28th April 2005
As I begin to write this latest update I have realized just how close we are to concluding the mission. It’s amazing to think we’ve been in Sierra Leone for more than 10 months now.
Thankfully the riots mentioned during the last update have ceased. The situation does however remain pretty volatile with teachers and student unions threatening to strike again if wages and allowances are not paid.
I’ve spent the last few weeks traveling extensively to border areas and have visited Kailahun, Masiaka, Kamakwie, Lungi, Port Loko, Kabala and Sinkunia amongst many other places.
My visit to Kailahun was in response to a recent incident at Yenga when a number of UN personnel were effectively taken ‘hostage’ by Guinean troops (GAF) on 26th March at the disputed border crossing of Yenga. Yenga is actually within Sierra Leone as per the 1912 border agreement but Guineans have occupied and farmed the area since 1991. This move was initially defensive to prevent rebel incursions into Guinea during the rebel war in Sierra Leone but they have steadfastly refused to budge ever since. Numerous attempts have been made at securing the withdrawal of the GAF without success and this process remains ongoing.
I had previously visited the Yenga crossing point earlier in the year without incident but on 26th March the Guineans became agitated at the attempts of some staff to take photographs of their defensive positions and weaponry. The situation deteriorated further when staff members attempted to leave and a Guinean soldier stood in font of the column of vehicles before rather theatrically feigning that he had been struck and run over. At this point GAF troops drew weapons, including the obligatory RPG and stopped the UN staff from leaving the area. A demand was made for all film to be handed over but it soon became apparent that the Guineans were unable to grasp the concept of digital photography when memory cards were produced! The stand off continued for approximately 6 hours until senior GAF officers became involved and the UN staff were ‘released’. It was quite clearly an embarrassing situation for the Guineans but a nonetheless unnerving experience for the UN staff involved.
My task some days after the incident was to attend subsequent meetings where the intention was to smooth the waters somewhat and ensure all sides maintained a dialogue. This was to prove more difficult than at first imagined. A tri country border meeting had to be aborted when the Guineans and Liberians failed to show and the district security meeting the following day degenerated into farce when the coordinator spoke of mobilizing the youth and war against the Guineans! His tone was at best unhelpful and at worst down right inflammatory but the rug was very quickly pulled from under his feet so to speak. The situation on this particular border remains tense.
During another patrol and OSD arms inspection to Port Loko we found the department had several more SLR’s (old Belgium FN Self Loading Rifle’s) than they should have had in their armoury. It transpired that the extra rifles were in actual fact former rebel weapons that had been removed by officers from the arms collection containers! These were recovered and removed from the armoury but it shows how much attention is paid to weapon safety in places like Sierra Leone. The weapons were in an awful condition but having said that many officers on armed groups have not actually fired a weapon, even in training, for as long as 3 years. Arms inspections are always interesting as inventories are inevitably wrong.
In Sinkunia we removed a machine gun from the station armory in similar circumstances. This was later discovered unattended on the helicopter with a live Chicken sat on top! A RSLAF officer had actually bought the Chicken in the town for his supper and left the poor condemned thing in a plastic bag preening itself under the seats on top of the weapon. The pilot was having a fit when we returned to the aircraft on completion of the inspection! He didn’t however take up my suggestion of releasing the Chicken to see if the vastly overweight RSLAF officer could catch it again! You get used to this sort of thing after a while!
I’ve also recently discovered the Tacugama Chimp sanctuary on the outskirts of Freetown. The sanctuary was set up in 1995 and is committed to the rescue and rehabilitation of orphaned and abandoned Chimpanzees. The Chimps enjoy a semi wild environment within the 100-acre rain forest reserve. The overall aim of the programme is to provide a home for confiscated and rescued Chimps, while helping to stop the cruel and wasteful trade of the species, thus securing a future for the wild population.
The ‘founder Chimp’ of the sanctuary and the dominant ‘Alpha male’ is a brute of an animal called ‘Bruno’. I was lucky enough to get within a few meters of Bruno when I last visited the sanctuary, as I was the only visitor that afternoon. I can also testify to his stone throwing ability as described in his ‘profile’ below!
When Bala Amarasekaran and his wife Sharmila first saw Bruno he was a few months old, and very weak. They paid $30 for him, (certain that if they had not he would have soon died), and named him Bruno – after Frank Bruno, the British heavyweight boxer who was fighting Mike Tyson that very day!
