At around 7:30 am on Wednesday 11 May, bailiffs and heavy police personnel forcefully and unlawfully entered a property at 15 Ecowas Street, Freetown, in order to violently evict over 300 disabled youths, mostly children and young women.
The building is dilapidated and had been abandoned by it owners who are yet to be identified. The house was home to some 300 disabled youth and provided a platform to engage in skills training and income generating activities in the past 11 years.
The area has a large disabled community including single mothers, vulnerable young girls and disadvantaged youth who were affected and displaced by the civil conflict. Some children are literally alone, with 12 and 16 year olds taking sole care of themselves. The youths started moving into the building during the civil conflict and have applied for formal land titles several times since 2006, but the authorities have ignored their applications in spite of official documentation proving strong occupancy claims.
The youths at Ecowas Street had been living under the threat of forced eviction for the past three years, with the Government authorities following none of the safeguards required under international law.
Throughout the occupation there was little negotiation offered by City Council, and the police subjected the youths to ongoing threats of violent removal, harassment and intimidation. Since that time, the youths have issued demands to the government and held meetings with the President of Sierra Leone to provide alternative accommodation and held a series of advocacy discussions for a solution to the matter, to no avail.
Unfortunately, the Freetown City Council is now trying to take over the premises and lease to PPASL, at the expense of the poor disabled who have occupied the building for the past 12 years. The Council had forcefully taken over the property to lease/sell to a private entity.
The Police have evicted the group despite the fact that court has yet to determine who owns the disputed building. The options for alternative accommodation and compensation offered by the council were none existent. Clearly, the Sierra Leone Government has consistently failed to guarantee the right to adequate housing and protect the rights of disabled against forced eviction.
Large cordons of police officers were containing a crowd within a very limited area and youths were prevented from taking their properties. During the eviction, police damaged tailoring machines, computers, carpentry and hair dressing equipments and money stolen from the building all worth over 60,000 USD. Most of the items destroyed were provided by the UNHABITAT, Live to Max International, the Roselle Foundation UK and Messeh Partnership Trust (MPT), in support of a skills development and micro-enterprise project.
Although the youths were peaceful, violence erupted when police personnel vandalised equipments and household items, broke windows, manhandled some of the disabled youths, used tear gas and even fired gun shots. 10 disabled youths were taken to hospital and over 112 treated for minor injuries. The use of such force by a police institution against its own people marks a sad day for disabled persons in Sierra Leone. That an institution would inflict such violence upon its own poor citizens demonstrates the total alienation and marginalization of disabled youths. The unprofessional eviction of the youths exposes the false image of the Sierra Leone Police as a ‘Force for Good’.
‘‘The police were too heavy handed. We had to sleep under the rain last night. We didn’t have access to food, water or toilet facilities. At the moment we don’t have anywhere to go and this building is the only place we call our family home’’, said Mohamed Kamara, Chairman of Handicapped Youth Development Association (HYDA). ‘’The Freetown City Council made no attempts to properly consult with the affected group or explore any feasible alternative to eviction and we were clearly cut off from due process and denied justice,” said Mohamed. “This makes a mockery of the government’s obligations to protect the right to housing and that of the rights of disabled persons.’’ Mohamed added.
Members of the public were forced to intervene, demanding that the police allow the youth access in order to retrieve their items. A number of human rights activists have challenged the behaviour and decisions of the police. The eviction was a thoroughly disgraceful incident and there must be a full and detailed inquiry into how that attack happened. “We always said that this issue could only be settled by negotiation, not by confrontation or litigation. And so it has proved, and so we strongly condemn this forced eviction and the deeply flawed process that led to it”, Said Bankole Turay, Executive Secretary of the Messeh Partnership Trust (MPT).
Kabba Frankline Bangura, a disabled activist, said: “It’s disgraceful that the Freetown City Council would call the police on poor disabled before even reading our demands, though perhaps not surprising considering the police brutality we saw. Now more than ever we need to stand up against our right to housing. We won’t let the police intimidation tactics stop us.”
Aminata Bangura, a single mother and student in the building, said: “We are particularly disappointed in the Ministers of Social Welfare and youth, who are clearly taking pleasure out of Freetown City Council’s ruthless act to deprive us, in the interest of taking money from a private company to occupy the building. The Government is actually putting disabled youths in danger by backing the eviction act and not speaking out against this inhumane act of violent. We are being failed by institutions which are meant to be standing up for us–this is why we need to step up to act and resist.”