Sierra Leone (Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity)
In eleven years of civil war, an estimated 150,000 people died, more than half the country was rendered homeless, 600,000 refugees (12% of the population) fled to neighbouring countries, more than 200,000 women were raped, and about 1,000 civilians suffered the amputation of one or more limbs. Fighting began on March 23, 1991, when the (student-led) Revolutionary United Front (RUF) crossed the eastern border of Sierra Leone from Liberia. The RUF was formed, with Libyan backing, to overthrow the government of the All People's Congress (APC). The APC was a one-party regime under the presidencies of Siaka Stevens (1968985) and Joseph Momoh (1985992) that maintained itself through thuggery and corruption to the point where the economy all but collapsed. The RUF also received support from the Libyan-backed forces of Charles Taylor, leader of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL). The RUF appealed to disaffected local sentiment in the border region, and expanded its ranks largely by capturing and training young people from dysfunctional rural primary schools in eastern and southern Sierra Leone. A small cohort of radicals from the teacher training college at Bunumbu, adjacent to the Liberian border, also rallied to the movement. President Momoh created immediate conditions for the war by defaulting on the terms of an IMF loan agreement and thereafter being unable to pay for basic government services. He alienated many young people by declaring education a privilege, not a right.
The inefficient and politicized national army, riddled by corruption and nepotism, had little interest in fighting the war from its outset. The APC, appealing for international intervention, sought to deny the independent existence of the RUF, making the rebellion appear solely the work of Charles Taylor. Guinean and Nigerian troops took up key defensive positions in Daru and Gondama (near Bo) in April and August 1991, and slowed the advance of the RUF, which depended mainly on raiding opposing forces for its weapons and other supplies. Thereafter, successive governments claimed to be engaged in peace processes, while mainly concentrating on ways to manage a small war to consolidate the political advantage of the elite.
A military coup in 1992 brought a faction of young army officers to power, but they were opposed by a larger group within the army that was still loyal to the previous regime. The National Provisional Ruling Council (1992996), under its chairman, Captain Valentine Strasser, offered to negotiate with the RUF, but also recruited and armed large numbers of unemployed young people. Poorly trained and ill disciplined, these new recruits were resented by the APC elements in the army. A small group of NPRC officersome from the eastern border regionsressed the war against the RUF, and by the end of 1993 they had forced the movement's leadership out of its temporary headquarters in northern Kailahun (Sandeyalu). The movement scattered, and various members built a number of secure forest camps in different parts of the country. Some of these were in the forest reserves along the Liberian border, others towards the center of the country, approaching Freetown. From these green fortresses, cadres raided villages to capture recruits and spread panic among local populations. Government depots and convoys were attacked to acquire supplies. The RUF was denied the opportunity for peace negotiations, largely because the NPRC continued to maintain that the organization was a front for Charles Taylor and not an indigenous Sierra Leonean movement. Facing troops that were untrained and ill-equipped for jungle warfare, the RUF began to exploit the divisions in the national army.The RUF conducted raids wearing stolen army fatigues and carrying fake identification, creating an impression in the minds of civilians that the army was the main cause of the violence, and thus turning civilians against their own security forces. Disgruntled army units added to the impression by carrying out extensive looting in areas that had been emptied by RUF hit-andrun raids. Widespread civilian protest was directed against the military regime, to which was added international pressure for democratic reform. The NPRC agreed to elections in early 1996, thinking it would be able to manipulate the election of its own candidate. Instead, the victory went to the opposition party (the Sierra Leone Peoples Party, SLPP), even though it had been banned under a one-party constitution in 1978. The new civilian government, under President Ahmad Tejan-Kabba, a retired UN bureaucrat, had no confidence in the army of the previous government, and turned instead to an ethnically based civil defence force (CDF). This military organization was trained by Nigerian peacekeepers and a South Africaritish mercenary
Despite a cease-fire agreement, civil defence forces destroyed several of the main forest camps of the RUF prior to the RUF leadership agreeing to a peace treaty in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, on November 30, 1996. Having signed under duress, the civilian leadership of the RUF was unable to get its fighters to accept the deal, and the war continued. Although a failure, the Abidjan agreement remains significant, because it marks the date from which the Sierra Leone Special Court indicts participants in the war for war crimes.
