Perilous path to freedom

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A sick baby died in the African heat only hours before she was to be evacuated from the war zone in which she'd lived most of her short life.

She died amid a small knot of tired, desperate, and sick refugees who are among the estimated 2 million people who have been displaced during this country's two-decade civil war.

Early that Sunday morning they were registered for evacuation with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and told to wait for a helicopter. They waited for six hours, in temperatures that exceeded 100 degrees, even though the helicopter was a 12-minute flight away.

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Meanwhile, in what used to be the town square in this collection of roofless buildings, frustration and pandemonium held court. Soldiers with the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) mingled nervously with hundreds of Revolutionary United Front fighters and hundreds more refugees. A group of Komajors - the RUF's enemy, who had Kailahun surrounded - wandered through town.

A representative of Save the Children, a nongovernmental organization, argued with RUF leaders about which child combatants would be allowed to leave and which had to stay.

And the six young men and women of the UNHCR made desperate calls on their satellite telephone to Freetown, trying to cut through the red tape that would free the helicopter to evacuate their refugees.

In spite of the chaos, New Zealander Jonathan Andrews, UNHCR technical officer, called the day "a pretty good success."

The UNHCR's three-day mission to Kailahun offers a vivid illustration of the difficulty of providing humanitarian assistance in Sierra Leone. Relief workers not only have to contend with the needs of thousands of desperate people, but also with armed and drugged combatants and stifling institutional bureaucracy.

Three days before, the UNHCR team set out with 200 UN soldiers to assess the refugee situation in the country's notorious "Parrot's Beak." This far-eastern wedge of Sierra Leone lies between Liberia and Guinea, the country's warring neighbors.

After three days of traveling to besieged RUF outposts, they were able to convince the RUF to allow only 130 refugees to leave among the thousands they encountered. Save the Children was also allowed to evacuate 59 child soldiers.

Such authorization requires delicate negotiations with RUF leadership. "The negotiations with the RUF were not without their problems," says Save the Children program director Chris Robertson. "Indeed the release that took place on June 9 required some very intensive and sensitive discussions before final clearance was given by the High Command."

But the hard work had yet to pay off: UNAMSIL air command in Freetown wouldn't allow the refugees onto one of the huge Mi-26 helicopters without permission from someone with more clout than the UNHCR field officers in Kailahun.

Several hours passed while the situation was argued via satellite phone. Finally, the Mi-26 arrived in mid-afternoon with a smaller helicopter carrying UNICEF representatives to take the child soldiers to Daru. The makeshift airfield was ringed with people the RUF wouldn't allow to leave, including two 15-year-old RUF lieutenants with possibly fatal bullet and fragmentation wounds.

If the refugees couldn't get on the helicopter, they would have to ride with the Ghanaian convoy back to Daru.

At the last moment, a deal was struck, thanks to the intervention of Behrooz Sadry, the UNAMSIL Deputy Special Representative of the UN Secretary General. The helicopter would transport the children first and return on a separate flight for the refugees. By 5 p.m., seven hours after they were approved for evacuation, the refugees were airborne.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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