FREETOWN (Reuters) - Demolition teams wielding axes and machetes this week smashed up popular beach bars, one still bearing a sign saying “Paradise,” as part of an improvement scheme to develop tourism in Sierra’s Leone’s capital Freetown.
Truckloads of soldiers and armed police stood guard and pushed back journalists as demolition workers reduced illegal bars to rubble along a five-km (three-mile) stretch of Lumley Beach in the West African state’s seaside capital on Wednesday.
“They have destroyed our lives,” waiter Papa Yansanhe, 28, told Reuters in front of the ruins of the Paradise Beach Bar.
“Now I have nothing, no job, and against these vigilantes, soldiers and police I can’t do anything. They have guns and weapons — how can we resist?”
Sierra Leone ranks bottom of the U.N. Human Development Index and is trying to recover from a devastating decade-long civil war that ended in 2002. The war destroyed a nascent tourist industry, but foreign visitors are starting to return.
The Ministry of Tourism and Culture says the beach bars, where aid workers enjoy sundowners and families play in the sand, contribute to environmental degradation and are an eyesore. Many are rustic wood and thatch structures.
“They are illegal and we want to improve that part of the beach,” Tourism Minister Hindolo Trye told Reuters.
“They are unhygienic and they have not been contributing to the economy. We gave them notice to move out by September 30 back in May or June,” Trye said.
Bar owners say they have not been consulted or offered compensation for the destruction of their businesses, which Trye said would make way for tree planting, electricity cables and measures against sand and soil erosion.
A dossier defending the beach bars, distributed to President Ernest Bai Koroma, government ministries and foreign embassies, said they were worth 10.4 billion leones ($4.25 million) to the economy and supported the livelihoods of 394 people.
“We cannot underplay the value and importance of small business in our economy,” Henry Akintola Macauley, president of the Sierra Leone Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture, told Reuters.
Up to two-thirds of Sierra Leoneans are unemployed and 70 percent of the population live below the poverty line.
Bai Koroma, elected last year, has identified tourism as one of the sectors he wants to promote to develop the struggling economy, which depends on donor aid for a third of its income.
The government has been encouraging Sierra Leoneans who fled abroad during the war to return to help rebuild the country.
“They said they wanted people to come back and invest, and this is your reward,” said Mike Kargbo, a construction worker with Canadian citizenship who returned to his homeland to start Bunker Bar on Lumley Beach in 2007.
“I did it all myself. It’s crazy. How can you destroy your own people like this? I’m worried about this country,” he said.
Editing by Alistair Thomson and Andrew Dobbie