The RUF believed that the peace process was no more than a pretext to wipe it out and consolidate (with international support) the results of a democratic transition from which the movement was excluded. RUF fighters escaping the sack of their camps regrouped in the north and center of the country. They began again to gather new recruits by force, vowing revenge on a society that had rejected the revolutionary message. It was from this time that some of the worst
In May 1997 the army was faced with the cancellation of food subsidies at the insistence of the IMF. Soldiers mounted a mutiny, forcing the civilian regime into exile in Guinea. A Momoh loyalist in the army, Major Johnny Paul Koroma, accused of collaboration with the enemy in acts of sabotage, and later jailed by the Kabba government, emerged to become leader of a new regime (the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council, AFRC). The AFRC sought to end the war by enticing the RUF into a power-sharing regime, but the junta was shunned internationally, and the alliance between former enemies soon fell apart. The RUF used its time in government to stockpile weapons in its rear bases, convinced by its charismatic leader, a cashiered former army corporal named Foday Sankoh, that one day, despite all hardships, it was destined to rule. Negotiations over the return of the legitimate government proved inconclusive. Although the deadlines had not yet expired, Nigerian General Sanni Abacha ordered Nigerian troops in the regional peacekeeping force, ECOMOG, to take Freetown and restore the deposed government in February 1998. The irony of a military dictator fighting for democracy in a foreign country was not lost on the international community, despite general relief that the way was open for the legitimate government to return (which it did in March 1998). The army was disbanded, but army loyalists calling themselves the West Side Boys went to ground in villages behind the Ocra Hills, only about forty miles from Freetown. The RUF resumed its positions on the forested Liberian border. It offered refuge to elements in the former junta leadership, although some say it held them hostageoroma was held in virtual captivity by his erstwhile comradesin-arms. The RUF also strengthened its links with the Taylor regime and its allies in Burkina Faso and Libya.
In exile in Conakry, Guinea, the Kabba government engaged another branch of the South Africanritish security and mining company that had helped undermine the RUF. It directed these allies to support loyalist fighters in southern Sierra Leone and mount a counter-coup. Alleged involvement of U.K. officials and military intelligence in this arrangement, contrary to UN sanctions, caused a storm in British politics, leading to a parliamentary investigation by Sir David Legg into the shipment of arms to Sierra Leone. The kimberlite concession held by the main mining associate of the security company in question (valued at around $450 million on resumption of operations in 2002) stimulated business rivalry in the murky world of African minerals capitalism. Competitors, mainly from the former Soivet Union, ventured to re-arm and retrain remnant junta forces, hoping once again to topple the Kabba government and thus overturn the kimberlite concession granted in return for security services. The RUF had its own political reasons for going along with this scheme. In October 1998, RUF forces led by Samuel Bockarie, a Libyan-backed Sankoh loyalist, battled Nigerian troops to seize the main diamond-mining district of Kono. It was widely reported that the Nigerian peacekeepers were lax due to their own involvement in alluvial diamond mining. RUF and junta forces soon took control of the Makeni-Magburaka axis, giving them control of the main approach roads to Kono and much of the north of the country, where former government troops had their greatest support. In December, an audacious attempt to take Freetown began.
Junta fighters entered eastern Freetown on January 6, 1999, forcing sections of the government to flee. For a period of time, the president slept in Conakry, the Guinean capital, and by day he administered his country from Freetown's international airport at Lungi, protected by Nigerian troops. The civilian casualty rate from the attack amounted to some 7,000 to 8,000 deaths. Many terrible atrocities were committed, including random amputations and burning alive entire households. These acts were committed especially by units of the West Side Boys, which by then included former army recruits and their irregular associates.
The RUF tended to occupy rear positions, such as at Waterloo, on the road out of Freetown, and close to the forest in which they felt most at home. Some RUF units were at the forefront, however, focusing in particular on Pademba Road Prison. These forces were hoping to find and release their leader, Foday Sankoh, who had been detained in the aftermath of the Abidjan peace negotiation, in February 1997. Sankoh had been tried for treason in October 1998, as the junta revival began, and was awaiting confirmation of his death sentence. The government quickly moved him to another location when the attack on Freetown began. The peacekeepers were also guilty of abuses, carrying out summary executions of young people suspected of RUF membership. Civilians manipulated the excited Nigerian troops to settle old scores, at times pointing the finger at young neighbors suspected of thieving or adultery. Under the rules of the Sierra Leone Special Court, war crimes by troops invited into the country by the legitimate government can only be tried in the sending country.
Nigerian troops ousted the junta from Freetown after three weeks of fighting, but suffered heavy casualtiess many as 1,000 Nigerian soldiers may have been killed. A scaling back of Nigerian peacekeepers was underway before the attack. Abacha had died, and Nigeria was about to return to democracy. The president-elect, Olusegun Obasanjo, had made it clear, even while campaigning, that he had reservations about Nigeria's peace-enforcement role in Sierra Leone. The days of the Nigerian-dominated ECOMOG were numbered. President Kabba, with no army of his own, had little option but to sue for peace.