For a year he lived in Bala and Sharmila’s house, without a cage, and got into lots of mischief. When they rescued a second chimp, Julie, Bala erected a cage for them in the garden. When the sanctuary was built Bruno had to remain in a cage, as he was too large to go on the daily forest walks with the younger chimps. It wasn’t until the electric fenced enclosures were built in 1998 that Bruno was able to taste the freedom of the forest.
Bruno is now 16 years old and is a large, powerful chimp. He is wary of visitors and is painfully accurate at hurling rocks and stones at anyone he doesn’t like the look of. And his spectacular and impressive displays are hard to miss. However, to those who know him, he is an extremely affectionate and cheeky character. He keeps his group in order whenever things get out of hand (usually at feeding time) and is gentle and protective over the young ones.
For a sanctuary of this type to exist in a country that struggles to feed itself is truly amazing. The sanctuary survived the rebel war despite being attacked and looted on a number of occasions without the loss of a single animal.
It may be of interest to some that the Animal Channel on Sky TV have recently begun showing a documentary on the sanctuary and further details can also be found at www.tacugama.org
As a ‘mission’ UNAMSIL continues to downsize in readiness for the final withdrawal which is now expected to happen in December. Containers around the headquarters are being flat packed and shipped to other mission areas such as the Sudan. A good number of civilian police and military officers are being repatriated without replacement and as our own end of mission date – June 9th – draws ever closer I do wonder what will happen in the long term when this country no longer has the ‘crutch’ of the UN to lean on. I have my own views. The single biggest issue in countries such as Sierra Leone is poverty. This has never been dealt with despite the billions spent by donor countries.
05th March 2005
Firstly my apologies for the delay with this latest update which should have been written some time ago! This in the main is due to my posting to UNAMSIL Headquarters in Freetown as the Cross Border Security Adviser and a period of leave.
To conclude my last update, the body of the boy missing since Christmas Day 2004 was found prior to my departure from Moyamba. He had a fractured skull and broken neck and had been dumped in a river. One toe was missing and although impossible to prove, it is suspected that this was another ritual murder where the perpetrators were disturbed. Once again the investigation was a ham-fisted affair with little or no progress made up until the time of my leaving. Talk of sorcery and witchcraft is not something I will ever understand or miss.
My new posting as Cross Border Security Adviser covers the whole of Sierra Leone and provides excellent opportunities to travel, especially to the border areas with Liberia and Guinea. The third border is obviously the Atlantic Ocean. With disarmament projects in Liberia and the Ivory Coast in full swing the main issues have centered on weapons being smuggled out of Sierra Leone. Hardly surprising considering the fact that in Liberia an individual incentive of $300 is paid for each surrendered weapon, rising to $900 in the Ivory Coast. In Sierra Leone ‘community weapon collection programmes’ have replaced individual incentives and dependant on the amount of small arms surrendered a project such as the building of a school is subsequently undertaken. Whilst a trickle of archaic hunting rifles and the like continue to find their way into the collection containers it is estimated that approximately 30,000 small arms & light weapons remain throughout the country. This is based on an average collection of 200 weapons per chiefdom, of which there are 149, not including Freetown (A separate collection programme is planned for the capital where it is believed thousands of illegal weapons are hidden). It’s a staggering number given the fact that this country is now considered to be stable. Many are believed to be buried in remote jungle locations making them virtually impossible to uncover.
Another aspect of the position is to identify and record all known border crossings throughout the country. With such a porous border this is a fruitless task. Whilst some crossing points house customs, immigration, police etc the majority are little more than clearings in the jungle. Monitoring the borders is therefore almost impossible. Determined individuals intent on criminal activities can cross into Liberia or Guinea almost at will. Although it is clearly not part of the UNAMSIL mandate I have already walked and driven well into Liberia (UNMIL mandate) on a number of occasions without detection. This was in the main a point proving exercise to show just how easy it is. Systems for intelligence gathering on the borders are non-existent. Some crossing points have little more sophisticated tools than school exercise books in which to record names and other personal details.
