Striving for progress in the shadow of a civil war

The aftermath of a civil war in Sierra Leone in the late 1990s continues to hamper the country's modern-day development and progress.
A community builds a teacher's home while on UNICEF training to improve the quality of education in Sierra Leone. Source: Creative Commons

The conflict

Sierra Leone’s civil war was a long and brutal affair.  In addition to rebels and military combatants, over 50,000 civilians died between 1991 and 2002, and numerous others were maimed and abused.  Formed out of discontent following the country’s independence in 1961, the rebel group Revolutionary United Front (RUF), led by former military leader Foday Sankoh, attempted coups against multiple governments.  

Supported by Libyan rebel leader Charles Taylor, the RUF started attacking eastern towns and villages to such an extent that the government, facing a struggling economy, could not fight back. The economy was bogged down due to corruption and the illegal selling of diamonds. This cascaded into years of conflict.  

It was not until 1999 that the United Nations intervened with peace talks and cease fires.  Three years of violations followed until these peace agreements officially ended the war.  Then there were 10 years of war crime investigations, as well as a continued effort to rebuild the country.

Life after war

After the conflict finally ended, Human Rights Watch called upon then president Ahmed Tejan Kabbah to address the legacies of the 11-year war. The organization suggested that the deeply rooted issues that caused the civil war remained unaddressed a year after it ended.  Further, the country needed to expel impunity, reduce inequality and combat corruption. These were big challenges, especially for a population also facing the physical and mental aftermath of a terrifying decade.  

Along with other infrastructural damage, health care in Sierra Leone took a severe hit during the war.  Particularly in rebel-controlled areas, health centers were closed and health practitioners working for the government or independent bodies such as the Red Cross were under threat, some maimed or killed.  Consequently, many health professionals left the country during the conflict and did not return. Therefore, Sierra Leone has been facing a medical staff shortage that in turn has slowed the rebuilding of health centers.  Another significant issue is many children did not receive vaccines, which meant that diseases such as Tuberculosis became prevalent.  

Embed from Getty Images

For many, receiving medical attention during and after the war was crucial. This was due to  one of the rebels’ unlawful strategies: mutilation. Victims’ hands were often cut off and other limbs were amputated.  Thousands of people suffered in this way, and continue to suffer while they find the means to earn their livelihood.  Many are illiterate and struggle to earn income by farming.  Educated professionals also faced this fate, making it impossible to work in the same field once peace had resumed. One survivor, Dr Muctarr Jollar, who had his hands restored after an attempted amputation, describes having nightmares about the brutality he experienced.  

Other infrastructure that Human Rights Watch does not think has received enough investment include relief programs for women and girls who were abducted, recruited and abused by the rebels.  While assistance programs are rare, they are encouraging NGOs, donors and the Sierra Leone government to work together to provide these essential services.  Victims deal with ongoing gynecological problems and HIV, which spread throughout rebel groups and their captive “wives”.  In addition, communities did not understand that the girls were involuntarily taken (rather than having joined the rebels) and so, once returned, were excluded from school and other aspects of society.  Those who were raped were “considered stained” and often excluded in this way.  This has resulted in a particularly difficult post-war life for women and girls.  

Young boys and men who were forced to fight with the rebels must also not be forgotten.  Boys were recruited to carry loads and weapons and to be combatants, which had long-lasting effects on their mental health and social reintegration when the conflict ended.  Further, support services are not often focused on men as they are seen as the perpetrators of violence.  

Challenge after challenge

Sierra Leone has faced other difficulties since the official end of the conflict stalled its re-development process.  One of these was the Ebola crisis, which was first reported in West Africa in 2014 and resulted in nearly 30,000 reported cases.   

Similar to the war, the Ebola crisis resulted in a lack of funds for health care services, particularly maternal care and family planning. In one year, 18,000 teenage girls became pregnant. The government since pledged to invest in this decaying service area, but it is an uphill battle as funding from, for example, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), has  been dramatically reduced.  

More recently, Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, was the victim of one of Africa’s worst flooding related disasters of all time. Over 1,000 people have died or were missing after the landslide hit on 14 August 2017.  Ten thousand people were forced to leave their damaged homes, children were orphaned, schools, medical centers and other infrastructure were ruined, and disease like cholera began to spread.  

Still recovering from the harsh events of the past few decades, some people noted the silence of the international community during this most recent time of need.  Alimatu Dimonekene, a Sierra Leonean FGM campaigner described the lack of international support in the International Business Times as an “eerie silence.” Quartz Africa also noticed the lack of celebrity appeals, campaigns or events beyond that from relief agencies.  

For a country that is still suffering from the brutality of the war, it is very unfortunate that international support is not sustained in Sierra Leone, especially as it continues to face calamities. The war left the country poorly equipped to deal with a fatal disease swelling through its population, thereby reducing the number of skilled doctors and money to invest in the disease’s containment.  And now, 15 years after the end of the war, Freetown has lost 1,000 people to a natural disaster that also sucked away homes, schools and other buildings, which the town must rebuild yet again.  

Human Rights
Roz Lytham

Roz is an International Relations and Development graduate from the University of Sussex. She has been working in the charity sector since graduating from social housing to the resettlement of Syrian refugees on the government's Syrian Vulnerable Persons scheme. She now works on humanitarian and crisis issues for Save the Children. Roz has extensively travelled in Latin America and Asia, as well as volunteered on community development projects in Nigeria. She is passionate about human rights, having volunteered for Amnesty International, and empowering people to create positive social change.
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