A cruel war is raging in the West African country of Sierra Leone. The lack of attention from the international media makes the fighting no less tragic for its civilian victims. More than 250,000 refugees have fled this year to neighboring Guinea and Liberia; countless others are displaced within Sierra Leone. The only hope for stability is a regional peacekeeping force, which is not receiving enough support to be truly effective.
The most chilling feature of the conflict is the mutilation of civilians by the rebels. Victims are sent back to government-controlled areas with messages of defiance pinned to them. Hundreds of victims have been treated, but the actual number may be much higher since many never reach a hospital.
Sierra Leone has been in turmoil since 1991. This current round of fighting started in February when a West African peacekeeping force, ECOMOG, ousted a military junta and reinstalled democratically elected President Tejan Kabbah. Junta supporters fled to rural areas, where they've waged bush warfare. But recently, ECOMOG has begun to lose ground to the rebels.
The conflict could also have humanitarian consequences beyond the immediate carnage. Many Sierra Leonean farmers are displaced from their land, and harvests may fall 40 percent this year. Large quantities of international aid is needed to forestall famine.
Much of Sierra Leone is inaccessible to relief agencies, and the humanitarian situation, while certainly dire, is only vaguely known. Roads are unsafe, and relief workers can reach some regions only by air.
The lives of the 250,000 refugees who've escaped the conflict by fleeing to Guinea and Liberia are little more secure than their countrymen back home. In Liberia, 30,000 refugees are cut off from relief aid by roads made impassable by the rainy season. There are reports that Liberian soldiers are robbing and terrorizing these refugees.
In Guinea, 150,000 refugees are cut off from crucial food and medicine because a key bridge has been closed down by the Guinean military for security reasons. In both Guinea and Liberia it is feared that rebels may try to infiltrate the refugee camps and use them as a staging area for attacks into Sierra Leone, as happened in Goma, Zaire after the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
What can be done to remedy the tragic, deteriorating situation in Sierra Leone? First, ECOMOG should be reinforced. The rebels must be defeated or brought to the conference table, and ECOMOG is the only instrument available. It needs the moral, financial, and logistical backing of the international community. The US has contributed $3.9 million to help the peacekeepers this year - a start, but only a fraction of the needs of the badly pressed force.
To be effective, ECOMOG's mandate in Sierra Leone should be to combat rebel forces, protect the human rights of civilians, establish safe transport corridors to the northern and eastern parts of the country, and improve security for aid workers. An expanded mission of 70 UN observers was recently approved by the Security Council to advise, complement, and monitor ECOMOG, but this contingent is still too small.
The assignment of peacekeepers to Guinea and Liberia should also be considered to protect delivery of refugee aid there and to protect and separate refugees from combatants. A longer-term objective should be the disarmament and demobilization of armed groups in Sierra Leone and the initiation of community-based reconciliation programs.
A few months ago President Clinton apologized for American inattention to the 1994 Rwandan cataclysm. His attention now should be directed toward Sierra Leone to help that country pull out of its downward spiral of chaos and senseless violence.
* Natacha Scott and Larry Thompson are on the staff of Refugees International, a Washington-based humanitarian advocacy group. Ms. Scott recently visited Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia.