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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Students Occupy Sierra Leone Embassy

A group of about 30 angry students from Sierra Leone took over their country's embassy in Moscow on Tuesday, saying the embassy staff had failed to help one of their colleagues who had fallen terminally ill and died, and accusing the ambassador of misusing her post for her own gain.

The students said they would remain at the embassy until granted a meeting with Sierra Leone Ambassador Melrose Kai-Banya.

It was not clear what they wanted from such a meeting, because they have also demanded that Kai-Banya be recalled to Sierra Leone - a country where an eight-year, on-again off-again civil war flared up again last week, further worsening life in what the United Nations says is the world's poorest country.

Kai-Banya said in a telephone interview Tuesday evening that she would eventually meet with the students, but she said she could not do so Tuesday because she was suffering from arthritis. Later she added that she also had the flu. Two Russian security guards were posted Tuesday outside of her apartment, which is in the same building as the embassy.

Originally the students had planned a peaceful protest to demand that the embassy expedite the repatriation proceedings for Alimamy Sesay, a Sierra Leone citizen who came to Russia in 1990 to study international law but who last year was hospitalized with terminal cancer.

Sesay's supporters said he was receiving minimal medical care for his condition - he had graduated from People's Friendship University in 1997 and so lost his student's medical insurance - and needed to be sent home. But Tuesday, Sesay died. By noon, protesters had taken over the three-room apartment that houses the embassy, brushing aside the protests of a lone receptionist.

The students - some of them accompanied by their families and children - roamed freely and quietly about the small embassy. They placed phone calls to Russian media and to government officials in Sierra Leone, and rummaged desultorily through embassy files. When Francis Edward Kandeh, head of the embassy's chancery, arrived to speak with them, he found himself instead detained.

As Kandeh fidgeted at his desk hours later, still wearing his coat and nervously donning and then doffing his hat, a reporter who arrived Tuesday evening was handed the telephone to speak long distance with representatives of the Sierra Leone foreign ministry.

"The [foreign] ministry has begun investigating this matter," said Shar Sundu, director general of the foreign ministry. "Meanwhile, we would please ask the students to calm down and leave. We will continue this conversation tomorrow."

But students said they weren't leaving the embassy until they were allowed to speak to Kai-Banya. Ambassador Kai-Banya instead called on Russian security guards posted outside the embassy to clear the students out of the offices. But according to the students, the guards merely met with the students, heard their side of the story and left.

The students were highly critical of Kai-Banya. They said she was not responsive to the needs of Sierra Leone expatriates in Moscow, and alleged she used her position to whisk her relatives out of war-ridden Sierra Leone and help them find new homes in the United States and other countries in the West.

When asked by telephone about those allegations, Kai-Banya at first said they touched upon personal matters and proposed a face-to-face interview later this week. After a pause, she denied the allegations flatly.

The death of Sesay on Tuesday was the last straw for the students, they said. Many of them for weeks had been visiting Sesay at Infection Clinic Hospital No. 3, where he was brought in November and judged terminally ill with cancer. The students spent their days washing him, changing his bed pans and otherwise caring for him. They also lobbied Kai-Banya's embassy for repatriation so that he could at least die at home with his family.

That lobbying was unsuccessful, they said. The students said Kai-Banya had not gotten along well with Sesay when Sesay had been president of the Sierra Leone Student Union in Moscow. The said that when Sesay was recommended by his university as a candidate for continued doctoral studies, the embassy denied him permission. They also accused the ambassador of ignoring his medical plight.

"I feel so sad. [Sesay] studied here, then he fell sick and he could not go home. It could happen to any of us, tomorrow," said Paul Amara, who today holds Sesay's old post as president of the student union. "When I went to see him [Monday], he was crying. He was suffering so much. He said all he wanted was to go home."

Documents the students pulled out of the embassy files confirmed head of chancery Kandeh's claims that the embassy was aware of the matter and working on it. A document dated New Year's Eve showed the embassy had asked the International Organization for Migration to pick up Sesay's plane fare back to Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. A commercial airline ticket to Freetown costs about $650, the students said.There are about 118 Sierra Leonean citizens studying in Russia, Kandeh said. Most are here under an intergovernmental agreement in which Russia pays for their education and Sierra Leone pays the students a sustenance stipend. In recent years, that stipend has fallen to about $150 a year, the students said, forcing many of them to work in addition to their studies.

In May 1997, as the civil war in Sierra Leone raged hot, the Sierra Leone Embassy in Moscow asked the Russian government to let students graduating under this program to remain in Russia, safe from the war. Russia agreed. But in March 1998, when Sierra Leone was quieter, the embassy recommended that graduated students be sent home. The embassy provided the education ministry with a list of eight students who should be repatriated. Sesay's name was first on the list.