After having worked in partnership with the Sierra Leonean people for over 35 years, Catholic Relief Services is well-positioned to respond to the current humanitarian crisis caused by an escalation in fighting earlier this year.
Since the beginning of February, the agency has worked with international, national, church, and government agencies to assist displaced communities return home and resettle. Additionally, emergency food distribution and housing reconstruction activities started this year, are supplemented with the CRS/Sierra Leone's continued and originally-planned schedule of agriculture recovery, health, water/sanitation, and education assistance in the Southern Province.
The July 7 Peace Accord, signed by all parties in the conflict, has brought new hope to the war-torn country. Efforts are now underway to reach areas of the country that had previously been inaccessible due to fighting.
Emergency Activities Over The Past Months:
Following the signing of the Peace Accord, CRS/Sierra Leone has been in the forefront of providing humanitarian assistance to previously inaccessible parts of the country. In mid-August, the agency conducted an emergency food distribution in Lunsar, a town of approximately 20,000 people situated about 75 miles northeast of capital, Freetown.
This distribution of around 300 metric tons of bulgur wheat, oil, and lentils marked the first large-scale humanitarian assistance to reach civilians in rebel-held territory since the beginning of this year. The movement of heavy trucks along the main highway to Lunsar was hindered by the destruction of a bridge along the route. So as not to delay the distribution, CRS/Sierra Leone and Catholic Mission staff helped local community volunteers manually carry 135 metric tons of food aid across the stream to trucks waiting on the other side.
CRS/Sierra Leone and Catholic Mission staff organized a Food-for-Work project to aid in the reconstruction of the bridge. Once again, community volunteers received food incentives for collecting more than 50 metric tons of stones. With additional material support from the United Nations World Food Program (WFP), the Sierra Leone Road Authority completed reconstruction of the bridge in less than 10 days. By the end of August, dozens of humanitarian and commercial vehicles had already crossed the bridge, carrying essential food to Lunsar and surrounding areas for the first time in 1999.
Earlier this Fall, Catholic Relief Services, in coordination with other non-governmental organizations, distributed emergency food relief in the northern provincial capital of Makeni. CRS/Sierra Leone was responsible for distributing 260 metric tons of food aid to over 18,000 vulnerable civilians in its assigned quarter.
CRS/Sierra Leone also provided almost 500 metric tons of emergency food rations to approximately 38,000 displaced civilians living in displaced camps in Kenema and nearby Niawama.
The first phase of the Emergency Housing Reconstruction project in the Calaba Town area of the Freetown peninsula has been completed. In just five months, this project supported the reconstruction of 560 destroyed houses-59% of the houses that were burned by rebels earlier this year. For the average house, CRS/Sierra Leone contributes 40-45% of total reconstruction costs in rafter, zinc, nail, and cement subsidies. The homeowner assumes the remaining balance. This project has contributed to the resettlement of over 10,500 displaced persons.
The agency completed the reconstruction of 110 low-cost housing units that were previously burned by the earlier rebel incursion. At a ceremony with the Minister of Housing, CRS formally handed over the keys to the Sierra Leone Housing Corporation (SALHOC), who is responsible for managing the housing estate.
CRS/Sierra Leone Rehabilitation Projects Update:
Catholic Relief Services trained 140 community facilitators who will serve as teachers at 28 CRS-supported youth centers around Freetown. The training focused on non-formal primary education methodology, with an additional emphasis on community studies and peace education. These centers, which cater to displaced, orphaned, street, and other disadvantaged children, were forced to close following the rebel incursion into Freetown in January 1999. They form part of the CRS Community Education Initiatives project, which targets 5,550 at-risk youth in Freetown and Bo who would otherwise not have access to education.
On September 18th, several hundred youth planted 50,000 tree seedlings in the heavily deforested hills overlooking Freetown. This all day event marked the high point of Catholic Relief Services effort to reforest Freetown's "Lion Mountain," for which Sierra Leone was named.
Massive deforestation has led to major problems with soil erosion in the country. Recognizing the need, CRS/Sierra Leone has sponsored the nursing of 100,000 acacia tree seedlings, which are raised and cared for by local youth groups. CRS/Sierra Leone will purchase 142,000 more seedlings from the Forestry Division of the Government for planting on other parts of the Freetown peninsula, where soil erosion is already problematic. "Environmental problems have reached an unprecedented level in this country," said the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and the Environment at an earlier ceremony. "The quick response and clarion effort of Catholic Relief Services is not only to be commended, but emulated by other non-governmental organizations."
CRS/Sierra Leone's Agriculture Recovery Project is designed to help resettling farming families re-cultivate their fields and rehabilitate their livelihoods. During the first half of 1999 and through community-based organizations, the agency distributed rice seeds and tools to 7,000 farming families. Another 150 groups received 900 bushels of groundnut seeds and 5,000 bundles of cassava sticks for planting in community farms.
The agency also supports three mobile medical teams serving resettled communities in three rural chiefdoms. These clinics treated close to 4,000 patients a month, mostly pregnant women, lactating mothers, and children under five. Malaria and respiratory tract infections continue to be the most common ailments.
Background of the Crisis
Sierra Leone has been engulfed in a brutal civil war for the past eight years. In December 1998, fighting escalated between the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebel forces and the democratically elected government, which relies for protection on ECOMOG, a regional West African intervention force. By early January 1999, the rebels had managed to capture most of the Northern Province and launched an attack on the capital city of Freetown.
In a visit to Sierra Leone earlier this year, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the former President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, condemned the barbarity of the rebel attack, which featured a horrific scale of callous burning, mutilation, amputation, and killings. Drawing comparisons to the extensive Kosovo humanitarian response, she called on the international community to increase political and financial support to the beleaguered people of Sierra Leone. For its own part, the United States Government has become increasingly outspoken this year in urging the international community to help resolve the Sierra Leone crisis, particularly in light of the proposed departure of the ECOMOG troops later this year.
In May 1999, the Government of Sierra Leone and the rebel forces declared a cease-fire. On July 7, negotiations between both sides culminated in the Lome Peace Treaty, in which the government agreed to share power with the RUF until the next elections. All parties now agree that the combatants must be successfully disarmed and demobilized if genuine peace is to take root. Toward this end, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Sierra Leone in mid-October in an effort to jumpstart the delayed commencement of disarmament and demobilization.