Sierra Leone: Truth and Reconciliation
January 10, 2003 Episode no. 619
BOB ABERNETHY: It was a decade-long, brutal war that ended only two years ago for control of a nation's rich natural resources. The civil war in the West African nation of Sierra Leone was devastating to its people. Now, a truth and reconciliation movement, modeled loosely on South Africa's pioneering effort, is trying to bring justice and peace to Sierra Leone. Fred de Sam Lazaro reports.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Among Sierra Leone's many contradictions and ironies, this is one of the smaller ones.
DAVID CRANE (Prosecutor): I can assure you that I am an independent prosecutor. I work for no one other than you.
DE SAM LAZARO: The most powerful law enforcement official here is a native of North Carolina. Some in his audience are descended from people who settled here after fleeing slavery in the Carolinas and Georgia 200 years ago.
Mr. CRANE: And my promise to you is to prosecute those who bear the greatest responsibility for the tragedy that took place here in Sierra Leone for the past ten years.
DE SAM LAZARO: Sierra Leone's decade-long civil war saw unusual brutality. Seventy-five thousand people were killed; two million, half the population, displaced from their homes. Children were forced to become soldiers. Twenty thousand civilians were randomly targeted for mutilation.
UNIDENTIFIED AMPUTEE: First used the ax to chop the left hand off. After, they want to cut the other, then this little boy started crying and said, "Please soldier, don't cut off my papa's other hand." So they said, "Let this woman remove this child from her back, we'll chop off his arm." And I said "No!" So they decided to chop the other hand off.
DE SAM LAZARO: So they basically said you could have your right hand if you gave your son's hand.
Mr. CRANE: This civil war wasn't caused by a political vision or for religious reasons or for ethnic reasons. Not that that excuses war crimes or crimes against humanity. This was done for pure greed. This was done to control a commodity, and that commodity was diamonds.
DE SAM LAZARO: Thousands of young men dredge and sift gravel in the diamond-rich eastern region. Few of these freelance prospectors ever find much. The big payoffs have gone mainly to foreign dealers, working with a political elite -- widely ranked as one of the world's most corrupt.
Neighboring Liberia backed the rebel forces in their fight for control of the diamond trade, fighting a Sierra Leone government and army itself racked by power struggles.
After repeated attempts at peacekeeping, through West African and UN troops, British forces began to restore calm in late 2000. The UN followed with 17,000 soldiers who completed disarming the combatants in January 2002. The Security Council also approved an international war crimes court.
Judge GEOFFREY ROBERTSON (Special Court of Sierra Leone): I think the world is moving towards the position that there can be no lasting peace without a measure of justice. And that the reason why we are, in a sense, parachuting in a system of international judges [is] to deal with certain crimes that are so heinous that they diminish us all as human beings.
DE SAM LAZARO: Unlike the tribunals for Rwanda and Yugoslavia, this one is located in the country where the crimes were committed. And it was invited by President Tejan Kabbah, a man elected in 1996, deposed in a coup a year later, then reinstated by a Nigerian-led intervention force.
President TEJAN KABBAH (Sierra Leone): The main reason for the whole exercise is to make sure that people see and understand that if they behave in the way that they behaved here in the recent past, then the law will catch up with them. That's the message. It's not a question of retaliation and vengeance. No.
DE SAM LAZARO: In fact, very few victims will get judicial retribution in the court, which will try only about 20 of the war's kingpins. Lesser perpetrators will appear before a truth and reconciliation commission, or TRC. It will offer amnesty in exchange for confessions. Methodist bishop Joseph Humper says victims will also be encouraged to testify.
Bishop JOSEPH HUMPER (Chair, Truth and Reconciliation Commission): We will not expect you to forget, but we will expect you to forgive. And the message to the perpetrator will be that by our own cultural standard a duty to express remorse, to confess, and to accept forgiveness. Because forgiveness cannot come on a silver platter.
DE SAM LAZARO: Sierra Leone's truth commission follows a concept pioneered in post-apartheid South Africa. Dr. Alex Boraine served on that body. He now runs a New York-based institute that set up similar commissions in several countries, including Sierra Leone and East Timor.
Dr. ALEX BORAINE (Director, Project on Transitional Justice, New York University School of Law): I think the idea of having the truth commission as well, not only for victims to come and tell their story and seek answers but also for perpetrators to be reintegrated into society so that they don't feel they have to go back into the bush and pick up their guns and kill all over again. That's an extremely important factor in trying to help a country through the transition.
DE SAM LAZARO: The truth commission held its first meeting recently in a village on the Liberian border, where the civil war began. Residents fled when the firing started, returned when it was over to bury 15 who couldn't escape.
(to unidentified man): Have they forgiven the people who did this?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We don't care. It's for them to sort out with the Almighty, with their God.
DE SAM LAZARO: He said they simply want to get on with life, in peace. Some are fearful the court's indictments could spark fresh violence. Many likely suspects remain powerful players. But judges say the court will not be deterred; that the international community must send a message that violence will not go unpunished.
Judge ROBERTSON: There was always the preference for doing deals, for allowing the torturers and tyrants to leave the bloody stage with amnesties in the back pocket and the Swiss bank account intact. But that seems to me to be yesterday's argument.
DE SAM LAZARO: For many ordinary Sierra Leoneans, however, the priority is not justice -- just meeting basic day-to-day needs.
AMPUTEE: We have nothing, we have no medicine for the children. If they need medicine we have to beg on the streets.
DE SAM LAZARO: For many young people, soldiering may be the only option.
ANDREW KROMAH (Businessman): We still have imminent danger in the country. Number one is the economy. People are still poor, and you have youths among them, if you keep them idle for so long, even adults who are unemployed, if you keep them idle for so long, they can be candidates for mass mercenary action. They can be candidates for terrorism.
DE SAM LAZARO: Prosecutor Crane says that's one reason Americans should be concerned. He says there's also the moral issue: Americans are major buyers of diamonds.
Mr. CRANE: I'm not sure of the exact number, but it is well within the 70 percent [range], so the American people need to understand that a diamond is a wonderful gift, but one has to remember that the origin of some of those diamonds may be, in fact, coated in blood.
DE SAM LAZARO: How long peace can be sustained -- let alone prosperity brought -- to Sierra Leone is a key question. Despite the massive United Nations presence to guard against corruption, official estimates say 60 percent of the diamonds are still smuggled to neighboring countries for export to the world market. The UN mandate here ends in 2004.
For RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY, this is Fred de Sam Lazaro in Masiaka, Sierra Leone.