Sierra Leone's people take flight

As fighting erupted throughout the country this week, thousands of people trudged toward Freetown.

Reports of rebel attacks just 18 miles from Freetown have provoked thousands of people to flee their homes and move toward Sierra Leone's capital, Freetown, in columns that stretched for as far as the eye can see.

"People say the rebels are coming," says Maria Kamara, sweating as she trudges toward Freetown with a bulging sack on her head and five young children at her side.

"I have seen rebels once. I do not want to wait to see them again. We know what those boys do," Mrs. Kamara says.

While the largest United Nations peacekeeping mission in the world today struggles to protect the capital and salvage this country's disintegrating peace pact, a humanitarian disaster appears set to unfold.

Like most of the internal refugees on the move, Kamara has no food, no water, no money, and no place to stay. Who will tend to the needs of thousands of new internal refugees, now that virtually every international aid worker has been evacuated from Sierra Leone?

"I have no idea," says David Bard, volunteer chairman of Freetown's largest camp for so-called "internally displaced people" - IDPs. All the refugees interviewed along the road to the capital on Wednesday said they were heading for this "national camp" - an old railway yard that currently shelters some 11,000 homeless.

Some 5,000 people have walked through the gates in the past three days. "There is no more room for people here," says Mr. Bard. "People are going hungry. We have no food, no accommodation, poor sanitation. We are all choked up in this place. I think we are going to have to put a guard at the gate."

The World Food Program and other aid groups have helped people here in the past. "But we haven't had anything from them in ages," Bard says. "No one comes to ask what our problems are."

"Most of our staff are gone. We have two people now," says Abbey Spring, a spokesperson for the WFP, a UN agency which has at times seen more of its workers killed than peacekeepers. "Due to insecurity, staff had to be sent home.... We have food stocks in the country," says Ms. Spring. "The WFP is anxious to provide food to hungry people, but we're not going to create a worse situation by bringing out food when we can't provide security. An assessment team is there now and we're hoping to restart as soon as possible."

"We are concerned because most of the [aid workers] who were in charge of the IDP camps in Freetown have withdrawn at this point," says Laura Brav at Mdecins Sans Frontires.

Reports emerged from throughout the country yesterday of escalated fighting and increased numbers of refugees on the move. Six Kenyan peacekeepers were reportedly injured when Sierra Leone's army opened fire on them, mistaking them for rebels dressed in stolen UN uniforms.

David Wimhurst, spokesman for the UN mission in Sierra Leone, confirmed a clash occurred in Waterloo, the site of a sprawling refugee camp that housed thousands who had already lost their homes during eight years of civil war.

Some refugees fleeing Waterloo Wednesday talked of seeing armed rebels on the move. Others saw army trucks jammed with Sierra Leonean Army (SLA) soldiers speed toward the town.

Gangs of so-called kamajors - pro-government fighters who believe they have mystical powers - could also be seen screaming out of Freetown in pick-up trucks, wearing bullets across their chests, Rambo-style.

Last year, these fighting factions had all promised to put down their guns and cooperate with UN demobilization programs. Today, all of them are armed.

"We are fighting alongside our brothers from the SLA," says Abu Bakarr Rogers, a kamajor resting a rocket-propelled grenade on his shoulder. "We are going to save our country from the rebels. They will have to fight all of us now."

The Sierra Leonean government has given soldiers permission to arm - just weeks after many had handed their weapons over to peacekeepers. Mr. Wimhurst says only that the UN hopes the soldiers will "behave responsibly."

Wimhurst notes that what is happening in Sierra Leone are "outbreaks of violence" - not a return to full-scale war.

But many in Sierra Leone fear the horror is set to start all over again.

Tension mounted in Kossoh Town, nine miles from the capital, as two lone Jordanian peacekeepers manned a check-point here Wednesday, while a band of armed militiamen stood nearby. The Sierra Leonean fighters appeared to be on drugs.

"Get out, for your own safety," the Jordanian commander warned. "We don't know if those guys are rebels or kamajors or what."

Asked if they were the sole peacekeepers at this key roadblock, the soldiers replied curtly: "No." But there were no other blue helmets in sight.

At least 500 peacekeepers are believed to have been taken hostage by rebels. The soldiers have relinquished uniforms, guns, and even armored personnel carriers to guerrilla fighters, some of whom disguise themselves as peacekeepers.

UN troops even lost track of the feared rebel leader, Foday Sankoh, after his guards opened fire on thousands of protesters on Monday - and he has not been heard from since.

"Things have unravelled," concedes Bernard Miyet, the man in charge of all UN peacekeeping efforts, who flew into Sierra Leone to conduct a one-day assessment. "We have to take into account this new situation."

*Minh T. Vo contributed to this report from the United Nations in New York.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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