PRESS BRIEFING BY CHIEF OF OCHA EMERGENCY LIAISON BRANCH
Department of Public Information . News and Media Division . New York
1 February 1999
The humanitarian situation in Sierra Leone could be described as very serious with the likely possibility of further deterioration if the current political and military situation continued, Kevin Kennedy, Chief of the Emergency Liaison Branch of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) told correspondents today at a Headquarters press briefing.
Mr. Kennedy said that humanitarian organizations presently had access to about one third of Sierra Leone -- from Kambia near New Guinea down to Freetown, across to Bo and down to Kenema. That was essentially the lower third of the country. "It is not that the remainder of the country is under the control of the rebels, he stressed, however. "It is not -- it's just that the roads are intersected, we are not able to travel overland and we do not have sufficient security information to enable us to fly into some of the northern cities such as Makeni, Koidu and places like that." There was also a rebel presence in many areas of the country. Conditions could get worse if access continued to be constrained. "We also have very little information on the humanitarian conditions in northern Sierra Leone", he added.
Mr. Kennedy, who had travelled from 19 to 28 January to Conakry, New Guinea, and subsequently to Sierra Leone with Abdul Majid Hussein, Deputy Director of the United Nations Children's Fund's (UNICEF's) Emergency Relief Programme, said that the visit had been to provide support to the humanitarian response to the current crisis in Sierra Leone. During that period they had worked with the Secretary-General's Special Representative in Sierra Leone, Francis Okelo, as well as with the Organization's agencies, non-governmental organizations and the Government of Sierra Leone.
At the moment, the focus of humanitarian efforts in Sierra Leone was on Freetown, Mr. Kennedy went on to say. The battle for that city, which began on 6 January, continued up to now -- at least in some isolated areas in the eastern part of the city. It was conservatively estimated that approximately 3,000 civilians had lost their lives, largely as a result of a deliberate campaign by rebel forces to terrorize the population through forced amputations, shootings, house burnings and rapes. Of the city's 1 million residents, approximately 150,000, dislocated from their homes due to the fighting, had moved from eastern to western Freetown. They had been established in about six major sites in western Freetown, where they were currently being assisted by the Government, United Nations agencies and non- governmental organizations.
Mr. Kennedy said that the most acute priorities right now were medical, health and sanitation needs. The initial problem of the many corpses in the city had been largely resolved. The conditions in the medical facilities -- hospitals and clinics -- were fairly desperate. "We have been able in the last seven to 10 days to deliver supplies and to re-establish approximately 23 health clinics in the central and western parts of Freetown, but as yet still have very little access to the eastern part of the city in terms of providing assistance or in assessing the needs of the population there", he said.
Referring to the water situation in Freetown, which had never been very good, Mr. Kennedy said water had been cut off in the east but had been maintained in the central and western parts of the city, which had been of some assistance to humanitarian work. After it had reopened, the city's major hospital had received approximately 300 surgical cases in five days, which was an extraordinary patient load. Most of those patients were conflict-related -- either gunshot wounds or forced amputations. "We have been able to deploy within the last four of five days teams, including surgical teams, to assist the Government with patient care."
The food situation in Freetown was serious but not acute, Mr. Kennedy told correspondents. After an initial surge in food prices, during which the price of a bag of rice had increased by 300 per cent, there had been a return to a level just a little above pre-fighting costs. World Food Programme (WFP) non-governmental organizations had begun a fairly large food distribution programme in the city. They were currently delivering to six different sites. Their efforts, however, were somewhat hampered by the lack of transport on the ground. Many trucks had been destroyed during the fighting. In addition, many WFP warehouses in the eastern part of the city had been looted, resulting in losses of 3,000 metric tonnes of food. Additional food was being brought in from outside the country.
Mr. Kennedy said that there was a lack of good information on the status and well-being of the approximately 12,000 Liberian refugees who lived in the Freetown area and elsewhere in Sierra Leone. The concern was that, given tensions between Liberia and Sierra Leone, those people might be unfairly targeted for alleged sympathies with the rebel forces.
"We have been able to distribute a fair amount of medical supplies in Sierra Leone", he said. "In addition to the opening of the 23 health clinics, we have distributed in excess of 25 tonnes of surgical supplies." He noted the assistance of the Government of the United Kingdom, in particular the Royal Navy Ship in Freetown's harbour, which was proving helpful for getting supplies into the city. Transport was very difficult and the international members of non-governmental organizations and agencies had been evacuated to Conakry and now flew in and out of Freetown on a daily basis. Helicopters were limited, however, and it was not easy to get assistance from point A to point B, he noted.
Shelter was another area of concern, Mr. Kennedy noted. While access to eastern Freetown was limited, flyers in the region had indicated that about 80 per cent of the buildings in that area had either been damaged or destroyed by the fighting. There was therefore an urgent need for shelter. "We are in the process of shipping in plastic sheeting and community health sets for 10,000 families", he added.
While humanitarian assistance in very difficult circumstances could be continued in the near-term, Mr. Kennedy said, "we are obviously interested in a political solution or ceasefire that will enable us to meet more people and we are following such efforts very closely".
A correspondent wanted to know whether medical care was in place for the people who were handling the rash of forced amputations. Mr. Kennedy said he did not think it was. One of the larger problems of getting people into the city involved security. Fighting was continuing. While it was of lesser intensity than it had been one week to 10 days ago, it was still ongoing, with troop movements throughout the city. It was therefore not easy way to get people in.
Responding to a question on the difficulty of doing his work in the current atmosphere, Mr. Kennedy said it was difficult for all United Nations agencies in Sierra Leone. "We were able to get into Freetown twice. We had three other visits to either Freetown or Kenema cancelled for security reasons." That was illustrative of the problems faced by everyone, he stated, adding, "Today in Freetown, we have been able to deploy two separate teams. One is a security assessment team with people from the United Nations Security Coordinator's Office who would remain on the ground for the next four days to get better assessments of the security situation and come to the kind of arrangements that will enable humanitarian work to go forward. There is also a very large international humanitarian team in Freetown today working with the Government in its response."
Replying to question about the number of people at risk in the inaccessible two thirds of the country, Mr. Kennedy said that from a security perspective, many people in that part of the country were at risk, given that the track record of rebel forces as they moved in and out of various cities and towns had not been very good. He imagined that many people who lived in those villages had gone into the bush to avoid contact with rebels. In the short term, with regard to basic survival needs, such as food, people were probably fine -- the longer term would obviously be very difficult. "We are now rather limited since the international community pulled out of many of these towns during December 1998 and radio communication is more or less non- existent", he said.
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