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U.N.'s blue helmets quit Sierra Leone

The U.N. peacekeeping mission in Sierra Leone, which at one time was the biggest in the world with 17,500 troops, is pulling out six years after the blue helmets were dispatched to the West African country to help end a brutal civil war. With many challenges still ahead, their presence will be missed.
Bangladeshi troops preparing for departure dismantle their camp in the village of Goderich on the outskirts of Freetown, Sierra Leone, on Dec. 3, 2005 in this photo released by the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Liberia.
Bangladeshi troops preparing for departure dismantle their camp in the village of Goderich on the outskirts of Freetown, Sierra Leone, on Dec. 3, 2005 in this photo released by the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Liberia. Eric Kanalstein / AP
/ Source: Reuters

Fatmata Bangura will miss the blue-helmeted U.N. peacekeepers when their mandate in Sierra Leone expires on Dec. 31.

For the last few years, the shopkeeper traded rations with Pakistani and Bangladeshi U.N. troops, building both a healthy business and a new home for her children and grandchild in Waterloo, 17 miles east of the capital Freetown.

“We do a barter system,” she said, sitting in a blue gown and head dress in front of her shop, whose shelves are stacked with U.N.-issue cornflakes, sardines, jam, soap and other provisions. “I do not know what kind of business I will do now.”

The U.N. peacekeeping mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) which at one time was the biggest in the world with 17,500 troops, is pulling out six years after the blue helmets were dispatched to the West African country to help end a brutal civil war.

Sorrowful goodbye
Bangura is not the only one bidding a regretful farewell to soldiers heading home.

The leone currency is already missing the support of thousands of dollar-denominated U.N. wages, said University of Sierra Leone economics lecturer Shamsu Mustapha, a former deputy minister for development and economic planning.

Residents say their buying power is on the wane as the currency has slipped to 3,000 per dollar on the black market, from around 2,500 a few months ago before the final withdrawal of the U.N. peacekeeping force.

The force got off to a disastrous start when it first deployed, with hundreds of ill-equipped troops taken hostage by rebels accused of hacking off civilians’ hands and feet.

But with considerable help from Sierra Leone’s former colonial power Britain, UNAMSIL became recognized as a model for peacekeeping and reconstruction of police, army and public institutions ruined by years of war.

The departing U.N. troops leave behind new or renovated bridges, hospitals, mosques and churches as monuments to the rebuilding of a shattered nation, but analysts say the country must overcome serious challenges in the years ahead.

Challenges continue
“Number one is youth unemployment. This is one of the major causes of the war in 1991, and there are more unemployed people in Sierra Leone today,” said Mike McGovern, West Africa Project Director for think-tank International Crisis Group.

Economic inertia and corruption are blamed for fuelling a Liberian-backed rebellion whose young, drug-taking fighters seized the eastern diamond fields, terrorized civilians and smuggled precious stones out through Liberia to buy more guns.

That was a trigger for the world diamond industry’s Kimberley Process initiative to certify all rough stones as free of the taint of war to end trade in “blood diamonds."

With around half of the diamonds dug from its earth now registered and taxed, the government is tens of millions of dollars better off, even though experts say total regulation is all but impossible with rough gems lying in streams and rivers.

Political jostling
But there are signs that political discontent may also be rising in a country that languishes near the bottom of development rankings. This includes jostling to succeed President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah when he stands down in 2007.

The ruling Sierra Leone People’s Party named Kabbah’s deputy Solomon Berewa in September as candidate to succeed him, sparking a mini-rebellion that saw three ministers sacked.

Charles Margai, from one of Sierra Leone’s leading dynasties, quit the party in disgust and faces charges including conspiracy linked to running an illegal opposition party.

Need to maintain the peace
Adding to tensions, the government forced scores of senior army officers into retirement in mid-December just as the U.N. force’s exit left it even more dependent on military loyalty.

“The military, the army, still has extremely poor living conditions which will remain a risk as long as that is the case,” said Crisis Group’s McGovern.

“What we need to understand is that it is us as a nation who have to maintain the peace we want — whether U.N. peacekeepers are here or not,” said one senior local army officer.