The Lomè Peace Agreement offered the RUF a better deal than it had been offered at Abidjan. The death sentence on Sankoh was lifted, and the movement was offered three senior government posts in a power-sharing agreement. Fighters were amnestied, although the UN entered a reservation concerning amnesties for indictable war crimes. Sankoh became the national commissioner for minerals, with vice-presidential status. The RUF hoped this would lead to controls on the cancerous corruption that had blighted politics in Sierra Leone for more than forty years. Some assumed that the diamonds were all Sankoh ever wanted, and that he and his cronies would become the new national mineral-rich elite. Former army elements were marginalized in the agreement. The West Side Boys took up a life of banditry and hostage-taking on the main road leading into Freetown, later clashing with the British army.
British intervention in Sierra Leone in May 2000 was occasioned by the near collapse of the Lomè agreement. ECOMOG finally withdrew in April 2000, to be replaced by a UN force, UNAMSIL, as had been envisaged in the Lome agreement. UNAMSIL was ill prepared for its task, however. In particular, it knew little about the identities, backgrounds, and factions within the fighting groups controlling the RUF. Political leaders of the RUF had never gone back to the movement in the bush when the Abidjan agreement foundered. Not many military commanders in the field had passed through the RUF ideological training program, which was based on the Green Book and other Libyan writings, teachings of Kim Il Sung, and Sandanista sources on guerrilla warfare, as well as various manuals on community leadership and cooperative development. Those without political training made up disciplinary rules in very harsh operational conditions, and with little or no effective supervision from Sankoh or other movement intellectuals. Violent and sometimes bizarre punishments were their main tools for subjugating unwilling civilian populations, at times reflecting the codes and norms of adolescent gang culture.
UN peacekeepers (familiarly known as Blue Helmets) attempted forcibly to disarm the RUF. Oblivious of the international consequences, nervy teenage fighters hit back at the Blue Helmet forces, killing some and taking large numbers hostage. Meanwhile, rumors swept Freetown that the RUF was once again on the march. These were given currency by UN sources and only later corrected. Some members of the RUF political leadership in Freetown were rounded up and jailed on Sunday, May 7, 2000, and a peace demonstration at Foday Sankoh's house on Spur Road on the next day turned violent; it was described by one of the organizers as a "riot cum lynch-mob." Sankoh's panicky guards opened fire after the security forces lost control of the crowd, killing over twenty demonstrators. Sankoh and his supporters escaped into the hills above Freetown. Some made it through bush tracks to the movement's safe haven in Makeni. A group of women fighters saved their lives by claiming to be out collecting firewood when they were attacked by the escaping RUF party. Sankoh himself spent several days in the forests above Freetown before deciding to surrender himself to the authorities. Detained by the government for many months, he was eventually handed over to the jurisdiction of the special court, and died in captivity in August 2003, before he could stand trial for his alleged war crimes.
The objective of the British intervention in Sierra Leone was to stabilize the situation, encourage resolution of the UN hostage crisis, enable the full deployment of UNAMSIL, and (over the longer term) train a new Sierra Leonean army. The British government, under prime minister Tony Blair, had been uneasy about Sierra Leone ever since the Legg report revealed collusion between the private security company assisting the exiled government of Sierra Leone and middle level officials of the British Foreign Office acting without proper political authorization. The Legg enquiry and subsequent parliamentary debate exposed an agent of British overseas military intelligence, earlier based in Namibia, who had become, after retirement in 1993, a representative of the mining company seeking a kimberlite concession in Sierra Leone. It also disclosed the role played by the British ambassador, who had offered advice to the Kabba government on certain security options "in a private capacity." Sources in the Sierra Leonean Ministry of Defence have indicated that they were advised to maintain military pressure on the RUF during the Abidjan negotiations and were promised international military assistance should the policy backfire; but it may not have been clear that some of the advisors came wearing two hats, and that military assistance would come from private sources. The scandal made a mockery of New Labour's boast of an ethical foreign policy, and the Blair cabinet was persuaded that a properly authorized military intervention in Sierra Leone might make amends.
