UNHCR needs $7.3 million for Sierra Leonean refugees in Guinea and Liberia
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees today issued an urgent appeal for $7.3 million to help refugees who have fled killings, mutilation and rape by rebel forces in Sierra Leone.
UNHCR's Assistant High Commissioner, Søren Jessen-Petersen, who visited the victims of atrocities and refugee camps in the border area in Guinea at the weekend said he was shocked by the experience. "The people who fled Sierra Leone are in terrible shape, and we have to do all in our power to help them. We urge donors to respond generously and quickly so that we can continue providing life-saving relief," said Jessen-Petersen.
Since early this year, 182,000 Sierra Leoneans have swept into Guinea and another 55,000 to Liberia, swelling the number of Sierra Leonean refugees in the two countries over seven years of civil strife to 530,000. The influx into Liberia has stopped, but small numbers continue to arrive in Guinea.
The amount needed by UNHCR should cover relief aid for the new arrivals in Guinea and Liberia through the year's end.
"This is a race against time since soon rains will turn roads into mud and our resources are running out fast," said Jessen-Petersen.
UNHCR has reinforced staff in Guinea and Liberia and is rushing in food, blankets, and jerry cans ahead of the rainy season. It is also working with other relief organizations to set up health, water, medical and social services in the camps.
Most of the new arrivals are women and children and many are suffering from severe malnutrition and various diseases contracted while hiding in the bush to evade rebel atrocities before they were able to cross the border.
Jessen-Petersen said he was appalled by the evidence of atrocities committed by rebels in Sierra Leone. "Those who turn their weapons against innocent civilians in this way are cowards and barbarians and should be brought to trial", he said, adding that the Sierra Leone case reinforces the urgent need to set up an international criminal court.
"We have to see to it that justice is done but also to deter such crimes in the future," he said.
The latest refugee exodus from Sierra Leone started in May 1997 when rebels took over the government in Freetown. It intensified this year, after West African peace keepers in February ousted the rebels from the capital, who then went on a murderous campaign of looting, maiming and raping.
Many victims were reported to have died on the road, before reaching safety in Guinea or Liberia.