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SIERRA LEONE: Blue helmets quit, but “peace elusive”

Goderich, 14 December 2005 (IRIN) - The largest UN peacekeeping operation in its time is about to wind up but despite the broad successes of the mission, war battered Sierra Leone is still at the beginning of the long road to recovery.

“If you imagine that UNAMSIL was spread over the country like a beautiful carpet, well now the time has come to roll that carpet back, and what you might find underneath may not be very good,” said Daudi Ngelautwa Mwakawago, head of the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone, UNAMSIL.

In the village of Goderich, on the outskirts of the capital Freetown, blue helmets are packing up for UNAMSIL’s end of December departure after successfully restoring peace to a country wracked by a decade of the most brutal civil warfare in West Africa.

“Peace has come,” beamed Captain Parvez Chowdhury, of the fifth Battalion of Bangladeshi peacekeepers among some 8,000 Bangladeshi troops rotated through Sierra Leone.

“We were worried there may be some incidents such as looting when we started pulling out, but no such thing has happened, even in remote places,” he said as behind him troops dismantled the temporary structures they erected five years ago.

Bangladeshi peacekeepers on the first leg of their long journey home

During the 1991-2002 war gangs of drugged up fighters –- many of them children barely tall enough to lift their AK-47s -- wreaked a reign of terror on villagers, hacking off the hands, feet, lips and ears at will. The war claimed 20,000 lives, left thousands maimed and displaced half of the five million strong population, according to the government.

The barbarity of the Sierra Leonean civil war shocked the world and finally the UN established a 17,500-strong peacekeeping operation with the first troops arriving in October 1999 to restore government control and disarm and demobilise fighters.

Fulfilling those duties has not been without difficulties. In the early days of the mission as territories were being wrestled from rebel fighters, the UN suffered a major embarrassment. During a ten day period between end April and early May in 2000, more than 700 UN peacekeepers were abducted by flip-flop wearing rebels from the Revolutionary United Front (RUF).

And in August 2000, 11 British troops were taken hostage by militia group the West Side Boys, prompting a sweeping rescue operation that all but wiped out the West Side Boys fighters.

In Goderich, residents said they were sad to see the Bangladeshi peacekeepers -– whom they have nicknamed “the Banglas” –- leaving their villages.

“I am glad for the peace they brought to the country,” Ibrahim Diallo, a tall young unemployed mechanic told IRIN. “Now we can walk everywhere. During the war, nobody could move where they wanted to.”

Over the span of the five year mission, UNAMSIL has disarmed and demobilised over 72,000 combatants and collected and destroyed over 30,000 arms, explained head of mission, Mwakawago.

UNAMSIL has also built a new police force. Currently 9,200 new officers have been trained and by February, the new force will match pre-war levels of 9,500 officers.

“We were supposed to help the government extend its authority throughout the country,” Mwakawago told IRIN in his Mammy Yoko office overlooking the sea. “That has been achieved. There is not one pocket of territory you can say is a no-go area, the government is in total control over its territory.”

UNAMSIL head Daudi Ngelautwa Mwakawago hands over a bridge to Sierra Leone's Deputy Defence Minister Joe Blell

At a special ceremony Goderich villagers gathered to bid farewell to their Bangla friends. Abdoulaye Mohamed Bah, travelled from nearby Toke village where he is the chief Imam, to say his farewells.

“They built four classrooms, supplied books at the mosque, every week they came to the village and gave free medical care and supplied food for the children,” Bah told IRIN as he hurried to take his place at the ceremony.

The international force is leaving behind schools, hospitals, clinics, laboratories and newly built bridges which are being handed over to the peacetime government in a series of small ceremonies.

UNAMSIL has also made strides in restoring the country’s diamond mines to government control.

The control and sale of the valuable and easily mined alluvial gems or “blood diamonds” of eastern Sierra Leone were the driving force of the civil war.

Through UNAMSIL’s efforts, official government earnings from diamonds increased have from US $10 m in 2000, to US $130 m in 2004 and could top US $200 m in 2005, according to Mwakawago.

This has been done through training, employment of mine wardens, increased policing, and patrols. But only 50 percent of diamond operations are under government control, said Mwakawago.

“If the government continues with lessons learnt, intensifying here and there, within the next two or three years they should be able to garner much more than they are registering now,” he said.

Post UNAMSIL, the support continues

UNAMSIL will be followed by a 300-strong UN Integrated Office in Sierra Leone (UNIOSIL), provided for under a Security Council resolution earlier this year.

UNIOSIL, still has much to do in promoting a culture of security and peace, guiding the nation to free and fair elections in 2007 and providing technical support to a country that ranks second from bottom in the UN’s human development index.

“You have the peace, but it is elusive. People can go to sleep and wake up unmolested, but they do not know where their next meal will come from, and what kind of meal they will get,” Mwakawango said.

Some 75 percent of Sierra Leoneans live on less than 2 dollars a day, and one in four of the population is food poor, meaning they cannot afford a basic diet, according to the World Bank.

Youth unemployment is rife in the country

Two thirds of the population is illiterate and unemployment hovers at seventy percent, with 2 million jobless young people. These include a large pool of ex-combatants who could take up arms again.

High unemployment rates and low expectations of a better future are a major cause of instability in West Africa, according to a December report by the UN’s Office for West Africa (UNOWA).

“The kind of peace we have been able to restore has to be translated into jobs, incomes, education, good health and so forth,” Mwakawango said.

Theme (s): Conflict, Governance,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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