British forces were deployed to secure a road linking the airport at Lungi, the main junctions controlling road connections from Freetown to the provinces, and Freetown itself. This calmed the city and sobered the RUF. Having offered support to groups seeking to destabilize the regime in neighboring Guinea, the RUF was further constrained by decisive cross-border action by the Guinean army. Careful negotiations were begun with the RUF to release the UN hostages. In August the West Side Boys, marginalized from the peace process and anxious to advertize their own plight, seized a British security patrol. They were met with a sharp military response. The hostages were freed and the group rounded up, lifting the threat of bandit raids on the Freetown road.
The deployment of the Bangladesh Battalion of UNAMSIL along the Makeni-Magburaka axis was also an important step in consolidating the peace. Some of the RUF commanders had encountered texts on postwar cooperative development in Bangladesh during their ideological training, and these welcomed the arrival of the UNAMSIL forces. The battalion has since encouraged community reconstruction activities led by demobilized RUF commanders. Foday Sankoh came from a village in the vicinity of Magburaka, and his movement began to show signs of developing a permanent presence in the area, deploying in particular into community reconstruction and agricultural development.
With little scope for further RUF offensives after the British and Guinean interventions, the government and the RUF, under Issa Sesay, a commander trusted by Sankoh, negotiated a permanent cease-fire agreementhe Abuja Accordn November 2000. Other RUF commanders, including a Green Book die-hard named Samuel Bockarie, removed to Liberia, where they worked for Charles Taylor. They later shifted operations to the war in Cote d'Ivoire. Bockarie was indicted by the Sierra Leone Special Court in absentia. He was killed in May 2003 on the Liberian-Ivoirian border, allegedly in a shoot-out with his own forces. He may, however, have been killed on the orders of Charles Taylor, who was no doubt anxious to prevent Bockarie from testifying against him should he be brought before the court. Johnny Paul Koroma escaped from the RUF in Kailahun, and was reinstated in Freetown in negotiations with junta elements subsequent to the signing of the Lome accord. Pledging loyalty to Kabba, he helped defend Freetown in May 2000, but was subsequently accused of a further coup attempt and escaped the country. He was sought by the special court for war crimes. It was rumored that he had been killed in Liberia, but other sources suggest Koroma escaped to Ghana. The RUF, CDF, and elements from the former government army submitted to disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration, a process effectively completed by the end of 2001. President Kabba declared the war at an end on January 18, 2002.
The war in Sierra Leone is complex and fits no prevailing stereotype. It is not the aftermath of a cold war proxy struggle (unlike wars in Angola or Somalia). Nor is it a war of ethnic animosity (as in Rwanda). The RUF
was founded by and recruited young people from all ethnic backgrounds suffering educational marginalization and social exclusion. More recently, the war has been assimilated to a thesis fashionable in the World Bank that all recent civil wars are better understood in economic rather than in political terms. Because the economy of Sierra Leone is dominated by alluvial diamonds, the wart is reasonedust have been
The conflict might be better regarded as a reflection upon poverty and globalization, resting on an awareness (created by videos, satellite broadcasting, and mobile phones, available even in remote mining camps) of the huge gap in life chances between the world's richest and poorest countries. Many RUF cadres state frankly that their personal ambition is to reach America or Europe, perhaps to obtain a technical education, for which mastery of an AK47 is a poor substitute. Many senior fighters in the RUF, women included, have opted for computer training as part of their demobilization package, believing this will put them in contact with a wider technological world. In the bush, the movement offered able children technical training in its signals unit, and Sankoh, a signaller in the army, supervised the examination procedures.
Two key statistics are germane to understanding the crisis in Sierra Leone. According to the UN Development Program (UNDP), Sierra Leone has hovered for a number of years at or near the bottom of the Human Development Index, which measures not just per capita income, but aspects of social development such as gender equality, educational opportunity, and life expectancy. Additionally, Sierra Leone has now surpassed Brazil as the most unequal country in the world. In such a small, compact, and tightly intermarried nation, this is a staggering fact. It means that all the contrasts of wealth and poverty in the world can be found even at the family level.
In a reflective mood, villagers sometimes openly state that the greater part of the destruction was done by their own kith and kin. A political figure confessed that an RUF raiding party that burned several family houses was led by his own half-brother. A leading advisor to the president wrote in a newspaper about how, under the junta, he was humiliated by learning that an RUF killer, renowned for his atrocity, turned out to be his own nephew. What sense of humiliation fuels desire for bloody vengeance against even family members? A major factor seems to be that, underneath the veneer of local social and family solidarity, there lurks a huge inequality. Some members, through the unaccountable wealth from diamonds, are able to access modern education and live fulfilling and successful professional lives, often in international employment, whereas others, barely able to complete primary education, are condemned to an impoverished existence on farms, regulated by elders who operate legal procedures bequeathed by colonialism in which some of the social disadvantages of domestic slavery remain encoded.
