People walk through the town of Kailahun in eastern Sierra Leone April 23, 2012. REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly
On April 26, former Liberian president Charles Taylor was convicted of war crimes by an international court in the Hague, Netherlands. He had been indicted by a Special Court for Sierra Leone, and was tried for his role in aiding rebel fighters during Sierra Leone's devastating civil war.
Those fighters, who called themselves the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), routinely committed horrific acts of violence against Sierra Leonean citizens.
Taylor plead not guilty, but was convicted on 11 counts of abetting war crimes and crimes against humanity.
This conviction was significant for many reasons. The ruling not only brought some measure of justice to Taylor's victims in both Liberia and Sierra Leone; it also marked the first time an African head of state was found guilty in international court. Holding Taylor accountable for his leading role in a brutal conflict sets a precedent for the prosecution of corrupt rulers across the continent and around the world.
A Lukewarm Reception
One might expect that the announcement of Taylor's verdict would be met with immediate jubilation in Sierra Leone, but reports suggest this was not exactly the case.
An AP article notes that many Sierra Leoneans in the village of Tombodu were gathered by officials to listen to the verdict on live radio, but a signal was hard to pick up and some residents took to the hills in order to catch the frequency.
There was some subdued clapping and a few smiles as news of Taylor's conviction spread, continued the report. One woman called out, asking why those who committed atrocities locally for years during the war were not charged. But the crowd quickly dispersed and people went back to their daily lives.
A correspondent for the BBC witnessed hundreds of people in Freetown watching the verdict unfold on television. He notes that it was such a long and complex judgment--over two hours--that there was no sudden reaction.
On the video screens, Judge Richard Lussick appeared to mumble slightly over the word 'guilty' and several Sierra Leoneans in the audience looked at each other quizzically for a moment -- but they then realized it was the verdict they wanted.
Taylor's conviction was an important step in the slow healing process for Sierra Leone, but it was a long time coming. The civil war officially ended in 2002. Taylor was arrested in 2006; his trial began in 2008. In a separate trial, three Sierra Leonean leaders of the RUF were convicted of war crimes in 2009. Taylor's guilty verdict was satisfying for many, but not all; angry Liberian supporters of the former president took to the streets in protest. And the book on Charles Taylor has yet to be closed, as he will not be formally sentenced until May.
On April 26, James Kpomgbo, whose arm was cut off by RUF fighters years ago, spoke to UN reporters after learning that Charles Taylor had been found guilty. I will reflect on the suffering we suffered today, but I want to forget -- we have known all along Charles Taylor is guilty, he said. Today is just another day where we must find food.
Decades on the Brink
Despite a relative wealth of natural resources in Sierra Leone including diamonds, precious metals and arable land, the general population suffered extreme levels of poverty in the decades leading up to civil war. Under a succession of corrupt leaders, the government failed to provide its citizens with a public education system, effective law enforcement or social welfare programs.
This left many Sierra Leoneans desperate to seize control over their own livelihoods. Young citizens especially, who lacked an education and faced a dire future despite the natural resources around them, were impatient for change and willing to agitate for it.
Artisanal miners pan for diamonds, which fuelled the 1991-2002 civil war, in the town of Koidu on April 21, 2012. REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly
The diamond trade, which financed the personal lives of elite politicians, was difficult to regulate since the rough diamonds of Sierra Leone were present in alluvial streams and therefore accessible to most anyone with a working sieve. During the civil war, both rebel fighters and government forces were able to fund their efforts by gathering and selling the precious stones.
This ease of access to valuable resources fueled a conflict that stretched on for nearly eleven years.
Through the War
When the Revolutionary United Front launched its first attack in Sierra Leone in 1991, it were closely allied to Charles Taylor and his forces in Liberia. Many RUF fighters were child refugees from Liberia's own civil war.
We do not deny the fact that some of those who volunteered to join our cause were veterans of the Liberian civil war but majority were of Sierra Leonean parentage, said an RUF-sponsored manifesto called Footprints to Democracy, which was published in 1995. The document goes on to disavow the partnership, saying it was curtailed as early as May 1992 when it became a nightmarish experience for our civil population.
That claim is contested by the April 26 ruling against Taylor, which charges the Liberian president with giving weapons to RUF fighters in exchange for illegally mined diamonds.
