(09/13/00) — Human Rights Watch today strongly condemned the Guinean government for inciting armed attacks against Sierra Leonean and Liberian refugees. An inflammatory public statement by the President of Guinea on Saturday, September 9, provoked widespread attacks by Guinean police, soldiers, and civilian militias.
Human Rights Watch today released the first on-the-ground testimonies from more than 40 victims, including ten women who were raped, seven of whom were gang-raped. Excerpts of testimony are below; the full testimonies are available at: http://www.hrw.org/press/2000/09/guineatestimony.htm
"Many of these women were raped and sexually assaulted in Sierra Leone, and they fled to Guinea seeking safety," said Rachael Reilly, Refugee Policy Director at Human Rights Watch. "It is unacceptable that they should fall victim to similar atrocities in their place of refuge."
Human Rights Watch called on the Guinean government to immediately cease the round-ups and attacks against the refugees, and to investigate those responsible. The organization also called on the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to investigate the attacks and protect refugees in Guinea. On September 12 UNHCR released a public statement acknowledging "unconfirmed" reports of rape.
On Saturday, September 9, President Lansana Conte of Guinea made a public plea on radio and television to protect the country from rebel attacks from Sierra Leone and Liberia. Thousands of refugees in the capital, Conakry, were then attacked and rounded up by police, soldiers and armed civilian militias in response to Conte's address.
According to Human Rights Watch interviews, the mobs drove refugees out of their houses, frequently beating, raping, and sexually abusing them. The attackers wielded sticks, rocks, iron bars, electric cords and knives.
Police also arbitrarily detained an unknown number of refugees. UNHCR estimated that some 3,000 people were rounded up and taken into detention over the weekend. Most of them were taken initially to police stations and then moved to local district communes or schools in Conakry. Hundreds fled with their belongings to the Sierra Leonean embassy in Conakry for safety.
Human Rights Watch has confirmed at least one case of a man who died while in detention. Among the ten rape victims interviewed were a 14-year-old girl and a mother with a three-month-old baby.
Most of the refugees' houses were looted and their property stolen. Some refugees were strip-searched for money, including an elderly grandmother and a young mother with a ten-month-old baby. Victims and witnesses said Guinean police and army officers were present during some of the attacks, and sometimes participated. Most of the refugees Human Rights Watch interviewed were from Sierra Leone; seven were from Liberia.
UNHCR, the international refugee agency charged with providing protection to refugees, told Human Rights Watch it had not investigated any cases of rape so far, and said that it could not confirm the reports. Guinean officials interviewed by Human Rights Watch also denied that such abuses had taken place. Human Rights Watch made a strong plea to both UNHCR and the Guinean authorities to immediately investigate these abuses.
President Conte's statement accused the refugees of harboring rebels responsible for recent cross-border attacks into Guinea from Liberia and Sierra Leone, and declared that the refugees "should go home." "I am giving orders that we bring together all foreigners in [Guinean] neighborhoods, so that we know what they are doing, and that we search and arrest suspects," he said. "Civilians and soldiers, let's defend our country together. Crush the invaders."
Guinean authorities have reported three cross-border incursions into Guinea over the past week, the most serious occurring in the Guinean border town of Massadou where 47 people were killed after an incursion from Liberia on September 1. On September 8 the Guinean authorities reported that the border town of Pamelap was attacked by Sierra Leonean insurgents and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) confirmed that between 20-40 soldiers and civilians had been injured. The attacks have resulted in rising hostility against Sierra Leonean and Liberian refugees in camps along the two borders.
Guinea hosts one of the largest refugee populations in Africa. UNHCR estimates that there are 125,000 Liberian and 330,000 Sierra Leonean refugees in Guinea who have fled the brutal civil wars and gross human rights violations in both countries. An estimated 10,000 refugees have fled Sierra Leone since May 2000 when the fighting and atrocities by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) intensified once again. In the past, Guinea has been praised by the international community for its generous policies of sheltering refugees.
In recent months, however, Guinea has intermittently closed its border with Sierra Leone, in violation of its international commitments. Fearful of incursions by Sierra Leonean rebels, the Guinean authorities closed the border at the beginning of August, later agreeing to allow access only to "vulnerable" refugees (including pregnant and lactating women; children below the age of 14 (later raised to 18); and the elderly). At the beginning of September UNHCR confirmed that at least 10,000 civilians were waiting to cross the border and one pregnant women and at least ten children had died due to the poor conditions.
The UNHCR representative in Guinea, Chrysantus Ache, told Human Rights Watch on Monday, September 11 that the government had issued instructions to release all the refugees and to stop the round-ups and harassment. Nevertheless, Human Rights Watch has documented that significant numbers of refugees remain in detention and that the rapes, attacks and harassment have not ended.
