Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Sierra Leone holds several world records

Sierra Leone holds several world records — all of them negative. For seven of the past ten years it has been ranked the world’s poorest country, only recently nudged out of bottom place by Bangladesh.

The United Nations’ Human Development Index says that its life expectancy, at 37 and falling, is the lowest in the world. Deaths in childbirth are the highest in the world, made worse by widespread female genital mutilation. Nearly a third of children do not survive beyond the age of 5. Unemployment runs at more than 70 per cent and about the same percentage of the five million population live below the poverty line of 52p a day.

Nevertheless, the country today is at peace and, though corruption is endemic, there are signs of a mini economic boom. In the smarter areas of Freetown, the capital, grand villas overlooking long, curving beaches are being built. Boat-yards supplying a booming fishing industry reverberate to the sound of repair work.

There are new hotels, some geared to tap into the country’s tourist potential. Freetown is full of bars, restaurants and discos, all of which do a roaring trade, particularly among the large numbers of expatriates who have flooded in to help to rebuild the country.

The problem is that little of the money, or Britain’s £40 million a year in aid, has trickled down into Freetown’s teeming shanty towns, where people wash and bathe in excrement-filled rivers, and too many young people say they have no prospects of finding work.

In rural areas, however, the picture is not so bleak. Crops have been replanted and the country is self-sufficient in food. Village markets and schools have reopened. The peace is tenuous. Local people run away the moment they see a white man approaching in a car, believing it can only mean one thing — mercenaries and the return of fighting. Overall, though, only the large number of limbless beggars hints that this country was until recently the setting for one of postindependence Africa’s most brutal civil wars.

In what has been described as the most complete case ever of total social implosion and breakdown, some 500,000 people — one tenth of the population — were murdered, maimed or raped.

Child soldiers, brainwashed by commanders and high on drugs, chopped off the limbs of civilians. Thousands were forced to dig for diamonds in vast open-air labour camps. The men responsible for pillaging the country’s diamonds are either dead or facing trial at a UNbacked tribunal. Charles Taylor, former President of Liberia, who bankrolled the rebels in return for diamonds, goes on trial in The Hague next month.

For Tony Blair perhaps the most satisfying event is that despite all its problems, no one in Sierra Leone today talks of a return to war.

Link to Peace in Sierra Leone brings hope to land with life expectancy of 37-News-Politics-TimesOnline