Noting a "dramatic transformation" in Sierra Leone, following his recent visit there, the Secretary-General's Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, Olara Otunnu, called on the international community not to shift their attention away from that country at such a crucial moment.
Briefing correspondents at a Headquarters press conference this afternoon, Mr. Otunnu said that the impressive gains recorded in the rehabilitation and protection of war-affected children needed to be strengthened and sustained by the international community. There was no doubt that the political and military investment, in terms of peacekeeping, and the material resources provided for Sierra Leone had made a big difference.
He said it would be very unfortunate if, precisely at a time when tangible results were being seen and the country was poised to consolidate peace, the international community abandoned Sierra Leone and its children. Even as the United Nations and the international community continued to be engaged in other situations and their attention directed elsewhere, he hoped they would continue to stay the course in supporting the efforts underway in Sierra Leone.
He was most struck by the remarkable transformation that had taken place in the country in the year and a half since the end of the conflict, particularly so considering that the country was emerging from nothing short of a "decade of hell". 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 very much engaged.
On his recent trip, he saw more children who were better fed, clothed and attending school than had been the case on his previous visits. Many families had been reunited, and close to 7,000 ex-child soldiers had successfully gone through the process of disarmament and demobilization. Almost all of them had been well received within their local communities, he added.
Particularly significant was the work being done in Sierra Leone in connection with the protection of children, he noted. The United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) 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. The impact of their work was now very evident. Another initiative, he said, was the Voice of Children Project - a radio programme for and by children.
While progress had been made, he cautioned that there still remained equally important challenges ahead in Sierra Leone, especially for children. Despite the gains made in the field of education, only about 50 per cent of school-age children attended 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", he stated.
He went on to say that he was "horrified" by what he saw in the district of Kono, the main diamond mining area. "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. These are kids who stand in the water-clogged 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 out of this. I was horrified to see this".
The exploitation of children in that context was clearly unacceptable, he stressed. The Government of Sierra Leone had to take control of its natural resources, much of which he believed was still being exploited illegally and smuggled out of the country.
He added that he was very touched by the exemplary outreach of the UNAMSIL peacekeeping contingent to the civilian population and local communities. There was "wonderful rapport" between the local population and the contingent, which was helping to rebuild schools, health centres, churches and mosques, as well as providing special programmes for the blind and polio victims.