activities are being planned.
Not all refugees have been willing to move to the new camps. Continuing insecurity, harassment and abuses against refugees in Guinea have prompted many refugees in the border area to decide not to move further into the interior where they believe they could more easily be targets of Guinean attacks in the future. Also, unlike the border area, the new camps are located away from towns, and the local population in the area is not as welcoming to the refugees.
In other cases, desperation and fear of the uncertain situation in Guinea, and a desire to reunite with family members, has prompted refugees to decide to return home, often at a risk to their lives. One refugee told Human Rights Watch, "In Guinea, I am afraid of three types of people: the government, the citizens, and the rebels. In Sierra Leone, there is just one: the rebels."7
Some groups of refugees have crossed back into Sierra Leone on foot through RUF territory. The actual number may well be higher than the approximately 10,000 registered by UNHCR who reached the government-held town of Kenema in the east of the country.8 Between December 2000 and mid-March 2001, Human Rights Watch found that Sierra Leonean refugees returning by foot from Guinea were being raped, killed, or abducted for fighting or forced labor by RUF rebels as they walked for days, and sometimes weeks, through RUF-territory attempting to reach the government-held towns.9 UNHCR has repeatedly warned against the dangers of such crossings through rebel-held territories and the movement seemed to have diminished by May 2001.
In order to protect returnees from such abuses, UNHCR has, since September 2000, facilitated the evacuation by boat of some refugees from Guinea who want to return to their country of origin. UNHCR is organizing boat returns from the capital city Conakry to Sierra Leone's capital Freetown and Liberia's capital Monrovia. UNHCR has continued to register refugees for repatriation by boat, particularly to Sierra Leone's capital, Freetown. By mid-May 2001, over 35,000 Sierra Leonean refugees had repatriated by boat on their own or with assistance from UNHCR since this program began in September 2000. A smaller number of Liberian refugees have repatriated. However, conditions in both Liberia and Sierra Leone remain uncertain and insecure.
In Liberia, the situation remains volatile under the government of Charles Taylor, who took power in 1997 after elections that followed a brutal seven-and-a-half-year war in which he was the leader of one of the warring factions. Since taking office, the Taylor government has operated with little or no accountability and a lack of respect for the rule of law, further exacerbating the divisions and resentments fueled by the war. The fragility of the situation in Liberia has been underscored by five serious outbreaks of fighting since the 1997 elections. Barely a year after the war ended, there were two outbreaks of violence in Monrovia in 1998 in which state security forces battled with faction leader Roosevelt Johnson's officially disbanded ULIMO-J and his predominantly ethnic Krahn supporters. In April and August 1999, Liberian rebels operating from Guinea carried out attacks in Lofa County, northern Liberia. Although not confirmed, the rebel attacks were thought to be led by former fighters from the ULIMO-K faction, largely ethnic Mandingos.
Since July 2000, LURD rebels have made incursions from the Guinea border into Liberia, resulting in intense fighting and widespread displacement yet again in Lofa County. Abuses are being committed against civilians by both rebel and government security forces. The state security forces have been particularly responsible for killings and torture, largely directed at members of the Mandingo community whom they accuse of collectively supporting the rebels.10 As a result, thousands of Liberians have fled into Sierra Leone to escape the Lofa County fighting. Others trying to seek asylum in Guinea in May 2001 were turned away at the border by Guinean authorities.11
In addition to the insecurity within Liberia, the Liberian government is accused of contributing to the Sierra Leonean conflict through its arming and support of the RUF rebels, and its facilitation of illegal diamond exports from rebel-controlled areas.12 In March 2001, the U.N. Security Council voted to apply sanctions against the Taylor government after two months if it did not discontinue its support to the RUF. These sanctions, which include a travel ban on Taylor government officials and their families and a ban on diamond sales from Liberia, took effect in May 2001.13
Sierra Leone's decade-long civil war has seen some of the most appalling human rights abuses in the world. Since l991, tens of thousands of Sierra Leoneans have been killed, thousands maimed, and over one million displaced. While violations of human rights and international humanitarian law have been committed by all sides, rebels from the RUF have been responsible for the vast majority, including summary execution, systematic rape and enslavement of women, the use of civilians as human shields, the abduction and use of children as soldiers, the wanton destruction of property, and the particularly horrific practice of limb amputation. Through rural and urban campaigns of terror, the rebels have made little distinction between civilian and military targets, effectively waging war against the civilian population. The government's civil defense forces, such as the Kamajors, have also committed numerous (though fewer) abuses. Since the signing of the Lomé Peace Accord in July 1999, Sierra Leone has been between war and peace. Control of the country remains divided between the government of President Tejan Kabbah (first elected in 1996, ousted by the rebels in 1997, and then reinstalled in 1998 with the assistance of West African peacekeeping forces) and the RUF rebels that largely control the diamond-producing areas of the east. In recent months UN peacekeeping forces have established a presence in most of the larger towns throughout the country.
