Almost one quarter of a million displaced Sierra Leoneans were resettled or had returned in their areas of origin by the end of 2002, according to UN figures, officially ending the situation of internal displacement in the country and further consolidating its recovery after more than a decade of devastating civil war. But many IDPs returned to areas with no basic infrastructure or social services in place, creating acute humanitarian needs and causing some to drift back to urban areas. Assistance for reintegration has mainly been provided for registered IDPs, not for the many thousands who were either unregistered, or who did not wish to be resettled for various reasons. Homelessness in the urban districts of Freetown remains a serious problem, which still needs to be addressed.
Background and causes of displacement
What had begun as a small incursion in 1991 by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) from neighbouring Liberia grew into a brutal campaign of terror against civilians that cost an estimated 50,000 lives and, at its height, forced almost half of the country's 4.5 million people to flee their homes (according to some UN agencies there were as many as 2 million internally displaced persons in Sierra Leone at the end of 2000, as well as several hundred thousand refugees in neighbouring countries).
The conflict was initially confined to the southern and eastern areas of Sierra Leone, but within three years it had spread throughout the country. Rebel forces twice entered the capital: first in May 1997 when RUF and renegade government troops (ie AFRC) established a military junta for nine months, and thereafter in January 1999 when the rebels terrorized and looted the capital before being driven out by Nigerian–led ECOMOG forces. A violent retreat by the rebels caused a new influx of IDPs and, according to the UN Security Council, hindered humanitarian access to most of the country. The Lomé peace agreement of July 1999 signed by the warring parties failed to end the violence – culminating instead in an escalation of hostilities by the RUF in May 2000, including hostage–taking of UN troops and further atrocities against civilians.
The conflict spread during the second half of 2000 across the border to Guinea, with the RUF attacking Guinean villages and camps hosting Sierra Leonean refugees – leading to armed activities by Guinean troops inside Sierra Leone. An outcome of this fragile security situation was additional internal displacement, as well as a return flow of Sierra Leonean refugees –many ending up in a situation of internal displacement as their home areas remained exposed to RUF terror.
The armed conflict and the widespread human rights abuses associated with it have been the main causes for internal displacement in Sierra Leone. The civilian population has throughout the conflict been targeted deliberately by the rebel groups, and severe atrocities have been well documented (e.g. AI November 1998 & HRW 26 May 2000 & 5 June 2000). It has also been reported that additional displacement has been caused by counter-insurgency operations by troops loyal to the Government (HRW 12 July 2000, OCHA 24 July 2000, HRW 7 July 2001).
Toward the end of 2000, the rebels gradually signalled willingness to re–enter the peace process. In November 2000, the Government and RUF signed a new ceasefire agreement at Abuja, which was reiterated in May 2001. The completion of disarmament in January 2002, marking the official end of the civil war, the country's parliamentary and presidential elections on May 2002 and the improving security situation, paved the way for large-scale return and resettlement of IDPs and refugees.
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Large-scale return and resettlement
Since April 2001 both the Sierra Leone government and the UN have made a concerted effort to resettle large numbers of IDPs, as well as returning refugees, and to gradually close down the IDP camps. At that time, the UN moved its focus from protracted provision of humanitarian relief to support of resettlement and recovery efforts, confident of advances being made in the peace process and increasing stability throughout the country. Indeed, by the end of 2001 the world’s largest UN peacekeeping mission was deployed across the country and the disarmament programme was completed. President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah declared the official end of the 11-year civil war, in which an estimated 50,000 people had been killed and up to half of the country’s 4.5 million population displaced.
Displaced Sierra Leoneans were assisted to return or resettle in accordance with the national government’s Resettlement Strategy, which applies to IDPs as well as refugees and ex-combatants with their dependants, and states that it will “only facilitate resettlement into an area when it is deemed that the area in question is sufficiently safe to allow for the return of displaced people in safety and dignity” (NCRRR, rev. October 2001). All but two of the country’s 149 chiefdoms had officially been declared ‘safe for resettlement’ by the end of 2002. Beneficiaries were offered resettlement packages, which included a two month food ration, household utensils, plastic sheeting, and in some cases transportation. According to UN OCHA, a total of some 223,000 registered IDPs were reintegrated in five phases since April 2001, the last 12,800 of them in November 2002. Many more returned home spontaneously. Officially at least, this left no more IDPs in Sierra Leone.