The majority of my travel is obviously conducted by air. I am able to plan my own workload and visits and in addition each Saturday is spent escorting senior officers of the SLP & RSLAF, Customs, Immigration, Commonwealth community safety project team and the International military training group visiting border areas and conducting weapons inspection / collection tasks. This is extremely interesting and rewarding.
Whilst in Kailahun recently I was made aware of the existence of a building known locally as the ‘Slaughter House’. Villagers had initially been reluctant to reveal the location of the building but eventually an RSLAF Colonel was persuaded to allow us access. The notorious Foday Sankoh and his RUF thugs used the building to rape, murder and maim innocent victims during the war. We were escorted through a small settlement to a derelict, previously whitewashed stone building situated amongst dwellings. The building was without doors or windows and the external walls were riddled with bullet holes. Inside the walls and ceilings are stained brown with stale blood. A local police officer quietly informed me that as recently as 2002, when he arrived in Kailahun, the stains were still fresh. A bench and table used for beheadings and amputation remain in situ. Whilst the soldiers escorting the RSLAF Colonel looked away or stood quietly with their heads bowed I noticed villagers going about their daily business outside. Journalists who describe such places often claim their own blood ran cold. I could never really understand that sentiment but I can now. It was an eerie place to be and I have to admit none of us were keen to remain there any longer than was necessary to witness it. It was difficult to get people to talk but one soldier estimated that thousands of people were maimed or slaughtered here. I suspect the existence of the building is little known outside of Sierra Leone but I for one will never forget it.
(Sankoh was detained by the GoSL in 2000 and whilst being tried for war crimes died in custody on 29 July 2003 of complications resulting from a stroke the previous year.)
Since my return from leave, Freetown has seen strikes by ‘students’, teachers and war widows over the failure of the GoSL to pay allowances and salaries. The truth of the matter is the GoSL do not have the funds to meet their obligations. The strikes somewhat predictably turned to violence and police shot 3 people, including a 13-year-old schoolgirl who was the victim of a negligent discharge. One individual has since died. Police vehicles were attacked and damaged, roads were blocked and at one stage 4 SLP officers were taken hostage. More worryingly several SLP officers were seen to discard their uniforms and mingle into the crowd. Officers inside one station ran from the back as students from the front attacked them. The students briefly took over the station itself. Tear gas was used to disperse crowds.
An uneasy calm has now been restored after the signing of an agreement between the GoSL and the student union that all salaries and allowances will be paid in full. However, this agreement has yet to be met and it is widely anticipated that the strike will resume shortly. Reports of ex combatants traveling to Freetown from the provinces add to the concerns. Interestingly, the leader of the student union has since been impeached by his colleagues for signing the agreement with the GoSL in the first place and not representing their rights and views!
The strike restricted our movement in some ways for security reasons but it is a local issue and other than an increase in the usual monitoring and intelligence gathering activities our involvement has otherwise been minimal.
The benefits of being in Freetown are probably not obvious but include improved accommodation and food. I now reside in a complex, which includes military and police officers from Britain, Scandinavia, India, New Zealand and Canada. The complex has security guards supported by two ‘guard dogs’ (‘Rambo’ and his Mother!) that appear to hate the local population and attack anyone they don’t recognize! It is clear they have at some stage been badly mistreated and are now exacting their revenge! Whilst the accommodation remains basic it is a vast improvement to what I experienced in Kabala and Moyamba.
Local restaurants are acceptable and reasonably cheap. If nothing else they provide a welcome variation to my Chicken and Rice diet of old! Other attractions include hotel pools and several glorious undeveloped beaches within walking / driving distance. Prior to my leave period we even had a visit by Jim Davidson who performed in a local hotel as part of his work with British military charities. This was obviously very well received, even by the American ‘Charles Manson’ look-alike who was conveniently seated in the front row! (For anyone reading this from the South Atlantic Medal Association (Sama 82) you’ll be pleased to know that whilst Jim was talking about the various organizations & associations the charity supported we got a mention and a hearty round of applause to boot.)
Apologies once more for the delay with this update. Your continued contact and support is greatly appreciated.
Stuart is on secondment to the UN from the UK police his job is to mentor, advise and train the Sierra Leone Police which has been ‘extended’ to June 2005. He will then return to Lincolnshire Police although there is already talk of a further 6 month extension!!! It’s certainly a challenge.