With the completed relocation of the border refugee camps in Guinea, the immediate threat to the lives of the refugees who have moved from the embattled border may end. However, protection concerns will still remain: for those refugees who opt to stay in the border area; for those refugees who move to the new camps in the interior of Guinea; and for those refugees who return home to Sierra Leone or Liberia. This report identifies human rights concerns for the refugees who will remain in Guinea.
1 U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) United Nations Consolidated Inter-Agency Appeal for West Africa, 2001, March 23, 2001, section 2, available at http://www.reliefweb.int/w/rwb.nsf/UNID/ FFD7A88BB538F8E0C1256A18005929F4.
2 President Lansana Conte came to power in a 1984 military coup, and has continued in office as a civilian president since 1994. In December 1998, Conte won a second five-year term in elections that were marred by violence, civil unrest, and the detention of major opposition candidates. The ruling Party of Unity and Progress dominates all branches of government, and a disproportionate number of government posts, including senior military and cabinet posts, are held by members of the president's minority ethnic group, the Soussou. The government's human rights record is generally poor, and members of the security forces commit abuses with impunity. Major human rights concerns include: extrajudicial executions; "disappearances"; arbitrary arrests and prolonged pretrial detentions; torture, beatings, and rape by police and military personnel; and inhumane prison conditions and abuse of prisoners and detainees.
3 See also, Human Rights Watch press release, "Refugee Women in Guinea Raped. Government incites attacks on Sierra Leonean and Liberian refugees; UNHCR must act"; and Human Rights Watch, "Testimonies from Sierra Leonean Refugees in Conakry, Guinea documented September 11 and 12, 2000," September 13, 2001, available at http://www.hrw.org/press/2000/09/guinearefugees.htm and http://www.hrw.org/press/2000/09/guineatestimony.htm.
4 Human Rights Watch press release, "Guinean Forces Kill, Wound Civilians in Sierra Leone," February 28, 2001, available at http://www.hrw.org/press/2001/02/guinea0227.htm.
5 Human Rights Watch, "Sowing Terror, Atrocities against Civilians in Sierra Leone," A Human Rights Watch Report, vol. 10, no. 3 (A), July 1998, available at http://www.hrw.org/reports98/sierra/index.htm.
6 Guinea has previously closed its borders in this manner: In August 2000, some 10,000 refugees were trapped on the Sierra Leonean side of the border, many of them women and children.
7 Human Rights Watch interview, Sierra Leonean refugee, Massakoundou camp, April 24, 2001.
8 Information provided by UNHCR to Human Rights Watch, April 2001.
9 Human Rights Watch press release, "No Safe Passage Through Rebel-Held Sierra Leone, New Plan Would Not Protect Refugees," April 3, 2001 and refugee returnee testimonies, available at http://www.hrw.org/press/2001/04/refugee-0403.htm and http://www.hrw.org/press/2001/04/sl-testimonies.htm.
10 See Amnesty International, "Liberia: War in Lofa County does not justify killing, torture and abduction," AI-index: AFR 34/003/2001, May 1, 2001, available at http://www.amnesty.org.
11 Under the 1951 Refugee Convention (ratified by Guinea in 1965), Guinea has an obligation not to return any refugee to a country where their life or freedom may be threatened. By closing its border and failing to provide safe asylum to refugees, most of whom are at serious risk of gross human rights violations in Liberia, Guinea is violating the most fundamental obligation of international refugee protection.
12 The links between Charles Taylor and the RUF date back. At the start of the Liberian civil war in 1989, when Taylor launched his National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) against the government of Samuel Doe, he was joined by Sierra Leonean fighters. The NPFL and RUF have assisted each other through the years, including since the July 1997 Liberian election that brought Charles Taylor into office. See also, Ian Smillie, Lansana Gberie, Ralph Hazleton "The Heart of the Matter: Sierra Leone, Diamonds and Human Security," Partnership Africa Canada, January 2000, available at http://www.sierra-leone.org/heartmatter.html; and United Nations, "Report of the Panel of Experts Appointed Pursuant to Security Council Resolution 1306 (2000), paragraph 19, in Relation to Sierra Leone," S/2000/1195, December 20, 2000, available at http://www.globalpolicy.org/security/issues/sierra/report/001220.htm.
13 UN Doc. S/RES/1343 (2001), March 7, 2001. U.N. Security Council Resolution concerning the Situation in Liberia Pursuant to Resolution 1343 (2001), available at http://www.un.org/Docs/sc/committees/