Visitor from Sierra Leone
Florella Hazeley joined us for part of the service on 11th July 1999. She had travelled up from London en route for a conference in Birmingham. Quite a few people were able to meet her over coffee and about fifteen stayed on with packed lunches to hear her talk about her work.
Florella works for the Sierra Leone Council of Churches (SLCC), sponsored by Christian Aid. She has held this post since 1996. The SLCC decided at that time that it needed to have an influence on the situation in the country. The Civil War had been going on since 1991. The countryside was dominated by the rebels who had taken over the best agricultural areas and the gold and diamond mines. People had fled these areas for safety in the capital, Freetown. The infrastructure had broken down. There had been a corrupt government for many years. Things were getting even worse.
The SLCC made contact with the Muslim community (Sierra Leone is about 60% Muslim and 40% Christian, of various denominations). The Muslims agreed to support the SLCC in any intervention they could make to improve the situation. Then they contacted tribal chiefs and secured their support. They spoke to influential people in the government and got permission to contact the rebel leader who was in prison. Before they met him they insisted he was taken around Freetown to see what his supporters had done - devastation and burning, destruction of the infrastructure, schools, commerce, health care and food supplies. He did not accept responsibility for all of this, saying many people had tagged on to his cause.
Since that time the SLCC has brokered dialogue between the warring factions and the paralysed government. Florella stressed that the SLCC was mindful that the Church should not be political, but they saw an appalling situation and felt they had to make a pragmatic, non-partisan contribution to introduce common sense and compassion, and to help to restore order.
Florella explained that what had begun as a rebel attempt to gain control of the rich areas of the country and overthrow the government had been swamped by powerful international and economic forces. It is thought that Liberia, itself in political turmoil, has been supporting the rebels to destabilise West Africa. Burkino Faso is thought to have funded them from similar motives and also the Ivory Coast. The rebels have continued mining and have sold the gems to international companies to fund their activities. Nigeria has come to Sierra Leone’s aid with the ECOMOG forces which are keeping some semblance of peace. It has been difficult to find a neutral venue for talks, acceptable to all parties. Togo was chosen. The talks there between the government and the rebels have resulted in an uneasy, and much criticised, agreement. This involves appointing four rebel leaders as Ministers and four more as deputies. The senior rebel leader has the rank of Vice-President with authority over the mineral areas and security. We are aware of the serious misgivings of expatriate Sierra Leoneans about these concessions. At the recent Sierra Leone Association Dinner Dance the speaker, a Sierra Leone diplomatic envoy, was critical of his government’s stance.
There was much discussion about the wisdom of this agreement. Florella accepted the criticisms but remained true to her belief that the SLCC had to take some pragmatic action. She felt the situation was so inflammable that any of the rebel leaders could be turned on by their supporters. She doubted that the senior rebel leader would feel confident to live in Freetown for fear of his life. His influence would therefore be limited.
Some practical questions were posed about how to support people in Sierra Leone. The local Sierra Leone Association had collected equipment (hospital and school materials, surplus to local requirements) but found the shipping costs punitive. Florella thought Christian Aid might be able to help. The Overseas Committee had asked the Prime Minister what Britain was doing to support our former colony. An aide had replied that they were supportive and had sent £20m and a further £10m. It was recognised that much of this money went to support the ECOMOG peacekeeping force rather than to help people directly.
This was a chilling experience for those of us who heard Florella’s talk. What I found even more disturbing was a casual conversation overheard between Florella and a Sierra Leonean from our own community. They were discussing people and places they knew in common in Freetown. In a matter of fact way Florella said "of course that suburb has been razed to the ground" - and our friend didn’t blink. They could have been talking about Beeston or Hyson Green! Thank God for the peace we enjoy.