Hello everyone once again. I wrote the following few paragraphs about a patrol & ceremony in Fadugu shortly before I left Sierra Leone to fly home on leave in September. It was too late to be included in September’s update. I wrote the entry immediately after retuning from the patrol. It had been an emotional day and I guess I was angry. I decided to sit on what I’d written until I returned from leave so I could read it again and see if I felt the same. Well I’ve read it again and I feel as strongly about the issues as I did on the day so I have decided to include it in this update, warts and all. Some of you will understand.
On 2nd September I attended an official UN duty in the village of Fadugu, some 15km South of Kabala. UN ‘dignitaries’ were arriving by helicopter for a ceremony at the site of a mass grave on the outskirts of the village. I have mentioned mass graves in earlier updates and in truth there are hundreds of them scattered about this war ravaged country. It is therefore easy to become slightly blasé about their existence, which is exactly what I’ve tried not to do. On this occasion I did attempt to detach myself from the emotion of the occasion but try as I might this proved extremely difficult.
There were in fact 3 graves at the site. Two were on one side of the road, dug into a clearing in the bush and marked with a pretty white stone monument. The third, across the tarmac road, was sadly unmarked and overgrown. The remains of 26 people were buried in the largest of the three graves. 8 lay in the grave beside it and 6 more were buried in the overgrown site. A hand painted stone of remembrance read:
“In memory of our beloved loved ones who were brutally killed during the civil war on the 11th Sept. 1998. Dedicated by inter religious council – Sierra Leone and people of Kasunko chiefdom.
Grave of 26
I would challenge any decent human being to remain detached when stood at a monument with the bereaved people of a village like Fadugu.
There appears to be no religious bigotry in this place. Muslim and Christian leaders stand shoulder to shoulder and prayers in both faiths are said by all. To witness such a thing is to wonder how the people of this country came to be brought to their knees a few short years ago. For me at least it is slightly easier to be detached from events such as WWII and stand on the great battlefields of Northern France or walk in the cemeteries there because it was before my time. To stand at Bluff Cove or San Carlos in the Falkland Islands is easier too, only this time because I was there. Standing at Fadugu is different because I was somewhere else in this world and I realised today that whatever I was doing on the 11th of September 1998 that probably seemed so important then wasn’t really very important at all..
I may have been dealing with some drunken teenager fighting on the streets. Maybe I was shopping or enjoying a beer with a friend. It matters not. The point I am trying to make is I really don’t know what I was doing on that day and neither would millions of other people around the world. It just made me wonder what ‘we’ were actually doing to stop what happened in places like this, and others like it. What were we doing to prevent it being repeated anywhere else for that matter? I’m ashamed to say I was glad when the ceremony was over and I could leave that place. I had driven to the site in a state of euphoria knowing that in 7 days time I would be starting my leave and preparing to fly home. 26 people buried here under a mound of dusty red earth will never know how it feels to go home again and I drove back to Kabala feeling quite alone and deflated. It was an emotional day and a sobering experience.
My leave in September seems such a long time ago now! The return flight was ‘eventful’ to say the least. Most of the Sierra Leonean passengers had embarked on a spending spree in the Gatwick Airport duty free shops and arrived onboard carrying everything from wide screen TV’s to large stereo systems! In addition most carried ‘suitcase sized’ hand luggage! The scrum for the overhead lockers had to be seen to be believed! One lady had a hat in a large hatbox that she was clearly very proud of. She went absolutely berserk when it was well & truly flattened by a boxed Sony computer system!
We left the stand about an hour late after the crew had somehow managed to stow everything and persuade everyone to be seated! They clearly hadn’t anticipated the fact that most of the passengers had also acquired new mobile phone handsets and began trying to ring Freetown almost as soon as we were airborne! Another squabble began as people began complaining of being sold unserviceable mobiles when they couldn’t get a signal from 36.000 feet! After an epic 6-hour journey we finally arrived at Lungi ‘International’ – Freetown. The final irony was watching box after box of electrical hardware being unloaded for use in a country that hardly has any electricity! It had had to be witnessed to be appreciated fully!
