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S. Leone Refugees Fear the Future

May 16, 2000

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone (AP) _ In a dimly lit warehouse full of ancient machinery, hundreds have sought refuge. More people crowd into storage areas, workshops and tents in the yard of the British colonial-era train station turned refugee camp.

About 35,000 people from towns near the capital have fled into the capital, Freetown, in recent days, fearing renewed fighting in this West African country, aid workers say. Many have found shelter with friends and relatives, but others have ended up here, at the National Workstation camp.

``We are afraid,″ says Ramatu Bangura, sitting surrounded by her five children and the few possessions she managed to grab when gunshots rang out last week near her last home, a camp just outside Freetown. ``Four times the rebels came to my place. They burned my house, they looted, they killed my man. When they found his body, I only recognized him by the clothes.″

Like Bangura, many here have been forced to flee time and again over eight years of civil war during which rebels have killed tens of thousands and maimed many more men, women and children in a campaign of terror.

Long abandoned by its former British owner, the disused railway station filled with squatters when the rebel Revolutionary United Front invaded Freetown in January 1999, burning, looting, maiming and killing thousands. Soon after, organizations such as the World Food Program, UNICEF and Doctors Without Borders began distributing food, building latrines and installing a clean water supply.

Conditions here are grim. Hundreds crowd into a former hangar-like workshop. Strips of canvas and plastic sheeting stretched between dusty, rusting equipment demarcate the dwellings of each family and provide some shelter from the water that drips down through cracks in the soaring ceiling.

Others spread straw mats on the bare concrete floor of a stifling hot brick building full of mosquitos. Outside, people clutching old rice bags and plastic containers line up to receive a month’s supply of wheat, maize and cooking oil from the U.N. World Food Program. Men chop wood to sell while women stir pots over open fires and children swarm over a trash heap.

Finding the camp already full with 7,000 residents, the 3,000 new arrivals have been forced to shelter wherever they can _ in the food distribution center, the school tent, or an alley between two buildings.

Asked if they want to leave, however, most shake their heads emphatically.

``No, no, no,″ says Sahr Biango, whose 15-year-old daughter was locked into her family’s home and burned alive by the rebels, who also hacked off the hands of his two brothers. ``I am afraid for my other children.″

Last July, the rebels signed a peace deal giving their leaders top government posts and amnesty for the atrocities they committed. U.N. peacekeepers deployed throughout the country, and war-weary civilians started to move back to their villages.

But the rebels tore at the accord by taking peacekeepers hostage. Then, a week ago, they opened fire on thousands of demonstrators outside rebel chief Foday Sankoh’s home. Thirteen civilians and six soldiers were killed.

In the days since, they have clashed repeatedly with U.N. troops and pro-government forces, but have been pushed back from Freetown’s immediate surroundings.

``I was not expecting such,″ says Finda Sukudu, who returned last year from neighboring Guinea, where she fled after the RUF attacked her village and forced her brother to hold their father’s head as rebels slit his throat. ``I was feeling fine. I thought peace had come to Sierra Leone.″

With armed government troops once again manning checkpoints along the main road linking the seaside capital to the interior, some of those who fled last week to Freetown are already heading back to their former camps and towns.

But many have lost confidence that peace will be restored and refuse to leave the relative security of the capital.

``I am old now. I can’t be running all the time,″ says Isata Sheriff, who stood in line with about a dozen recent arrivals jostling to be registered so they can receive food and other assistance.

Hunched over with age, she wipes tears from her eyes with the edge of her dress as she remembers her husband shot by the rebels, the weeks spent wandering through the forest with her five children, and her daughter lost when a burst of gunfire sent the family running in different directions.

``My heart has no rest at all,″ she says.

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