The Misery of Sierra Leone
Imagine that a civil war broke out in western Texas and has dragged on year after year since 1991. Food is scarce, medical care nonexistent and gasoline supplies a thing of the past.
To escape the heavy fighting, men, women and children flee by the thousands into the countryside or, if they're lucky, across the border into Mexico. The hardship is enormous. Hundreds, if not thousands, die. Infants, young children and the elderly suffer the most.
Imagine further that the world studiously ignores what's happening. With a few notable exceptions, the news media in the United States and elsewhere pay little attention. Here and abroad, the impeachment trial dominates the headlines.
This scenario sounds implausible, and it would be if the setting were Texas. But shift the scene to Sierra Leone, a small nation in West Africa about the size of South Carolina, and you have an accurate description of the current situation. Today Sierra Leone has become the world's largest producer of human misery.
The United Nations estimates that some 440,000 Sierra Leoneans have fled across the border into Liberia or Guinea. As the fighting intensified in recent weeks, hundreds of thousands more abandoned their homes and joined the ranks of the displaced inside the country.
But what's worse than the displacement is the terror. Rape and kidnapping have become commonplace. The insurgents -- who lack popular support -- have committed barbaric reprisals against civilians suspected of supporting the democratically elected government. The guerrillas have, for example, burned villagers alive -- not only men, but women and children. And they've made an example of others by hacking off their hands or arms, their feet or legs.
One such victim, a 6-year-old called Flora, held up her bandaged arm and asked my colleague Marie de la Soudiere, "Will my fingers grow back?"
The large-scale flight prompted by these atrocities has wiped out much of the country's agricultural economy. Although the international community had set up emergency feeding centers, food shortages have followed the ebb and flow of the civil war. Recent fighting along access routes seriously disrupted relief efforts. And so the misery of the refugees and displaced people worsens.
It's unlikely that the international community will use militarized humanitarianism to reopen supply routes, as NATO did in Bosnia and Kosovo. For one thing, Sierra Leone is perhaps the world's poorest country. It has no strategic or economic value to the West, and its tragedy has not drawn intense media coverage.
Moreover, Sierra Leone resides in the shadow of Mogadishu. The memory of American soldiers dying in Somalia has made the United States wary of military involvement in African affairs.
Yet despite even the distractions of an impeachment trial, my colleagues based in West Africa say the United States can help the situation and, with other concerned nations, can make a difference. We need to do several things.
First, recognize the urgency of the situation, and give it immediate, high-level attention as a diplomatic and humanitarian crisis. Let's not stand by as we did while upward of a million people were slaughtered in Cambodia in the 1970s and another million were massacred in 1994 in Rwanda.
Second, substantially increase the resources and logistical support to the African multinational peacekeeping force that came to the rescue of the Sierra Leonean government and has been fighting on its behalf. Nigeria and the other nations contributing troops and supplies to the effort are almost broke themselves. They need more than the words of encouragement, the unmet promises and the minimal aid we've been giving them.
Third, provide additional funds to the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance. Because of budget reductions, coupled with the extraordinary demands imposed by Hurricane Mitch in Central America and the crisis in Kosovo, the OFDA lacks the funds necessary to respond adequately to the disaster in Sierra Leone.
This Op Ed ran on page A17 in the Washington Post