UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA - AFRICAN STUDIES CENTER
SIERRA LEONE: IRIN Special report on humanitarian mission to RUF-held area
ROKUPR, Sierra Leone, 2 July 1999 (IRIN) - A one-day mission this week to Rokupr in western Sierra Leone marked the first time a humanitarian team had gained access to a rebel-controlled area since the return of aid agencies to Freetown in March 1999.
Aid agencies had been evacuated from Rokupr, some 120 km from Freetown, following a January offensive in which the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) gained control of about two-thirds of the country.
Led by Medecins sans Frontiers, the mission also included representatives from the UN Humanitarian Assistance Coordination Unit (HACU), Action contre la Faim (ACF) and IRIN. Its itinerary: Rokupr via Port Loko town and Mange, both under ECOMOG control, and Romeni Curve village, held by the RUF.
In Port Loko, Chief Superintendent Munu, the senior police officer in the area, said there had been reports of "acute shortages of food and medical supplies in Makeni", the largest town in northern Sierra Leone held by the RUF. However, other observers said the rebels had made efforts to feed these civilians.
The checkpoint at the entrance to Romeni Curve was manned by a boy carrying a semi-automatic weapon who said he was 11 years old, had been captured by rebels in April while selling wares in Rokupr, but enjoyed being a rebel. "Me na junta," he said in the Krio language, meaning that he was a member of the RUF. He added, though, that he would have liked to see his mother, who was living in nearby Rosunio.
Romeni Curve was controlled by eight rebels, two of them children under the age of 15, local sources said. They also reported that two women who had been abducted from Freetown were being used as sex slaves.
A local resident said each family head had to pay 1,000 leones per day (about US 50 cents) to the RUF so that they could buy food. He said that he was struggling to pay up as his sole source of income was the sale of palm oil in Rosunio village. "We are not happy. We live in God's power," he said.
However, he did say that the RUF - whom he described as "his brothers" - treated the civilians well so long as they gave them enough food.
The humanitarian team waited for two and a half hours at Romeni Curve before getting clearance to proceed to Rokupr. A local commander said he knew of the Lome statement signed by his leader, Foday Sankoh, guaranteeing humanitarian agencies "free and unhindered" access to areas under RUF control, but needed clearance from senior regional commanders before allowing the team to go on.
The mission continued only after the RUF area commander arrived. During the 20-minute drive to Rokupr, civilians on the side of the road, many of whom carried parcels of food, started cheering when they saw the white four-wheel-drive vehicles. However, many of the houses on the side of the road had been destroyed.
On arrival in Rokupr the team was introduced to an RUF brigade commander, Colonel Bondema. He was in charge of the area which included Kambia, near the Guinean border to the north.
Wearing a tracksuit and slippers, Bondema was flanked by two of his officers: one was wearing a jean suit, sunglasses and a beret, the other wore khaki trousers and a singlet. At least 10 senior RUF officials were present at the meeting. Teenage guards toting semi-automatic rifles hovered around.
The meeting started with the Lord's Prayer. Then, Bondema told the humanitarian team he was not authorised to allow aid agencies to start relief operations in Rokupr. Clearance had to be given directly by RUF Brigadier Dennis Mingo, alias "Superman", from the RUF High Command in Makeni.
The RUF deputy commander, Lieutenant Colonel Bai Bureh, said his men took orders directly from Makeni and that his main priority was to fight the war. "We are the young lions, the frontline troops," Bureh said.
The meeting was also attended by a delegation led by the Chairman of the Civic Community, the highest ranking civilian in Rokupr. He said he was willing to cooperate with future humanitarian missions. However, an HACU official, Andrew Cox, told IRIN: "Like all other areas of the country, the provision of humanitarian relief in Rokupr will depend on a full assessment of needs being made."
There was little time to conduct a proper assessment, but the team could see that the market was busy, with goods boated in from Guinea and Freetown. Two trucks from Makeni offloaded cassava and there were plenty of rice nurseries by the roadsides.
" I am encouraged by signs that some preparations have been made for rice planting," Cox said.
ECOMOG and its allies control at least 15 checkpoints between Freetown and Port Loko town, some manned by Kamajor militiamen, recognisable by the talismans around their necks. Areas under RUF control such as the bush west of Masiaka and Rogberi Junction were demarcated by white flags tied to posts. This area is known as the Occra Hills, where the RUF has a base. There were very few checkpoints in RUF areas.
There were many reports from reliable sources of civilians fleeing the bush for urban areas such as Port Loko and Mange. According to HACU this is a familiar pattern as civilians tend to congregate in areas under ECOMOG control, when they are able to do so.
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Copyright (c) UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 1999
Editor: Dr. Ali B. Ali-Dinar, Ph.D
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