The Kabala U.N. civilian police team site was closed whilst I was on leave as part of the draw down of UNAMSIL and I have now been posted to Moyamba in the South of the country. I spent a week kicking my heels around Freetown before I was finally able to arrange transport to the new location. My driver, a Bangladeshi, arrived at UN HQ as promised and promptly reversed the vehicle into the main gate in front of me! Not exactly encouraging when faced with being a passenger in the same vehicle for the next 4 hours! The transport officer, an affable Irishman, was hopping up and down, going red in the face shouting, “I cannot believe he didn’t see the bloody gate!” It was quite hilarious although I doubt that my Bangladeshi colleague shared my thoughts! The journey to Moyamba was quite the worst road journey I have faced so far. Not so much for the condition of the mud tracks but for the standard of driving! For the first time in my life I actually felt travelsick!
My relief at arriving in Moyamba in one piece was soon tempered by the sight of my ‘accommodation’! Due to a lack of room at the civilian police house I had been allocated a room with the military and ‘a room’ was pretty much all it was. No bed or furniture! It was literally a room in a mud hut at the rear of the military accommodation compound. It was also surrounded by high grass and the prospect of snakes watching the ‘new guy’ moving in didn’t endear me to my new residence too much either! The Swedish Milobs team leader had a spare camp bed, which I ‘suffered’ for 3 long nights but as an alternative to the floor it could have been much worse! In the circumstances it was a relative luxury! It is often the case that somebody else’s misery is someone else’s good fortune and so it was when the Japanese civil affairs officer went down with Malaria for the second time in his mission and promptly resigned! He had a room with a bed at the civilian police house and I was delighted to be able to move straight in. The accommodation is basic but I do at least have a bed! Washing facilities again consist of rainwater showers with a liberal dose of disinfectant! There is also a calor gas stove for the preparation of basic foods such as corn and sweet potato chips. Some things however never change and the diet of chicken & rice (or rice & chicken!) remains pretty consistent wherever you go in this country! I’ve taken to buying food locally for breakfast & lunch with the proviso of ‘peel it, boil it, fry it or forget it’! Health is still the number one concern.
Moyamba itself is a small town with few facilities. It is a jungle location even more dense than Kabala. Our area of responsibility is large and visiting most locations means at least a 2 hours journey each way. The ‘roads’ are poor and most are little more than dirt tracks or former railway routes from the days of British rule. Other locations such as Bonthe Island are accessible only by air patrol. I’ve already visited most police stations and post’s in the region, which includes a Liberian refugee camp at Taiame that houses over 3000 people. I visited on 14/10/04 whilst a rice delivery from UNHCR was in process. It is quite pitiful to see the hunger on people’s faces in such places. The food allocation consists of one waste paper sized bucket of rice for a family unit and this is intended to last one month. The repatriation process is currently under way but with Liberia anything but stable it is difficult to see a speedy end to the suffering of these people.
Since arriving in Moyamba I’ve concentrated on interacting with youth groups (as explained in previous updates these are mainly former rebels / ex combatants) who suffer greatly from unemployment and boredom. Large numbers of fit, bored young men with nothing to do in any location is a potential powder keg. Football has become the common denominator and I spend most evenings with the local Moyamba Town football squad coaching and encouraging them. To my initial surprise there are some rather good players possessing well-developed skills, excellent ball control and good vision. What they lack is a sense of organization and ‘shape’ but taking into account the problems in this country as a whole this is hardly surprising!
On Sunday 17th October I arranged a friendly football match at the local stadium between Moyamba Town and ‘6 Battalion’ of the RSLAF (Royal Sierra Leonean Armed Forces) who are based on the outskirts of the town in a rolling encampment. The game was to be played at the local ‘stadium’ which was built as a leaving gift by the Nepalese battalion prior to their departure in June 2004. I inspected the pitch a few days prior to the game and found it to be mostly bare of grass. What did remain was totally overgrown so I organized the Army to cut it and mark the pitch. I had been offered a number of inmates from the local prison to do the work but the thought of a large number of rapists, armed robbers and murderers escaping while marking my pitch didn’t exactly fill me with the desire to secure their release for the afternoon! What I actually got instead of soldiers was a heard of Sheep but in truth they did a fine job! I never did get my pitch marked out! Clearly the Sheep didn’t understand the instruction! Next time I’ll insist on Goats. They are far more intelligent!
