The Parliamentary Committee on Defence and Presidential Affairs has visited the disputed border town of Yenga in the Kailahun district. The visit got off to a shaky start when Guinean civil and military personnel rebuffed the MPs attempt to enter the town which both Guinea and Sierra Leone have laid claim to. This resulted in a standoff lasting over one hour and left the parliamentarians visibly incensed.
The chairman of the parliamentary committee, Cpt (Rtd) Abdul Rahman Kamara explained to the Guinean authorities that they had gone to the area on a fact-finding mission following recent reports that Sierra Leoneans were being harassed in the town. Backed by senior Guinean military personnel, the Guinean-appointed civil administrator in the town, Sayon Keita said he would not allow the delegation access to the town because it belonged to Guinea. “I am president of this town and I have a duty to protect it” he told Awoko in French.
Keita said the MPs should have given him a one-week written notification if they wanted to go beyond a beacon the Guineans had erected as the frontier between the two countries. After giving varied reasons as to why they would not allow the delegation to enter the town, among them that there was a funeral on the other side which proved to be a hoax, the parliamentarians stood their ground insisting “we must visit our people in Yenga”. It paid off as the Guineans backed off and allowed the delegation to enter the town on condition that they left behind their convoy of vehicles and all cameras and other specified gadgets.
The delegation walked the nearly 1000-metre long distance to the Makona River which was the border between the two countries before Guinea officially laid claim to Yenga at the end of Sierra Leone’s civil war in 2002. A contingent of Guinean troops is stationed on a hill overlooking Yenga with an armoured tank in view. Few metres down the hill on the disputed Sierra Leone side of the Makona River was another armoured tank, and well-armed Guinean soldiers who created a ring round the delegation that also included unarmed personnel of the Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces. There were even suspicions that the Guineans had set up an ambush as armed men emerged from the bushes. In an apparent show of force, there were also Guinean troops patrolling in dugout canoes in full view.
A family living in Yenga which now has only ten houses still standing as opposed to the fifty that was said to be there before the war, told this press that life was very tough for them. Kumba Morrie a mother of five, said only Guinean soldiers were farming in the town as they would not allow Sierra Leoneans to do so. She said her children have to walk to Koindu or another nearby village to be able to attend school. Residents of the town, she went on, must also travel to Koindu or to Guinea to buy foodstuff with “the little money I manage to get from visitors”.
Guinean troops first entered Yenga in the 1990s with the approval of the Sierra Leone government who were desperate to fight against RUF rebels. They have since refused to leave. Despite talks between Freetown and Conakry, their troops have not backed off. In a somewhat strange development, Minister of Defence Pallo Conteh announced that the Sierra Leone government was discontinuing talks with the Guineans until an elected government was in place in the troubled neighbouring country.
By Umaru Fofana just back from Yenga