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Perilous path to freedom

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A sick baby died in the African heat only hours before she was to be evacuated from the war zone in which she'd lived most of her short life.

She died amid a small knot of tired, desperate, and sick refugees who are among the estimated 2 million people who have been displaced during this country's two-decade civil war.

Early that Sunday morning they were registered for evacuation with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and told to wait for a helicopter. They waited for six hours, in temperatures that exceeded 100 degrees, even though the helicopter was a 12-minute flight away.

Meanwhile, in what used to be the town square in this collection of roofless buildings, frustration and pandemonium held court. Soldiers with the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) mingled nervously with hundreds of Revolutionary United Front fighters and hundreds more refugees. A group of Komajors - the RUF's enemy, who had Kailahun surrounded - wandered through town.

A representative of Save the Children, a nongovernmental organization, argued with RUF leaders about which child combatants would be allowed to leave and which had to stay.

And the six young men and women of the UNHCR made desperate calls on their satellite telephone to Freetown, trying to cut through the red tape that would free the helicopter to evacuate their refugees.

In spite of the chaos, New Zealander Jonathan Andrews, UNHCR technical officer, called the day "a pretty good success."

The UNHCR's three-day mission to Kailahun offers a vivid illustration of the difficulty of providing humanitarian assistance in Sierra Leone. Relief workers not only have to contend with the needs of thousands of desperate people, but also with armed and drugged combatants and stifling institutional bureaucracy.

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