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SafetyTravel Safety: Africa: Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone: Republic of Sierra Leone
Capital: Freetown
Population: 5,614,743
Currency: leone (SLL)
Languages: English (official, regular use limited to literate minority), Mende (principal vernacular in the south), Temne (principal vernacular in the north), Krio (English-based Creole, spoken by the descendants of freed Jamaican slaves who were settled in the Freetown area, a lingua franca and a first language for 10% of the population but understood by 95%)
Religions: Muslim 60%, indigenous beliefs 30%, Christian 10%
Borders: Guinea 652 km, Liberia 306 km

Sierra Leone is a developing country in western Africa that is emerging from a ten-year civil war. English is the official language, but Krio, an English-based dialect, is widely used. Tourist facilities in the capital, Freetown, are limited; elsewhere, they are primitive or non-existent.

Security in Sierra Leone has improved significantly since the end of civil war in 2001. Government forces are deployed around the country, and the behavior of both the police and army has improved markedly following extensive international training efforts. Government forces exercise authority throughout Sierra Leone, aided by a large contingent of peacekeepers of the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL). UNAMSIL is scheduled to withdraw completely by December 2004.

Areas outside of Freetown lack many basic services. Travelers are urged to exercise caution, especially when traveling outside of the capital. Embassy employees are free to travel throughout Sierra Leone with the exception of Tongo Fields in Kenema District and the area between the Moa River and the border with Liberia. Travel to these areas is reviewed on a case-by-case basis. There are occasional unauthorized roadblocks outside Freetown, where travelers might be asked to pay a small amount of money to the personnel manning the roadblock. Because many Sierra Leoneans, especially outside the capital, do not speak English, it can be difficult for a foreigner to communicate his or her identity.

In the past year, there have been periodic, isolated security incidents due to police operations to reclaim land from illegal occupants and to clear streets of petty traders and vendors. U.S. citizens should avoid political rallies and street demonstrations, and maintain security awareness at all times.

The continued poor state of the economy and the lack of opportunity for many in Sierra Leone have led many individuals or small groups to turn to criminal activity. There has been a moderate increase in armed robberies and residential burglaries. Petty crime and theft of wallets, cell phones and passports are very common. Americans traveling to or residing in Sierra Leone should maintain a heightened sense of awareness of their surroundings to help avoid being the victims of crimes.

Perpetrators of business fraud often target foreigners, including Americans. While such fraud schemes in the past have been largely associated with Nigeria, they are now prevalent throughout western Africa, including Sierra Leone. The scams pose a danger of both financial loss and physical harm. Recently, an increasing number of American citizens have been the targets of such scams.

Typically, these scam operations begin with an unsolicited communication (usually by e-mail) from an unknown individual who describes a situation that promises quick financial gain, often by assisting in the transfer of a large sum of money or valuables out of the country. A series of �advance fees� must then be paid in order to conclude the transaction: for example, fees to open a bank account, or to pay certain taxes. In fact, the final payoff does not exist; the purpose of the scam is simply to collect the advance fees. One common variation of this scheme involves individuals claiming to be refugees or other victims of various western African conflicts (notably Sierra Leone ) who contact U.S. citizens to request their help in transferring large sums of money out of Sierra Leone. Another typical ploy has persons claiming to be related to present or former political leaders who need assistance to transfer large sums of cash. Other variations include what appear to be legitimate business deals requiring advance payments on contracts.

The best way to avoid becoming a victim of advance-fee fraud is common sense - if it looks too good to be true, it probably is. Any unsolicited business proposal originating from Sierra Leone should be carefully checked out before any funds are committed, any goods or services are provided, or any travel is undertaken.

While in a foreign country, a U.S. citizen is subject to that country's laws and regulations, which sometimes differ significantly from those in the United States and may not afford the protections available to the individual under U.S. law. Penalties for breaking the law can be more severe than in the United States for similar offenses. Persons violating Sierra Leonean law, even unknowingly, may be expelled, arrested or imprisoned. Penalties for possession, use, or trafficking in illegal drugs in Sierra Leone are strict, and convicted offenders can expect jail sentences and heavy fines.

Medical facilities fall critically short of U.S. standards. Persons with medical conditions that may require treatment or medications are discouraged from traveling to Sierra Leone. Medicines are in short supply, sterility of equipment is questionable, and treatment is unreliable. Many primary health care workers, especially in rural areas, lack professional training. Instances of misdiagnosis, improper treatment and administration of improper drugs have been reported.

While in a foreign country, U.S. citizens may encounter road conditions that differ significantly from those in the United States. The information below concerning Sierra Leone is provided for general reference only and may not be totally accurate in a particular location or circumstance:

Safety of Public Transportation: Poor 
Urban Road Conditions/Maintenance: Poor 
Rural Road Conditions/Maintenance: Poor 
Availability of Roadside Assistance: Poor

Most main roads in Freetown are paved but have potholes; unpaved side streets are generally navigable. There is a major road resurfacing and repair program ongoing in Freetown that is slowly improving the quality of roads in the city. Most roads outside Freetown are unpaved, and most are passable with a 4-wheel drive vehicle. However, certain stretches of mapped road are often impassable during the rainy season. Public transport (bus or group taxi) is erratic, sometimes unsafe, and generally not recommended. U.S. government employees are prohibited from using public transportation except for taxis that work in conjunction with an approved hotel.

For additional general information about road safety, including links to foreign government sites, please see the Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs home page at

As there is no direct commercial air service by local carriers at present, or economic authority to operate such service, between the U.S. and Sierra Leone, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has not assessed Sierra Leone 's Civil Aviation Authority for compliance with international aviation safety standards. For further information, travelers may contact the Department of Transportation within the U.S. at 1-800-322-7873, or visit the FAA's Internet website at The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) separately assesses some foreign air carriers for suitability as official providers of air services. For information regarding the DOD policy on specific carriers, travelers may contact DOD at (618) 229-4801.

The airline SN Brussels operates twice weekly flights to Lungi International Airport. The national airline, Sierra National Airways, operates chartered European aircraft twice a week between London and Lungi. Some regional airlines service the airport, but are unreliable. Travellers using regional flights are required to pay a $30 airport tax. This tax is not required for SN Brussels or SNA flights. It is not uncommon for the airlines to alter scheduled stops, cancel or postpone flights on short notice, and regularly overbook flights. Travelers may experience unexpected delays even after checking in, and should be prepared to handle alternate ticketing and/or increased food and lodging expenses.

The airport is located across a large body of water from Freetown. Helicopters ferries, and hovercraft service is available in connection with most major regional flights to transport passengers to the capital. However, due to concerns about safety and maintenance of the helicopters, United States Government employees are currently authorized to use only the Pan African Helicopter Service and the ferry and hovercraft services.

Permission is required to photograph government buildings, airports, bridges, or official facilities. Areas where photography is prohibited may not be clearly marked or defined. Individuals sometimes do not want to be photographed for religious reasons or may want to be paid for posing. Photographers should ask permission before taking pictures.

Sierra Leone is effectively a cash-only economy. Very few facilities accept credit cards, and there is a serious risk that using a card will lead to the number being stolen for use in fraudulent transactions. There are no ATM machines connected to international networks. Travelers' checks are not easy to cash and are not usually accepted as payment. Currency exchanges should be handled through a bank or established foreign exchange bureau. Exchanging money with street vendors is risky. Criminals may "mark" such people for future attack and there is a risk of being provided counterfeit currency.

Please also refer to the separate Worldwide Caution Public Announcement.

March 1, 2004

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