Navy stands by as Freetown suffers

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The Independent Online
PUBLICITY-CONSCIOUS even down to the prepared press information kit, the Royal Navy, in the shape of the warship Norfolk, sits off Freetown pondering how best one might portray one's role in this particular African humanitarian crisis.

"You wanted to take a photograph of a sailor leaning against a machine- gun on deck?" said Lt-Cdr Alison Towler, supplies officer with responsibility for public relations. "That really is not the image we need to project. The machine-guns are here to protect us. The ship is here purely in a humanitarian role."

On land, in the smoking capital of Sierra Leone, thousands of people sheltering from bullets and butchery in a football stadium would like to see the fruits of Britain's humanitarian role. Or the vegetables.

There was a press conference here two days ago with talk of 3.3 tonnes of British medical aid. But yesterday all you could get in Siaka Stephens stadium were some anti-malarials and diarrhoea cures from Unicef.

"The 3.3 metric tonnes was made up of stretchers, antibiotics, drips and anaesthetics from Britain," said Richard Powell, executive officer of the Norfolk. "On Wednesday, we delivered them to the health minister in person."

In this conflict, which began with the invasion of Freetown by armed men on January 6, there is little trust. The Nigerians in Ecomog, the West African intervention force, are tough soldiers. About 15,000 of them are here, backed by some Ghanaians and Guineans. It is their job to flush out the forces threatening the democratically elected government of President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah.

In a grubby war which has claimed up to 10,000 lives in a fortnight, the British are grateful to the Nigerians and their back-up, the Kamajor, pro-Kabbah bush militia, who take no prisoners.

There is no way any British lives are to be lost to Liberian-backed rebels who are said to ask: "Short sleeves, or long sleeves?" before they cut your arms off above the elbow or above the wrist.

They may be the saviours of ordinary Sierra Leoneans but no one here trusts the Kamajors or the Nigerians any more than they do the Lebanese, those traders known for dabbling in anything West African, from diamonds to shark fins.

The soldiers of Ecomog are underpaid, if at all, by the Nigerian ministry of defence and rely on gifts and kickbacks. That is why Britain is not keen to let Ecomog distribute 3.3 tonnes of medical aid.

Ecomog claims international charities have been aiding the rebels. It even claimed, privately, that the International Red Cross (ICRC) was running arms for the rebels. Publicly, Ecomog said charities had allowed the rebels to use their satellite phones. So it confiscated the phones, prompting all the medical charities to leave.

There is only one surgeon, Dr Mumba Kawa, still working at Connaught Hospital, Freetown, in a near non-stop struggle to save lives and limbs. A hall in the dilapidated hospital was full of bleeding casualties brought in by Ecomog soldiers.

"I have never seen anything like this since the latest fighting started." said Dr Mumba Kawa, his voice at times drowned by screams from the operating theatre. "I am very short-staffed. My people have been working very bravely day in, day out. All they are using is local anaesthetics."

Ousman Mbendu, 43, from Kissy, was brought in with a pair of jeans supporting one arm that was dangling from a slender strip of bone and ligament. The other hand had a deep gash where his watch used to be. Medical staff injected local anaesthesia, then one snipped off the hanging arm with scissors and tossed it nonchalantly into a bin. On an adjoining operating table a middle-aged man, clearly in shock, yelled: "Please don't cut off my arm. I am a businessman, not a politician." The rebels had already chopped it off.

On the streets of the coastal capital - almost unscathed in the west but riddled with snipers and attacking rebels in the east and port area - Lebanese traders are accused of cashing in. A chicken that cost 8,000 Leones (pounds 2) last month, is now sold for L16,000.

People are hungry in Siaka Stephens stadium. They are not starving. But they are sick with cholera. There is food in Freetown, even if it comes from warehouses raided by the retreating rebels and sold by their friends.

Britain, by sending the Norfolk has been a "godsend" a "champion of democracy" and "the boost we needed" say the people. Next week, its supply ship, RFA Oak Leaf, arrives, a further sign of Britain's commitment to helping President Kabbah survive without a Sierra Leone army.

Captain Bruce Williams is proud that his 182 crew - plus seven Royal Marines - provide "a presence". He said: "The Government is showing its support for a fledgling democracy and providing hope for Sierra Leone that there are people who care."

But the problem that has reared itself twice in 18 months remains - that Britain is supporting a democrat without an army against "rebels" backed by at least one neighbour, Liberia.

Britain wants to keep its hands clean; the rebels want power and they do not care how many limbs or lives are lost.