Aid worker describes ordeal in Sierra Leone fighting

Intruders robbed home where Catholic Relief monitor shielded relatives

January 17, 1999|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Bob Moran, an American food aid worker with Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services, described yesterday how he escaped the fighting in Sierra Leone with his 9-year-old son last week.

Moran, 49, a program monitoring officer with CRS, was robbed of his Mercedes car and other possessions when intruders forced their way into his house at the height of the clash between rebel forces and troops of the West African intervention force, ECOMOG.

His house had become a refuge for about 20 members of his late wife's Sierra Leone family and friends during the fighting.

"A few people were knocked around a little bit, but nothing serious," Moran said.

"I was ready to give them anything they wanted," said Moran in a telephone interview from Conakry, Guinea, where he and his son, Christopher, are waiting to return to Sierra Leone.

Christopher, who is mentally retarded, "held up very well" during the ordeal, said Moran. He was pushed but not hurt during the robbery.

"He was certainly frightened," Moran said. "Some of the other boys [in the house] told the guys, `This kid is not well.' Then they left him alone."

At the height of the fighting, the rebels, from the Revolutionary United Front and the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council, threatened to torch the capital, Freetown, if ECOMOG forces challenged their advance.

By the end of last week, the reinforced intervention force had driven the rebels from the port area and the government center and were pushing them south out of the capital amid frantic diplomatic efforts by the 16-nation Economic Community of West African states to arrange a cease-fire.

The first sign of trouble that reached Moran, who went to Sierra Leone as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1972, was the arrival at dawn on Jan. 6 of members of his late wife's family from the other side of Freetown.

"They said the rebels were coming," he said. "By night there was shooting all around."

The group stayed indoors at first. On the next night, as the fighting died down, the robbers arrived. After they left, Moran decided to go to the local parish church and stayed there for a week.

On Thursday, people were allowed to move around more freely in the capital. A group of Moran's local helpers walked him and his son to the house of the only other CRS worker in town, Frenchman Jacques Monterey.

CRS, which operates a food-distribution program in the country, ordered them to leave. They arranged transportation to a local helipad, from where they expected to be flown to safety, but no helicopter arrived.

They booked into a hotel and that night met some friends who offered to take them by helicopter to Conakry's international airport for a flight out to Guinea.

"I wasn't really that keen on leaving," said Moran. "The spirits [of people in the town] were starting to pick up again as we left. The shops had been reopened. Everything was fairly normal. I don't think Jacques was that keen to go either. But we were asked [by CRS headquarters] to take a break.

"I am hoping we can go back in. The local church is certainly ready to start doing something in Freetown. If our resources are still intact -- we have not had news from the port area where the warehouse is -- and we can do something, I would go back in."

Pub Date: 1/17/99

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