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UN Official Praises Sierra Leone Resurgence Since End of Civil War - 2003-03-07

The United Nations Special Representative on Children in Armed Conflict, Olara Otunnu, Thursday reported that, in the year since the resolution of Sierra Leone's civil war, the African nation has experienced a remarkable transformation.

Mr. Otunnu says the dramatic change is due to the return of peace and security after a decade of war, the resurgence of commerce, and free and fair elections.

On a visit to Sierra Leone three years ago, Mr. Otunnu says he encountered disturbing scenes of homeless children, many in refugee camps, ill-fed and ill-clothed, and gun-toting child soldiers.

When he returned to the country on February 22 of this year, he saw something quite different. "This time, I saw so many children in freshly minted, smart school uniforms, both boys and girls, attending school. They are better fed and clothed," he said. "There's been the reunification of many families that had been separated. And a number of ex-child soldiers, I think close to 7,000, have successfully gone through the process of disarmament. And almost all have been well received back into their local communities."

Mr. Otunnu says the U.N. peace-keeping mission in Sierra Leone is one of the first in history to fully integrate special provisions for the protection of children.

He also said that, while Sierra Leone currently hosts the world's largest peace-keeping force, increasing unrest elsewhere in the West African sub-region, particularly Liberia, threatens the new found peace in Sierra Leone.

"Already we have reports of what could be a phenomenon of recycling child soldiers within the neighborhood. Possible ex-child soldiers from Sierra Leone fighting in Liberia for Liberian factions. And we have reports of English-speaking children fighting in the western Ivory Coast. This could be children from Liberia or Sierra Leone," he said.

Mr. Otunnu called on the international community not to abandon the troubled region.