Rebel army cuts off 65,000 from vital food aid

Sierra Leone: Thousands more refugees flood into Freetown to increase pressure on humanitarian agencies as rumours claim Sankoh is dead
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The Independent Online

More than 65,000 civilians deep in rebel-held areas of Sierra Leone have not received emergency food relief for at least two weeks because of the renewed fighting in the West African country, the World Food Programme said yesterday.

"We are extremely concerned because we cannot get access to several areas and we cannot even go back and assess the situation. These people, including demobilised child soldiers and other displaced adults are in camps we cannot reach," said Aya Shneerson of the WFP.

The refugee crisis in Sierra Leone - which has seen the emergence of dozens of camps during the past 10 years of sporadic civil war and has spilled into neighbouring Guinea - has brought 20,000 new people to Freetown in the last two weeks alone. There are now an estimated 110,000 displaced people in the country.

Yesterday, more men, women and children joined Helen Kamara, 38, who has eight children and has lived for 14 months under a blanket stretched across two gigantic pistons in a former railway repair workshop in Freetown. "Everyone here wants to go home but most of us had our homes burnt by the rebels in January last year, so there is nothing to go back to," said Mrs Kamara, a hairdresser.

Yesterday, Peter Wento became the 9,687th arrival at the National Workshop camp on the outskirts of the capital. The frail old man, who is 78, has been fleeing war and butchery since 1991 when he left neighbouring Liberia to escape the civil war there.

"I am always running away. It seems like all I have ever done is flee from one refugee camp to another," said Mr Wento. The closest he has to a permanent home is the refugee camp at Waterloo, 15 miles south-east of Freetown, which he fled on foot to escape gunfire that seemed to be approaching at the end of last week.

Parok Bangura, 60, arrived at the National Workshop, one of six WFP camps in the capital, at the end of last week after leaving Masiaka, 38 miles away. "I just left when I heard gunshots. I did not wait for the battle. I know what the rebels can do. They do the worst things," he said.

Last year, Mr Bangura - who farms 15 acres and grows oranges, oil palms and kola nuts - watched child soldiers in the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rape one of his three wives then shoot her dead. They also raped his 18-year-old daughter, Adama, "but her sanity is all right because they did not abduct her for very long".

Everyday life at the National Workshop - which functioned until the 1970s when the railway ran out of money and was forced to close - is dominated by boredom and worry for family members who were left behind in the rush to escape the RUF. Everyone wants to go back but no one can be sure if they have a house to go to.

Hundreds of children run around looking for mischief. Boys and men play football. Around the Dickensian workshop, filled with cast iron machinery made in Sheffield or Halifax, women cook porridge from USAid soy meal. On the outside wall of a foreman's office on stilts, a sign with the words "a lazy worker quarrels with his tools" glowers irrelevantly down on the dispossessed refugees.

Ms Shneerson said that, until two weeks ago, nearly 200,000 people in Sierra Leone had relied on emergency food from the WFP. An estimated further 330,000 were not in camps and were receiving food and seeds to restart their lives at home. Of these, 210,000 people had seen help come to a halt. "This is the planting season so it is a tragedy that they have not been able to sow," she said.

* The Libyan leader, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, demanded an end to European interference in African affairs yesterday. "Europe must renounce its old colonialist policies. If they continue to foment coups, wars, assassinations and conflicts, if they continue to support one side against another, funding this or that and employing their secret services, it will only mean you have no intention of establishing a true cooperation with Africa," he told the Italian daily, La Stampa.

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