Sierra Leone rebels begin disarming

More than 1,500 combatants from the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Sierra Leone began disarming on Tuesday in Lunsar, about 90 kilometres east of the capital, according to the United Nations peacekeeping mission in the country (UNAMSIL), which is overseeing the process.

UNAMSIL military observers and officers visited Lunsar yesterday to finalize arrangements for the start of the disarmament process there. The RUF’s Col. Molesky Kallon confirmed that the rebel group would start turning in their weapons at noon Tuesday. Disarmament in Masiaka, southwest of Lunsar, was expected to begin today.

Parallel to the disarmament process, the RUF has also released children associated with its forces to UNAMSIL, which then transfers the youth to the care of non-governmental organizations that help rehabilitate them and reunite them with their families. The most recent transfer took place on June 4 in Kailahun, where the RUF freed some 400 young people.

During a press conference Tuesday in New York, a representative of UNICEF (the UN Children’s Fund) said the agency was systematically engaged in demobilizing and reintegrating children whenever possible. “There is currently a conducive environment [for the demobilization of child soldiers], whereas before there had been a very scattered response from the humanitarian community,” said Jean-Claude LeGrand, a Child Protection Officer.

Ismael Baeh, a former child soldier who had been abducted by the RUF in 1993 at the age of 14, said at the same press conference that if children were given a second chance, they could be rehabilitated and become part of society again. Former child soldiers “can be the best peacemakers in the world, because they know what it is like to suffer,” he said. Mr. Baeh is currently a student at Oberlin College in Ohio (USA).

In other news, a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said Tuesday that the agency had been able for the first time to evacuate a group of 130 Liberian and Guinean refugees from RUF-held Kailahun, in the eastern part of the country.

The refugees were evacuated last week from Kailahun to a government-controlled area where they could receive urgently needed assistance. They included 106 Liberian refugees and their families, as well as 24 Guineans, UNHCR spokesman Kris Janowski told the press in Geneva. Describing the condition of the refugees as “vulnerable and sick,” the spokesman said the most critical cases had been provided with medical treatment at Kenema hospital, while the remaining refugees were taken to one of the agency’s temporary settlement camps near Bo. The 24 Guinean nationals had been in Sierra Leone since their homes had been attacked in Gueckedou, Guinea, in January this year.