The director of Catholic Relief Services operations in war-torn Sierra Leone said yesterday that he hopes to expand help to thousands more of the country's displaced civilians but is hampered by a shaky United Nations peacekeeping force and the persistence of rebel fighters.
Jim McLaughlin, director of the Baltimore-based agency's operations in Sierra Leone, was in the United States this week with Sierra Leone program director Baika Sesay and Bishop George Biguzzi, the Roman Catholic leader in rebel-held Makeni, to lobby U.N. officials and the Clinton administration for better protection.
Their goal is to spread the home-rebuilding, agricultural subsistence and education programs they have established in parts of the country to areas ravaged by fighting and inaccessible to aid.
"The key to our work is security," McLaughlin said. "The feeling of people on the ground is, it's a question mark."
Other relief agencies have sharply criticized the U.N. peacekeeping force, saying it has failed to protect civilians in the wake of renewed aggression from the Revolutionary United Front. The French agency Doctors Without Borders said this week that U.N. troops stayed in their barracks during an attack in the town of Kabala, leaving 10,000 civilians to flee without help. A U.N. spokesman denied the charge.
The U.N. force, which has been in Sierra Leone since a peace agreement was signed in July to end the country's eight-year civil war, retreated from outposts around the country last month after kidnappings by the rebels, who at one point seized 500 U.N. peacekeepers. Twenty-one Indian peacekeepers were still being held hostage yesterday.
Catholic Relief Services briefly pulled some of its workers out of the country at that time, but McLaughlin said programs have returned to full strength, at least in areas not held by the RUF. The agency has 130 staffers in Sierra Leone.
U.N. officials say that since the violence last month, they have increased their presence in the country to 12,000 troops and might add up to 4,000 more.
Catholic Relief Services has been concentrating on rebuilding homes and the educational system in and around the capital, Freetown, which is recovering from a rebel assault last year.
In addition to rebuilding schools, the agency has been establishing youth centers, with the help of communities, where youths who have lost years of schooling can catch up on basic education and learn a trade.
The agency has had to give up much of its work helping farmers restore their crops in Lunsar, east of the capital, a town on the front lines of battle. At one point, 20,000 families participated in that program; now, 10,000 are within reach.
McLaughlin said he is optimistic about the prospects . "We think our message is getting across," he said.