The stated aim of the RUF was simple: to overthrow the corrupt government of Sierra Leone. But the conflict grew increasingly complicated. Between 1991 and 2001, the government was twice overtaken in military coups. Foreign involvement came in the form of mercenary fighters from South Africa, weaponry from Liberia, several internationally-brokered and short-lived peace agreements, military assistance from the Economic Group of West African States, and intervention from Great Britain. Grassroots militias sprung up to defend citizens amid ongoing chaos. Even members of the official Sierra Leonean army sometimes switched sides, either permanently or temporarily, to loot villages and terrorize civilians.
During the conflict, guerilla fighters of the RUF became notorious for the merciless atrocities they committed against civilians, including rape, murder, pillaging, mutilation, slavery and the recruitment of children. RUF leaders, who often trained young recruits in hidden forest enclaves, frequently supplied their fighters with drugs and alcohol before sending them into battle.
Amputation was a common practice for the rebel fighters. Today, many surviving victims of RUF brutality struggle to make a living despite missing or mutilated hands and feet.
Sierra Leon's civil war ended 10 years ago, when the UN worked with the British Royal Marines and Guinea air forces to decisively defeat the RUF. Sierra Leone's then-president Ahmas Tejan Kabbah declared the conflict officially over in January of 2002. About 50,000 people had lost their lives.
Working for Peace
Sierra Leone has enjoyed a relative peace over the past decade. Economic growth is apparent, and there have been many encouraging developments. In 2004, the parliament established a Human Rights Commission. In 2010, Sierra Leone developed a Free Healthcare Initiative for new mothers and young children, with help from international donors. 2010 was also the year the UN Security Council lifted all economic sanctions against the Sierra Leonean government. In 2012, the country even held an international film festival. As time passes, the tropical nation hopes to attract tourists to its pristine beaches in order to bolster its economy and create more jobs for its citizens.
Natural resources including diamonds and iron ore are still abundant, and investments are being made into agriculture and infrastructure.
Komba Nyanku (L), 12, who wants to become a lawyer, and his friend, Abdoulaye Marrah, 12, who dreams of being a pilot, pose for a portrait in the town of Koidu in eastern Sierra Leone April 21, 2012. Neither of the boys have money to pay school fees. REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly
On the other hand, poverty remains a major problem -- for many, it has lately been exacerbated by inflation. Corruption still exists in the government. Child mortality rates are declining, but still high. International aid remains essential to continuing development.
As for former members of the notorious RUF, many still live in Sierra Leone and have been integrated back into society. They frequently find work as motorbike taxi drivers, living side by side with their former victims. The RUF even became a political party after peace was declared; it was unpopular and eventually threw its support behind the All People's Congress, a dominant party whose presidential candidate Ernest Bai Koroma won the 2007 elections and is running for a second term in this year.
In November, Koroma will defend his seat against contender Julius Maada Bio, a former coup leader during the Sierra Leonean conflict. There are worries that this election will spur new rounds of violence, especially since there have already been politically motivated attacks against Bio and his supporters. The International Foundation for Electoral Systems is working to prevent future clashes and ensure a fair election.
Charles Taylor's April 26 conviction was a source of satisfaction in Sierra Leone. But the real celebrations took place a day later, on the nation's annual Independence Day. On April 27, 1961, the country won sovereignty following over 150 years of British colonial rule. It was the very first time the green, white and blue flag of Sierra Leone was unfurled over an independent Freetown.
This year, citizens observed the anniversary with lantern parades, games and dancing. Public gatherings like these have been corrupted by crime in the past, but this year saw relatively smooth sailing.
The holiday was later commemorated with an address from Sierra Leone UN ambassador Shekou Toure, who spoke from New York City on Monday.
Toure lauded the progress that has been made since the civil war. He acknowledged the need for continued international assistance, but called on the Sierra Leonean people to be the ultimate stewards of their country's development. He also expressed hopes that November's elections would be fair and free of violence.
Notwithstanding our turbulent past, we Sierra Leoneans are by nature a peaceful people, he said. I have no doubt that we will each in our own way rise up to the challenge and explore all possibilities to emerge from it with flying colors.
A grandmother gives her grandchildren lessons on their porch in Sierra Leone's capital Freetown April 24, 2012. REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly