Musa Tamba Sam is a troubled man. He's just stepped out of Parliament where his attempt to slip Yenga into the agenda was shot down by the speaker. 'I'm from the opposition you see,' he explains to me. Sam, an SLPP (Sierra Leone People's Party) parliamentarian from the east of Sierra Leone is trying to make sure no one forgets about his people in the tiny border town that has been under Guinean occupation for almost 10 years. He is also part of 'Save Yenga Save Salone', an advocacy-through-music campaign that kicks off on 10 July with a concert in Freetown. The aim is to rally support for Government intervention in the region.
Yenga is a hamlet in the eastern Kailahun district of Sierra Leone, bordering both Guinea and Liberia. Situated on the bank of the Makona River, the fertile tract of farmland is also believed to be rich in diamonds. Guinean troops first entered Yenga in the mid 1990s to help fight the Revolutionary United Front rebels during the civil war and block their exit routes into Guinea. After the war ended in 2002, they retained their military presence in Yenga. Over the past week reports have poured in about Guinean officers trying to tax the locals.
Back in 2005 tensions were quelled with the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the two countries; Yenga belonged to Sierra Leone and the Makona belonged to Guinea. The borders reconfirmed, the then President of Sierra Leone, Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, declared the issue resolved.
Not quite. Like with all border disputes, quick-fix political solutions are often ignorant of ground realities. Even today Guinean military personnel continue to guard Yenga from a base just across the river. 'They claim that the boundary should be another 800 metres inland, covering Yenga,' says Sam. Approximately 500 people call Yenga home. Sam's mother lives close by and he fears for her safety if the situation gets out of hand.
It is hard to say exactly how many soldiers remain in Yenga but there is no ambiguity about the Guinean armoured tank on top of the hill overlooking the area. Recently the Sierra Leonean Parliamentary Committee on Defence and Presidential Affairs was halted from entering Yenga by Guinean personnel. The committee maintained their right to visit their own people and was eventually let in after a 90 minute standoff. 'They then informed us that we were now in Guinea,' adds Sam.
The ruling APC (All People's Congress) Administration's official response is that there is no problem in Yenga. A friend at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs claims that Sierra Leoneans and Guineans are living peacefully as they share both language and culture. But the situation on the ground undercuts this argument. Media reports tell pitiful stories of residents that are starving because soldiers have usurped their farm lands. People are frequently threatened with arrest. 'There are no schools or hospitals,' says Sam. This, despite the fact that the people still pay their local taxes. A few years ago World Vision tried to build a school there but were hindered by the military. For this same reason other NGOs hesitate to go there. So how do the people survive? Mostly on handouts from relatives in neighbouring villages and 'by miracle'.
Part of the reason for the official silent treatment is that Sierra Leone does not recognize Guinea's military government and are unwilling to engage in talks. Unofficially I'm told negotiations are underway but obviously with no visible results. War is not an option. There are enough scars here to remind people of the last time soldiers roamed the streets. 'We need to increase pressure for a diplomatic solution,' Sam asserts.