Young RUF recruits rallied to the movement because of the fines, beatings, and (at times arbitrary and illegal) punishments of village elders and chiefs. Village marriage continues to reflect conditions of production and reproduction associated with the days of domestic slavery. Most girls are married in their teenage years to older polygynists, and young men cannot afford to marry. Those who set up informal unions risk being fined for "woman damage." Much farm labor still goes to elders and in-laws in the form of bride service. Sierra Leone was founded in 1787 as a home for former slaves, and later for those who were rescued on the high seas by the Freetown-based British anti-slavery squadron but, ironically, domestic slavery was abolished there only in 1928, after prodding by the League of Nations. The British were anxious not to provoke the rural chiefs, who were stirred to revolt in 1898 by the threat that colonial law would free their tied labor force. Even in the early twenty-first century, the government seems at times more concerned to placate rural tradition than to address the needs of disenchanted youth, confusing the causes of the war of 1898 with the causes of the war of 1991.
If there was any ethnic component to the war, it is found in Kailahun, and especially among the Kissi, an ethnic group that straddles the borders of three countries by the artificial borders established during colonialism. Anthropologist Claude Meillassoux has written that "Kissi" derives from a name given by a savannah merchant group, the Fula of Futa Jallon, to the forest peoples they raided for slaves. In some respects the civil war, and its extremes of brutalizing, dehumanizing violence, can be regarded as a long-delayed slave revolt, at least in this region. Slave revolts are especially notorious for atrocities when the denial of human potential exists side-by-side with freedoms enjoyed by others, in short, when slaves live as part of a domestic group. The horribly violent Turner Revolt in Virginia in 1834 is an example of this. Similarly apocalyptic and brutal ideas about the need to destroy society itself, in conditions where only some are free, can be detected in aspects of the war Sierra Leone.
More routine explanations may serve to account for much of the violence, however. A depressing law of tit-for-tat escalation seems all too apparent. The thuggery of the APC regime under Stevens deadened political nerves and consciences. From its involvement in the Liberian war, the RUF imported knowledge that civilians can be controlled by terror. The army's summary execution of rebels in the early days of the war locked up captives in the RUF, turning them into loyalists. Double-dealing in peace negotiations resulted in a further cycles of revenge attacks. Few prisoners were taken by peacekeepers, private security, or civil defence militia forces. Fear of summary executions turned embattled RUF cadres against communities that had clubbed together to pay for the initiation of CDF volunteers. Civilian lynchings of rebel suspects laid the foundations for the massacres and mass amputations that followed. Atrocities mounted as militias were forced into retreat.
All this violence was illegal, and none of it is excusable. But the world's media only notice a country as apparently insignificant as Sierra Leone when the level of violence passes a certain threshold. The search for justice and accountability has to dig deeper. Here the UN-funded Special Court for Sierra Leone has been, in some eyes, something of an expensive disappointment. It took so long to arrange the court that some of its key defendants were lost. It is a very expensive process, in the world's poorest country, where most citizens agree that grinding poverty was a main cause of the war. Sankoh and Bockarie have taken their testimony to the grave. Taylor and Koroma remain fugitives. Hinga Norman (the leader of the CDF) is a national hero to many. Several of the RUF military command lack insight into the movement's origins and political aims, and even if condemned, are unlikely to expose the political issues at the heart of the conflict. The indictments are too generaleferring not to specific involvement in war crimes and atrocities, but to the general responsibility for mayhem borne by the senior military commanders of RUF and CDF alike.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) is, perhaps, in some respects even less satisfactory. Most testimony appears to have been regulated by adherence to a well-known local proverb: "talk half, leave half." All sides have things to hide, and listeners to the sessions that have been broadcast on the radio suck their teeth at the omissions and half-truths. The TRC seems, to some, more a ritual of reconciliation than an attempt to get at the truth. Opinions are divided about whether this is a good or bad thing. Some think that the truth shall make you free, and othersware that local culture often deploys ritual in order to forgetelieve that in a conflict as complex as Sierra Leone, it is better to look only to the future. Until the world is ready to admit that its own failure to abolish extreme poverty or to uphold the right to social and economic development has contributed to this war of globalization, it is perhaps unfair to expect Sierra Leoneans to expose the secrets of a violent family quarrel.
SEE ALSO Liberia; Mercenaries; Peacekeeping; Sierra Leone Special Court; Truth Commissions
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