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Saturday, July 3, 1999 Published at 16:49 GMT 17:49 UK

Sierra Leone: Worse than Kosovo?

Small children are among the rebels' victims

By West Africa Correspondent Mark Doyle

One of the great problems of reporting from Sierra Leone is that the full picture has not been seen by the outside world.

Sierra Leone
Great swathes of the country are occupied by unpredictable rebel forces and are too dangerous for journalists to enter.

In Sierra Leone, it is as if the early period in the Kosovo crisis - before the world became aware of it and Nato intervened - had gone on not for weeks but for several years.

[ image: Mary Robinson: Her visit finally brought world attention to Sierra Leone]
Mary Robinson: Her visit finally brought world attention to Sierra Leone
When United Nations Human Rights Commissioner, Mary Robinson, visited recently, she said there had been more loss of life in Sierra Leone than in Kosovo. More suffering, more mutilations and more basic violations of human rights.

And it does not take much effort to see the results of what is happening in the Sierra Leone countryside.

Just a few hundred metres from where Mrs Robinson's helicopter landed, there is a camp for people displaced by the war. It specialises in helping those who have been mutilated by the Sierra Leonean rebels.

For many years now, the rebels have used terror as a deliberate tactic. They chop off people's limbs and then send the mutilated people, bleeding and traumatised, into the government-held areas, as a warning to others not to support the government.

Conservative estimates say this has happened to around 10,000 people.

Schoolboy mutilated

[ image:  ]
One of them is Moctar Diallo, a confident, straight-talking schoolboy, who had his hand chopped off by the rebels. His story is a credible and depressingly common one.

Moctar told me that once he knew he was not going to escape mutilation by the rebels, he asked them to chop off his left hand because he was right-handed.

But the rebels refused this request, and just to make absolutely sure that no surgeon would help Moctar to sew his limb back on, the rebels put the severed right hand on a tree stump and chopped that in two as well.

Youngest victim

[ image:  ]
Moctar Diallo is highly educated by Sierra Leonean standards, and as soon as he knew I was a journalist he suggested that I would like to meet the youngest known victim of the rebel atrocities: two-year-old Maimouna Mansarray.

She lost her arm inside a mosque when the rebels attacked civilians cowering there. She was strapped to her grandmother's back and as the grandmother ran away she was shot.

The bullet killed Maimouna's grandmother and left the little girl with just one arm. Maimouna smiles a lot, and seems not to realise that she is different from other people.

This is not surprising. The man who was looking after her when I visited only has one arm as well. And another man, somehow doing his washing at the time I was there, had no arms at all.

The Sierra Leone war has created more refugees than any other conflict in Africa, about 500,000 people.

But this is just the total of those who have fled to neighbouring countries and been registered by the United Nations.

Far more people are internally displaced by the fighting. UN aid workers believe these may number over two million.

Traumatised generation

[ image: Rebels carved the initials RUF into this man's skin as a warning]
Rebels carved the initials RUF into this man's skin as a warning
One of these people is Sheikh Foday, a teacher by trade, whom I met in another squalid camp for displaced people inside Freetown.

Sheikh Foday did not want to talk about his own problems, which to my eyes were dramatic enough, but about the problems of Sierra Leone's children.

"Imagine having hundreds of thousands of children displaced for several years," he said.

"Suppose further," the displaced teacher said, as we stood in his muddy camp, "that those children were deeply traumatised by the horrors that they had seen."

"And then imagine that the vast majority of their teachers, those that are left, are traumatised as well, and ask yourself what future Sierra Leone has," he said.

[ image:  ]
By any standards, Mrs Robinson's comparison of Sierra Leone with Kosovo was shocking.

Here was the former President of Ireland, a highly respected European figure, saying that the human rights situation in Sierra Leone was worse than that in the Yugoslav province.

It may be that a debate about which situation is worse is fruitless, like somehow comparing Hades with Hell.

West stands by

[ image: There are fears for a whole generation growing up scarred by war]
There are fears for a whole generation growing up scarred by war
But the UN human rights commissioner's comments do raise several questions.

If the situation in Sierra Leone is so bad, how come there are 50,000 Nato troops in Kosovo and just a few dozen unarmed UN observers in Sierra Leone?

If the needs are so huge in Sierra Leone, how come independent aid agencies there, such as Oxfam, say that their funds are being cut to help finance projects in Kosovo?

And, if it is objectively true, as no less a person than the UN Human Rights Commissioner says, how come journalists who report these things, are sometimes accused of exaggerating?

I don't mind being accused of exaggerating. Back in 1994, before the extent of the genocide in Rwanda was widely accepted, lots of people said we journalists were over-dramatising the situation. We were not.

And now, perhaps its not an exaggeration to suggest, just tentatively, that the international reaction to Sierra Leone might have been very different if all of those people with their limbs chopped off had been white.

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