Testimonies from Sierra Leonean Refugees in Conakry, Guinea Documented September 11 and 12, 2000
A 19-year-old woman told Human Rights Watch that three armed soldiers in camouflage and with red berets and a crowd of civilians broke into her house where she lived with her mother and nine brothers and sisters on Saturday night. She was carrying her three-month-old baby on her back when the soldiers entered the house. One of the soldiers pushed her hard and she fell on the TV, another soldier grabbed her baby from her back. The first soldier pushed her down and raped her. She cried, "But I'm a brand new mother. I've just had a baby." When the soldier was finished, one of the civilians then raped her. Once they had raped her they beat her, scratched her arm and kicked her, calling her a "bastard child." Then one of the soldiers gave a command to take everything from the house. They took the TV, the clothes, and the beds and loaded everything onto carts waiting outside. They took the baby as well. The woman's mother was hiding under one of the beds and they forced her at gunpoint to hand over her money. The mob stayed for more than three hours. "All I could think of was my baby," the woman told Human Rights Watch. "After they'd left I gave my uncle a picture of my baby and they went from place to place until they found him. The soldiers had left him at one of the detention centers. They even stole his little clothes."
A mother told Human Rights Watch how her 14-year-old daughter ?a twin ?was raped in front of her. At 5 a.m. on Saturday. Five soldiers and many civilians banged on their door, crying "Police, police?if you don't open we'll shoot you all." Afraid that they would be killed, the family opened the door and the mob rushed in. The soldiers pointed their guns at the family and shouted, "You have dollars, pull the dollars or we'll kill you all." They stole all their possessions - fans, chairs, the freezer, audiotapes, clothes and shoes. One civilian from the neighborhood grabbed the woman's daughter shouting, "You're the rebels, you're bringing the fighting to our country. We'll kill you." The woman tried to throw herself in front of the soldiers, but they kicked her aside, pulled her daughter away and started raping her. Another soldier grabbed the mother by her hair and forced her to watch as her daughter was raped by two soldiers and a civilian. The mother struggled to stop them but they beat her and pushed her six-year-old son aside ?he fell and broke his tooth. "After the rape my daughter was bleeding," the mother told Human Rights Watch. "We don't have anything. We're just trying to make ends meet here in Guinea. We've been here five years.. we fled the violence in Kambia district (Sierra Leone). They even stole 350,000 francs guinea [about $200 US]?all I had saved for a long time."
A 19-year-old woman told Human Rights Watch how she was raped in her home on Monday night by four soldiers. She lived in Kobaya, a suburb five to six miles away from the center of Conakry, with four other family members. At 10 a.m. a crowd arrived at her house, some of them in uniform with green caps, and one police officer with a blue uniform and black cap. The gate was locked, so they jumped it and entered. There were 10 youths with them, who carried sticks, axes and machetes and used them to break into the house. As the woman was trying to run a soldier grabbed hold of her and slapped her once on the face; a few civilian youths held her by the shirt at her neck. The men found her two cousins and her sister and pushed them into a blue truck. They took their clothes, suitcases and other things and left the woman alone in the house. At 8 p.m. the mob came back. They banged at the door. The woman hid under the bed, but they got in and four of them ?all in military dress ?entered. She told Human Rights Watch, "They pulled me out from under the bed and then used me just there one after the other. I begged them but they said they'd kill me. One of them sat on a chair with his gun and the other one used me?then they took their turn." When they had left she escaped to the Sierra Leonean embassy for safety.
A 24-year-old woman described to Human Rights Watch how she was raped by four soldiers in Seratay police station on September 10. The soldiers and gangs of youths came to her neighborhood on Sunday night. They were shouting, "All Sierra Leoneans must come out." Her husband was away that night, so she came out with her two small children. The crowd searched her house and carried their fridge, suitcases, clothes and other things and loaded them onto a green military van. Then they took her and her children to Seratay police station where they were put in a cell with up to one hundred people. After a few hours the soldiers came and called a woman ?they took her into a room and when she came back she was limping and said that they'd raped her. The woman explained to Human Rights Watch, "Then they came for me. I said I can't go, I have my children, but one of the soldier men grabbed my 10-month-old baby out of my arms, flung him [aside] and ordered me inside a room. They used me on the ground. All four of them did it. They were all soldiers men in uniforms and two had two stripes?like they were the big men there. After they left me they took a few other women as well. I begged them but they said, "Shut up?we'll kill you?our president has announced that all you people must leave. You're all rebels."
Other women also described sexual abuse and humiliation by soldiers and police officers. A 29-year-old woman told Human Rights Watch that she was arrested at 6 p.m. on Friday night by three soldiers and taken to Hamdalai police station and then to Rotoma commune. The soldiers called each one of them and wrote down their names. At noon on Saturday they called her into a small room. She told Human Rights Watch, "I had my little baby in my arms. There were five or six of them. Then they grabbed my baby and flung him in the corner. He started screaming but they ordered me to strip off all my clothes. Then they told me to spread my legs and bend over and four of them put their fingers inside me saying that they were looking for money? After the fourth one I couldn't bear it and I said no more. So they kicked me with their soldier boots and hit me hard with the butts of their rifles."
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