ABIDJAN, 10 March (IRIN) - The international
community should not shift its attention away from Sierra Leone because
the country has made a "dramatic transformation", the UN Special
Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, Olara Otunnu, told reporters
in New York on Thursday.
The UN reported Otunnu as saying that Sierra Leone's impressive gains in the rehabilitation and protection of war-affected children needed to be strengthened and sustained by the international community. There was no doubt, he added, that the political and military investment in terms of peacekeeping and the material resources provided for Sierra Leone had made a big difference.
Otunnu said he was struck by the remarkable transformation that had taken place in Sierra Leone in the year and a half since the end of the conflict. The transformation was marked by the return of peace and security throughout the country, access to the entire territory, the return of displaced persons and refugees, the resurgence of commerce in various parts of the country, the holding of free and fair elections and an exercise in truth seeking, in which the country was now engaged.
The envoy hailed the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL), saying it was among the first peacekeeping missions in which child protection had been fully integrated into the peacekeeping operation, as evidenced by the deployment of child protection advisers. Another initiative, he said, was the Voice of Children Project - a radio programme for and by children.
However he noted that only 50 percent of Sierra Leonean children were in school. "More schools need to be rehabilitated and rebuilt. Teachers need to be paid more regularly, and training needs to be provided for teachers and retraining for those who have been out of commission for about a decade or so", Otunnu said.
He also expressed concern at the exploitation of children in diamond mining, particularly in Kono district.
"What you see as you fly into this district is a landscape littered with little lakes which are water-logged diamond mining pits. Then you see clusters of human figures," Otunnu said. "These are kids who stand in the water-logged pits all day scooping the earth and trying to sift for diamond grains. Then they get some rice at the end of the day. They work in the hope that one day they will hit a grain of diamond and get some real money. I was horrified to see this."
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