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Family loses child in chaotic exodus from Sierra Leone

There were six of them when they forced their way through terrified, jostling crowds toward a packed boat at Freetown's port.

But as the small wooden craft pulled away from the artillery and gunfire tearing at Sierra Leone's capital, Adame Kamara looked at her children huddled around her and suddenly realized one was missing.Ten-year-old Fatima was somewhere back on shore in the crowd, lost in the chaotic exodus.

"I don't know where she is," Kamara said a few days later, standing among a hundred or so other refugees in the crowded yard of Sierra Leone's Embassy in Conakry, the capital of neighboring Guinea. "I don't know how I'll find her."

Kamara is just one among the tens of thousands of Sierra Leoneans who have fled their homes since fighting broke out on Feb. 5, when a Nigerian-led West African intervention force attacked to drive out the country's ruling junta.

Within 10 days, the intervention force had largely succeeded. The city is under their control, and ousted President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, forced from power in a bloody May coup, is preparing to return.

Freetown now faces roaming vigilante gangs, widespread hunger and the threat of disease spread by exposed and rotting corpses.

Relief agencies said Monday that the emphasis must shift toward helping residents get food and medical help, while holding at bay angry crowds bent on settling scores with the junta. A mass effort is also needed to clean up the city and bury the war dead.

The toll of the fighting is still being added up. At least 118 people were killed, most of them civilians. At least 700 more were injured, and large parts of the city were left in ruins.

Kamara's losses in the past two weeks are nearly incomprehensible: Her parents were killed when an artillery shell landed on their home, her daughter was swallowed up by the crowd, her husband has disappeared.

In Conakry, at least, the 4,000 or so people who have come since Feb. 6 have received help. There are buses they can take to refugee camps, a support network of aid agencies and food deliveries.

Kabbah set up his government-in-exile here, and flights from abroad are filled with wealthy Sierra Leoneans flying in to prepare to return to their own country.