Refugee Tide Swells in West Africa

By Douglas Farah
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 13, 2001; Page A01


KATKAMA REFUGEE CAMP, Guinea – Tens of thousands of refugees, abandoned months ago by international relief agencies, are struggling to escape a spreading war in West Africa, creating what U.N. officials call one of the most serious humanitarian crises in the world.

Over the weekend, about 25,000 refugees from Sierra Leone and Liberia fled camps near Guinea's southern border, where fighting among a variety of armies and guerrilla factions has intensified in recent weeks. Most made the trip north to this abandoned refugee center on foot, some walking dozens of miles with babies strapped to their backs and their meager possessions in bundles on their heads. Many begged for food and water as they sat on a dusty expanse under the tropical sun.

U.N. officials said that at least 180,000 more refugees are hiding in the jungle as they struggle northward to safety. Since December, hundreds and perhaps thousands of refugees have been killed in fighting near the Guinean border or died of starvation and hardship, according to refugees, humanitarian workers and Guinean officials.

"Humanitarian groups have little access to the areas of most fighting, but we must do more – and do it quickly," said Ewald Stals, refugee coordinator for the medical aid group Doctors Without Borders. "At the rate we are going it will take us six months just to move the people, and we don't have six months. We have virtually no time to get them out of a very, very dangerous situation."

For much of the past decade, Guinea has been home to a half-million refugees from its two southern neighbors, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Although it is one of the world's poorest countries, Guinea offered a measure of safety for people fleeing civil wars that ravaged those countries. About half of them settled here in a tropical forest region called the Parrot's Beak, which juts into Sierra Leone.

But Guinea is no longer peaceful. Since late last year, fighting among at least six different rebel groups and the armies of all three countries has turned the area into a virtual free-fire zone where established refugee camps have been razed, according to fleeing refugees and relief workers who have visited the area recently.

Diplomats and military officials say the escalation of fighting could have dire consequences for a part of Africa that has been plagued by wars and civil strife since the late 1980s. The conflict threatens to destabilize the government of Guinean President Lansana Conte, jeopardizes the fragile peace process in Sierra Leone and has brought war back to Liberia, a country that has been at peace for four years. It is also spurring an expensive arms race among impoverished countries.

Because of growing security concerns, humanitarian organizations pulled out of the border camps in recent months. A few still work from the town of Kissidougou, about 20 miles north of here.

Last week, Soren Jessen-Petersen, assistant U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, called the refugee crisis here the "most serious" the U.N. refugee agency is facing; on Sunday, Rudd Lubbers, the head of the U.N. agency, visited this camp and another and said it is time to acknowledge that the area is "in a situation of war. Lubbers said he is seeking to persuade all sides in the conflict to allow a "humanitarian corridor" to be opened to allow the refugees out and relief supplies in. "We have seen enough misery for the hundreds of thousands of people here," Lubbers said.

As they flee, many of the displaced thousands are finding scant refuge deeper in Guinea. President Conte stirred up a violent backlash against the foreigners in September, when, following attacks on Guinean troops by a rebel group, he demanded that all refugees be expelled as rebels and authorized civilian militiamen to serve as vigilantes in the camps.

"We are not rebels; we are refugees who have run away from the rebels already once," an angry May Katah of Sierra Leone said at nearby Massakoungou camp. "What army goes to fight with pregnant women? With children strapped to their backs? With bundles on their heads? Not one."

Moses Kiki, like most people interviewed here, fled to Guinea in 1998 when the civil war in Sierra Leone entered a particularly brutal phase – the rebel Revolutionary United Front's "Operation No Living Thing." From February to April of that year, the RUF burned villages, raped women, kidnapped children to serve as soldiers and hacked off the arms and legs of thousands of civilians in eastern Sierra Leone, an area abutting the Parrot's Beak.

"So you see, our suffering has been big and our struggle abundant," said Kiki, cradling one of his five young children while his wife tried to nurse a baby whose eyes were covered with yellow fluid. "We lived in the war, we fled the war, and now the war has come back to us."

Intelligence analysts and military sources say it is difficult to assess the size and strength of each armed group in the region. The most visible force is the Guinean army, which recently purchased several Russian helicopter gunships and hired Ukrainian crews to fly them, sources said. The gunships have been used to inflict heavy casualties on rebel groups, but civilians also have come under fire. The town of Gueckedou, 15 miles south of here, has been reduced to rubble in the past week as the gunships repeatedly strafed the area to drive out rebels.

The Guinean army is allied with a Liberian guerrilla force known as ULIMO-K, which is seeking to overthrow Liberian President Charles Taylor, sources said. In recent weeks ULIMO-K – which fought Taylor's rebel group during Liberia's 1989-97 civil war and sought sanctuary in Guinea when that war ended and Taylor was elected president – has split into at least three factions, one of which is now fighting the other two and is responsible for much of the recent mayhem, the sources said.

Taylor has sent Liberian troops into Guinea to fight ULIMO-K, the sources said, and his troops also have battled the Guinean army. In addition, Taylor has pressured RUF rebels in Sierra Leone – with whom he is allied – to stage incursions into Guinea to tie down Guinean troops, they said. Like the Guineans, Taylor has purchased two combat-capable Russian helicopters and hired Ukrainian crews.

The RUF, in turn, is allied with several dozen well-trained, experienced Guinean army officers and several hundred troops who are seeking to overthrow the Conte government, the sources said.

"You have an alphabet soup of organizations and people claiming to represent organizations in a deadly combination," said a foreign intelligence source. "Who has command and control? Who is really calling the shots on any side? Are a lot of them just bandits in the region? We don't know."

Such a volatile, confusing situation makes opening a humanitarian refugee corridor as proposed by Lubbers extremely difficult, sources said. Lubbers said he is willing to talk with anyone, including the RUF, to plead for safe passage for the refugees.

The U.N. refugee agency is able to move about only 1,000 to 1,500 people a day from here to Albadaria camp, 110 miles to the north. The people being moved, under heavy Guinean military guard, are those most at risk – pregnant women, the sick, mothers with infants. The refugees say that is simply not fast enough, and most are demanding to be sent home.

"We would rather die at home than die here," said Amad Jollo, a Sierra Leonean who escaped the border area with his wife but is separated from three small children who he said fled into the bush when shooting started. "We say please, in God's name, take us home."

But U.N. and relief officials say the majority of them cannot go home because they come from areas of Sierra Leone still controlled by the RUF and there is only limited capacity elsewhere in Sierra Leone to absorb them. So far, about 22,000 people have been voluntarily repatriated to Sierra Leone. Most paid heavy bribes to Guinean troops manning roadblocks to reach Conakry, Guinea's capital, where they were taken by ferry to Freetown, the Sierra Leonean capital. Those arriving at Freetown have been taken to camps near the town of Waterloo, 20 miles southwest of the city, where they are being housed in hastily erected plastic tents.

Several refugees displayed safe conduct passes they had bought for about $2 from Guinean soldiers to pass through roadblocks. An additional bribe had to be paid at each roadblock, dozens of refugees said. Many said all their clothes and other belongings also were taken.

"Our situation in Guinea and getting here was very, very terrible, and there was fighting all around," refugee Tamba Buma Saidu said last week at Lumpa camp in Sierra Leone. "The Guineans say because we brought the war to Guinea, we will suffer too. So they took everything we had."

© 2001 The Washington Post Company