However, Government and humanitarian agencies acknowledge that the presence of “small pockets of homeless and squatters” in Freetown remain a matter of concern (UN, 30 September 2003). Although to address this need, the government designated the former Waterloo and Grafton IDP camps as settlement areas, in June 2003 there were still 1,500 people sheltering at National Workshop and other 7,500 at Clay Factory (UN OCHA, 30 June 2003).
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Return to new hardship
There has been harsh criticism, most notably by MSF, of the government-led resettlement programme. MSF claimed that the government, with the UN, has practically forced people to return – ahead of elections and ahead of the planting season in order to avoid food aid dependence for another agricultural season; that in many cases return could not be described as voluntary because IDPs were not given the information to make an informed decision; that inadequate support during both the transit and rehabilitation phases meant that IDPs were returning in neither safety nor dignity; and that in some cases resettlement was taking place to areas considered by the UN as too dangerous for its own staff (MSF, 12 April & 21 May 2002). Similarly, the US-based Women’s Commission reported that, “while [IDP and refugee] returns have been deemed ‘voluntary,’ in reality they have faced enormous security, political and socio-economic pressures in their attempt to return home” (WCRWC, 31 October 2002).
Though since the beginning of 2003 some progress has been made towards reintegration in areas of return, much is yet to be done to re-establish livelihoods. Access to basic services in many areas of high resettlement need to be improved. Out of 150 chiefdoms, FAO ranked more than half as “high” or “extremely vulnerable”. Opportunities to enhance the reintegration of youth remain inadequate to meet the real need (UN, 30 September 2003).
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Widespread human rights abuses committed to differing degrees by all sides to the conflict have been the main cause of internal displacement in Sierra Leone, and lack of adequate protection of internally displaced populations has been a major cause for concern. One reason for this was the collapse of the national law enforcement system. Large parts of the country were for a long time without police presence, and the national army was disbanded after its involvement in the 1997 military coup. Civilians outside rebel-held areas received some protection from civil defence militia and the West African ECOMOG forces. However, as reported by Human Rights Watch, the merciless atrocities by the rebel forces in January 1999 against civilians in Freetown revealed a situation of inadequate protection of civilians throughout the country. During the 1999-2000 period when the ‘peace process’ was still intact, there were reports of rebel abuses against IDPs even within areas apparently under government control (HRW, 3 March 2000).
The Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels regularly abducted children, and both Amnesty International and Save the Children (SCF) reported that the use of children as combat soldiers both by RUF and pro-government forces continued during 2000. According to SCF, children constituted about 60 percent of IDPs and as many as 1.8 million children may at some time have been displaced since the outbreak of the war in 1991 – making them extremely vulnerable. More than 5,000 parents reported their children missing in the wake of the rebel attack on Freetown in January 1999 (UN OCHA, 6 December 2000).
Women have also been exposed to grave human rights abuses by fighters on all sides to the conflict. A study by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), published in January 2002, revealed the extent of war-related sexual abuse against IDPs. One year later, a report by Human Rights Watch highlighted the ‘widespread and systematic sexual violence’ suffered by thousands of women and girls during the conflict in Sierra Leone (HRW, 15 January 2003).
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A lasting peace?
Progress was seen in the commencement of work by both the South-African style Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the Special Court – mandated to arrest, try and convict those guilty of war crimes in Sierra Leone since November 1996 (Mail & Guardian, 11 October 2002). Clearly though, apart from the attention focused on the atrocities violating right to life and physical integrity, the Commission concentrates very little investigative efforts and public attention on the pattern, conditions and impact of a less high profile violation as forced displacement.
While the stability in Sierra Leone has improved, several causes for concern remain. The extremely volatile situation in neighbouring Liberia continues to threaten border areas. The influx of refugees from Liberia has once again heightened tensions and ultimately has had an impact on the humanitarian situation in Sierra Leone. The major downsizing of the UN peacekeeping force, UNAMSIL by 75% by the end of 2004, has heightened anxieties for many (USCR, 1 October 2003). Much will therefore depend on the Sierra Leone government’s ability to maintain security and to consolidate its authority in all areas of the country, which will necessarily entail effective, equitable management of diamonds and other natural resources. It is agreed that other root causes of the conflict in Sierra Leone – including unemployment, poor education, crushing poverty, widespread corruption and a culture of impunity – still need to be addressed. Until these issues are tackled effectively, Sierra Leone’s peace would remain a fragile one.
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