Salone News

Sierra Leone: More Sensitization and Education for the Army

15 August 2006 at 07:53 | 376 views

By Alpha R. Jalloh,Vanguard Freetown Bureau Chief.

Soldiers of the Sierra Leone Army have been rearmed, not with weapons, but with education on International Humanitarian Law.

During the eleven year war in Sierra Leone, all the warring factions including the West African intervention force called Ecomog committed war crimes.

Civilians were the prominent victims that were not safe with any of the factions.

When the army ousted the democratically elected government of president Ahmad Tejan Kabbah and invited the Revolutionary United Front rebel movement to join them, widespread looting, summary executions were carried out during the brief interregnum.

Then came the West African intervention force called Ecomog (Economic Community of West African Sates Monitoring Group) in 1998 that ousted the Armed Forces Ruling Council that was proclaimed by the junta. Even though they succeeded, they ended up summarily executing many people described as "collaborators".

All hell broke loose as the junta was ousted. Civilians embarked on search and kill missions and even burnt alive the so-called collaborators. Many people who fled their homes arrived only to discover that their properties have been looted by either civilians or the fleeing soldiers.

However, the ousting of the junta did not bring the country’s nightmare to an end. The fleeing soldiers and rebels burnt one out of every five houses, amputated not less than 500 people, killed, tortured and gang-raped women as they fled to the jungle.

Soldiers loyal to the AFRC then formed a warring faction known as "Westside Boys" and encamped along the only highway to the provincial areas from the capital, Freetown. They preyed on commercial vehicles,looted and summarily executed passengers.

The pro-government Civil Defence Force mainly comprising the kamajor militia claimed that they were fighting to "liberate" civilians from rebel atrocities but they were not markedly different from rebels and renegade soldiers in the way and manner they carried out their liberation. They looted and summarily executed those they termed "collaborators". In all these, it was the civilians that suffered most.

Those are all things that happened in the past. The sins have already been committed and there is a need for atonement. Presently, the International Committee of the Red Cross has embarked on spreading education on International Humanitarian Law. This is meant to enlighten not only soldiers but a nation that committed crimes in ignorance.

After four years of brainstorming, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has come out with a final version of the "IHL Code of Conduct for the Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces (RSLAF)" .

A handbook has been printed. It was launched on July 31 at the ministry of defence in the capital Freetown. The Chief of Defence Staff Major-General Sam Mboma was not oblivious of the magnitude of crimes that the soldiers perpetrated during the war. He said the education that been provided on IHL would help the army to be more professional and it indicated that the days of impunity were over. He said in the future the court martial would be used to punish those who committed war crimes. ICRC has also stated that the education is not only for soldiers but also for the public at large and has promised to spread the education.

The eighty page handbook on IHL is made of two parts. The first part concerns the rules that every soldier must follow while conducting his tasks. It has guidelines on how to behave in times of conflict; it shows who are the protected persons, those who must never be attacked; it explains the means and methods of warfare that are allowed and those that are forbidden.

The second part is a basic summary of important aspects of First Aid. It will help soldiers or officers to take care of their colleagues or their family when they are wounded. Made of diagrams, it gives quick answers on how to make bandages, on how to transport a wounded person. It shows the gestures that can save life (recovery position, artificial respiration ). It also contains an important chapter on HIV/AIDS.

The spread of education on IHL has been the most significant step in preventing the recurrence of the horrendous experiences Sierra Leoneans were subjected to during the war years. There is the hope that each and every one will internalise them and adhere to the dictates of the principles in any conflict situation no matter how minor it is.

Photo: Deputy Defence minister Joe Blell.