afrol News, 4 April - While the RUF leadership is trying to present itself as peace-seeking rebels, a new report from Human Rights Watch (HRW) documents that the "rebels" maintain their terrorist methods. RUF are still raping, abducting and killing refugees fleeing camps in Guinea, HRW documents.
In February, the UN refugees' agency UNHCR reported that it successfully had negotiated "a safe corridor" for refugees stuck by the fighting in Guinea, so that these could be transfered to safer camps further inside the country or return to Sierra Leone. Many did not wait for the passageway to be established but walked on their own to Sierra Leone, where RUF rebels committed atrocities against them, HRW reported. HRW's report states that one cannot talk about any "safe passage through rebel-held territory".
The New York-based rights group reported that it had documented the abuses from December 2000 through mid-March 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," Peter Takirambudde, executive director of the Africa Division of Human Rights, said.
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.
Since early February, tens of thousands of refugees have been relocated from the border region by UNHCR. According to UNHCR, as of 23 March, 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.
Among the scores of returnees who gave detailed accounts of serious rebel abuses to HRW, 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.
The human rights group 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.
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. The rebels "said they were not going to kill us, but that they would use us until they would be satisfied. They also said they wanted peace," the woman told HRW.
Numerous women returnees described being abducted, raped and/or sexually abused. HRW 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. The group also 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.
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. Takirambudde says "the United Nations must not lend its authority to a scheme that will only mean more suffering for traumatized refugees."
- 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, HRW says. "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."