Post of the Month: Freetown
The following is an excerpt from the March 2004 issue of State magazine. Article by Larry E. Andre.
Lush green mountains that rise dramatically from the sea. White sand beaches that stretch for miles. World-class fishing. Forest reserves a half hour drive from the city inhabited by chimpanzees and miniature antelope. Admittedly, these are not the images associated with Freetown, Sierra Leone. But they describe the Freetown peninsula and Sierra Leone's coastline.
Unfortunately, the images most commonly associated with Sierra Leone are those from the shockingly brutal civil conflict that so devastated this small nation from 1991 to 2002. Now, two years since the formal end of the conflict, the people of Sierra Leone are returning to their homes and rebuilding their lives.
The U.S. Embassy is assisting Sierra Leone citizens in sustaining the peace, rebuilding their economy and protecting their society from a new threat: the HIV/AIDS pandemic. To accomplish these goals, the embassy is re-engaging a host of issues, relationships, programs and institutions that were put on hold during the years of conflict when Americans were repeatedly evacuated, local staffing reduced to a minimal and security issues all consuming.
Freetown was founded by a British charitable trust in 1787 to resettle both Britain's liberated African slaves and London's poor. The initial settlement was later augmented by liberated American slaves who had fought with the British in the American War of Independence in return for grants of freedom. It was these Americans who gave Freetown its name. Still later, Africans freed from slave ships by the British Navy were settled in villages surrounding Freetown. The Freetown peninsula became the birthplace of the Krio language and its culture as these various groups of settlers sought to build new lives. The interior of Sierra Leone eventually became a British protectorate. The Freetown peninsula and "the provinces" were merged in 1961 into the independent country of Sierra Leone.
Sierra Leone's economy and social institutions declined severely throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s under corrupt governments, brutal and arbitrary military dictatorships and a sadistic "rebel" movement more interested in "liberating" the country's diamonds than in promoting its people's welfare. In the mid 1990s, as the situation became increasingly dangerous, Peace Corps volunteers pulled out after 30 years of helping the people of Sierra Leone. Then, after 21 years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was forced to end its Lassa Fever research, prevention and treatment activities.
In 1997, when a group of Sierra Leone Army officers overthrew the elected government, switched sides and joined the rebels, war came to the capital. The U.S. Embassy, along with most other foreign governments, evacuated the city. Freetown descended into chaos as West African peacekeeping troops, Sierra Leone rebels and rebel soldiers all slugged it out while also engaging in looting, arson, rape and murder. The embassy's local staff took great risks to protect the chancery, embassy residences and the belongings of their American colleagues.
Once the elected government was restored in 1998, a small contingent of American staff returned to Freetown. Only a few months later, however, in January 1999, Freetown suffered a rebel invasion that destroyed much of the eastern part of town and took many lives. When American staff deployed to nearby Conakry, local staff once again kept the embassy open while they and their families endured great suffering. After nine months, Americans returned to Freetown. While there was another rebel attempt to take the city in May 2000, resulting in a temporary drawdown of American staff, the government and its United Kingdom and United Nations allies prevented the rebel forces from reaching the city. As the UK increased its military engagement on behalf of the Sierra Leone government and as the UN forces became increasingly effective and numerous, the rebels sued for peace and the country entered a period of disarmament and recovery. The war was formally declared over in January 2002.
Today, the government is re-establishing itself throughout the country. As the UN peacekeeping forces draw down, the much-reformed Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces and Sierra Leone Police have assumed greater responsibility for keeping the peace. The U.S. military contributes three "boots on the ground" advisers to the British-led effort to re-train the Sierra Leone military. The embassy's security office has assisted local police with in-country training programs as well as opportunities for their "best and brightest" to train at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va.
Sierra Leone's diamond wealth played a key role in fueling the conflict. Diamonds can be found in widely dispersed alluvial deposits and can be mined with low capital investment. It does, however, require abundant manual labor. The U.S. Agency for International Development is engaged in a variety of activities in the diamond fields to increase incentives for legitimate mining and marketing of diamonds and to increase benefits to miners and local communities. The agency is also helping rebuild war-devastated infrastructure, including clinics, hospitals and schools, and providing essential nutrition as farmers return from refugee camps and urban centers to find their fields returned to "bush." Increasing agricultural production is a major aspect of the overall economic recovery program.
In addition to reporting on developments in the Special Court, Truth and Reconciliation Commission, refugee affairs, peacekeeping operation and economic recovery, the embassy team has also re-engaged on the environmental front. In cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of African Affairs, resources were identified to assist a chimpanzee sanctuary and activities aimed at chimpanzee preservation in the wild (see related story in July-August 2003 issue).
The embassy was put to the test in the summer of 2003 as the situation in neighboring Liberia became ever more dire. American citizens in Monrovia were evacuated to Freetown, an unthinkable move in the recent past. Vastly improved conditions in Freetown, however, made this feasible.
In the meantime, land has been acquired and the design phase is proceeding for a new embassy on a hill overlooking the city. It will replace a bullet pockmarked leased chancery downtown.
The embassy's information resource center re-opened in January, long dormant exchange programs have been renewed and speakers have been dispatched to every corner of the country.
Embassy officials are using every opportunity to raise the cry throughout the country and at every level of society that the people of Sierra Leone must act now to prevent a dramatic spread in the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Post-conflict societies seem to be especially prone to increased infection rates. The CDC has returned to Sierra Leone after a decade to assist in building laboratory capacity as one element in the struggle against HIV/AIDS. Defense has launched an awareness and prevention program for the local military and the civilians living near barracks and deployments, enlisting everyone from the president and minister of defense to local musicians. USAID has begun a condom social marketing program to complement the efforts.
Sierra Leone is a country on the mend and it is rewarding to serve at the U.S. Embassy and to help the people of this beautiful country rebuild their lives.
Ambassador Chaveas greets local leaders during tour of USG-funded assistance projects while Pakistani UN Peacekeepers and Sierra Leone troops look on. [Embassy Photo]
The author is deputy chief of mission in Freetown.