Kick off was arranged for 1630 but as this is ‘African time’ I expected things might not go quite to plan! At 1615 the nets arrived but there was still no sign of the two teams! Moyamba Town arrived at about 1645 and after we had been forced to remind the RSLAF of their commitment they duly graced us with their presence at 1700! I’d also been asked if it would be acceptable for the locals to provide a ‘band’ for entertainment. I thought this was a great idea, as the local township does tend to turn out for these occasions. The organizer requested that I collect the ‘band’ in the UN pick up. Totally illegal but something I was prepared to risk for the sake of community relations and hearts & minds! What I actually got packed into the back of my truck was a full on disco unit powered by a petrol generator! It must have been some sight to see a portable disco unit and about 15 locals crammed onto the back of a UN pick up gingerly making it’s way through the streets! Thankfully nobody was quick enough to hold me to account with a photograph! In truth it provided a fantastic atmosphere and soon we had a decent enough ‘crowd’ of well over 200 people.
The game itself, which I refereed, was a hard fought affair, eventually won 1-0 by Moyamba Town. The usual pitch invasion took place after the goal and as I was unable to start the match until 1730 it was almost pitch black by the time I blew the final whistle! The event clearly went down well and requests for further games, coaching and referees courses have since been made. One of the biggest problems in this country is people will partake in just about any organized event but are not inclined, almost reluctant in fact, to arrange things for themselves. I have stressed that whilst I will remain involved for the duration of my stay here they must begin to plan and organize events themselves. If I can leave behind an active football team it will be a small achievement
The South West Branch of the Manchester City supporters club had generously donated a set of club shirts, which I presented to Moyamba Town prior to the kick off. The look on the player’s faces as they tried on their new shirts made this well worthwhile.
Other highlights of the past month include the visit of the President of Sierra Leone to Moyamba on 21/10/04. This brought back memories of his visit to Kabala earlier in my secondment. We’d set up an elaborate security operation and had the helicopter-landing site pretty much surrounded with SLP officers and RSLAF troops. We were stood feeling pretty pleased with ourselves awaiting the arrival of the aircraft when it appeared, over flew us, and set down some five miles away in a totally unprotected farmers field! No such problems this time as the President came by ‘road’. The Freetown to Moyamba route is a little ‘uneven’ to say the least! His visit was in recognition of two newly appointed Paramount Chief’s and it was no surprise to hear the subject of possible ‘road’ improvements brought up in the presentations! It’s actually a quite shocking route even by Sierra Leone standards and only a couple of days ago we ‘lost’ another UN vehicle, which burst two tyres in potholes. The vehicle actually turned over breaking a window before finally coming to rest in the bush. Thankfully none of the occupants was injured. The road will apparently be rebuilt next February thanks in the main to a grant from the EU.
I’ve also recently become involved in another murder investigation I would describe it as distressing but at the same time interesting. A 12-year-old male child, initially reported as missing, has been found partly buried in a remote village. It was difficult to even get to the burial site as there is no road and the only option is a 13-mile walk each way. The legs of the corpse were exposed and the genitals and soles of the feet had been removed. Unfortunately ritual killings remain quite common in this part of the world and as a result of an ongoing investigation members of the boys own family, including his parents and grandparents together with the local ‘fortune teller / witchdoctor’ are amongst 15 people now in custody. It is believed the Father of the child actually sold him to the witchdoctor who in turn carried out the killing and removal of body parts. It’s a sad story. Of course ‘mentoring’ is difficult in such cases because for once we really don’t understand the culture and mentality of people who can do such things. We are still awaiting the only pathologist in Sierra Leone to attend and conduct a postmortem. Quite an unbelievable case.
It is now almost 5 months since I arrived in Sierra Leone. In many ways the time has flown by. It remains everything I expected it to be with new challenges and developments arising most weeks. For those of you who are not aware I was informed on my return from leave that confirmation of a 6 month extension to my UNAMSIL contract has been received from the FCO London & UN HQ New York and I will now remain in Sierra Leone until June 2005. It seems a long time to be away but the time does fly. To that end I’ve decided to return home for an extra leave period on 26th November to 13th December. I will then be able to return to the UK again in February and April before checking out in June. As always please accept my apologias for the impersonal nature of these updates but they allow me to share and record my experiences with everyone without the need to type the same thing over & over again! Thanks also for the continued contact and support through e-mail, which as you know is greatly appreciated.