Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone Update: 6 May 2000

News and Press Release
Originally published
In October 1998, after more than 10 years of civil war in Sierra Leone, the IRC began operations in Freetown to respond to the population's enormous humanitarian needs. Currently, the IRC is implementing programs in Freetown, Bo and Kenema and, when security permits, will expand activities into Kailahun District. IRC activities are focused on enhancing repatriation and providing critical services to local communities.


Since the late 1980s, Sierra Leone has been plagued with internal strife through successive military and elected civilian regimes. The rebel group, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), led by Corporal Foday Sankoh and backed by Liberia, has brutally fought to overthrow these governments, succeeding finally in 1997. The RUF ruled for a nearly a year, until a West African peacekeeping force ousted them and eventually reinstated the government. Since losing power, the rebels have turned their vengeance on the civilian population, regularly committing egregious atrocities in their bid to regain power. Two rebel campaigns of terror "Operation No Living Thing" and "Operation Pay Yourself" were designed to loot, destroy or kill any living thing in the path of the combatants. The rebels used civilians as shields to advance through the country, and as they did, families were tortured and/or murdered, thousand of men, women and children had their arms or legs amputated and women and young girls were raped and sodomized. Anyone who refused to cooperate was killed. To bolster their forces, the RUF abducted thousands of children and used them as fighters, workers and sex slaves. The United Nations estimates that in addition to 400,000 Sierra Leonean refugees who fled to neighboring countries during the years of conflict, that at least 450,000 are displaced within Sierra Leone.

The war between the government and the rebels was to have officially ended with the signing of a peace agreement in Lome on July 7, 1999. Under the accord, UN peacekeepers were given the task of monitoring the demobilization and disarmament of combatants. The plan also required that humanitarian aid agencies be given access to previously unreachable parts of the country in order to provide needed assistance. Nevertheless, violence continues, resulting in sporadic disruptions of humanitarian assistance.


The IRC's central office in Sierra Leone is in Freetown, but the IRC's work is mainly in and around Kenema in the Eastern Province and Bo in the Southern Province. Since humanitarian aid has been available only to those who have found shelter in official camps for the displaced, the IRC has been establishing a presence in the countryside, where great numbers have been without help. In these areas, the IRC has taken a lead role in aiding and reintegrating war-affected children and adolescents, particularly former child combatants and survivors of sexual and gender violence. The IRC is currently implementing programs in the following areas: 1)Psychosocial support to children 2) Community reintegration of children affected by the war 3) Programs relating to sexual and gender-based violence 4) Reproductive health projects for women.

Child Protection Program

Psychosocial Support for Children: Many children in Sierra Leone suffered, witnessed or were forced to take part in horrific violence. Thousands were orphaned or separated from their families. For many of those children and adolescents who survived the horrors of the war in Sierra Leone, severe psychological effects remain that inhibit their development and well being. The IRC's psychosocial support program ensures that the psychological and educational needs and rights of displaced children and adolescents living in displacement centers are met through broad-based healing, educational and recreational activities.

Reintegration for Demobilized Child Soldiers: The IRC believes the success of Sierra Leone's transition to peace rests on the reintegration of former combatants into communities. The IRC is currently UNICEF's implementing partner in providing psychosocial care for children and adolescents being disarmed and demobilized in the Eastern and Southern Provinces. After initial screenings, demobilized youth are taken to IRC interim care centers for a range of therapeutic and educational programs designed to ease their return to family and community life. The approach involves group and individual healing activities, problem solving and socialization programs, skills training and group sports. Because community acceptance is a vital element in the reintegration process, the IRC works with local aid groups to conduct sensitization and education campaigns in communities where child soldiers are returning. We are also facilitating the creation of women's groups in communities to serve as a support network for returning children.

Cross-border Family Tracing: The IRC is working to reunite families from Sierra Leone who were separated during the war and to identify foster families for children who are orphaned. In Guinea, which hosts an enormous refugee population from Sierra Leone, as well as in Sierra Leone, the IRC is creating a data base of families looking for children and children in search of their families. Slowly but surely IRC tracing teams are reuniting families who have been separated for years.

Comprehensive Reproductive Health Program

Sexual and Gender Based Violence Aid and Prevention Program (SGBV): Sexual violence, including individual and gang rape, torture, amputations, mutilations and sexual slavery, has been a systematic and widespread tactic of militia forces to degrade civilians and to enforce obedience. In particular, alarming numbers of women and children have been severely brutalized while trying to flee unrest. The IRC is the only agency in the Eastern and Southern Provinces providing support to women and girls who have experienced sexual violence through the war, as well as general violence (domestic). Our activities are focused on providing counseling and facilitating medical care for victims, as well as advocating for legal action if the need arises. We provide sex education classes, which include topics such as contraception, sexually transmitted diseases, and normal sexual behaviors.

Reproductive Health and Safe Motherhood Project: Sierra Leone's maternal mortality rates are among the highest in the world. About 1,800 out of every 100,000 live births result in maternal death. In times of crisis, it can be fairly and sadly predicted that these rates are multiplied. Reproductive health services are still viewed as a luxury in Sierra Leone. The IRC is one of the main implementers of the "Safe Motherhood" program, spearheaded by the government, the World Health Organization, UNICEF and U.N. Populations Fund. In villages in the Eastern Province, the IRC trains traditional birth attendants in safe-birthing practices and provides labor delivery materials. We are also working to strengthen the referral system for birth complications.

Headquarters Contact Information

Sue Dwyer, Regional Director, West Africa Programs
e-Mail:, Tel: (212) 551-3086, Fax: (212) 551-3185

Holly Groom, Program Specialist, West Africa Programs
e-Mail:, Tel: (212) 551-3086, Fax: (212) 551-3185

Media inquiries to: Melissa Winkler, Director of Communications
e-Mail:, Tel: (212) 551-0972