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Observation Post: War Crimes on Trial in Sierra Leone

WinslowToday's post is the first in a new Beacon Broadside series: Observation Post by journalist and foreign correspondent Philip C. Winslow. Over a career that has spanned more than twenty-five years, Winslow has reported on world events for the Christian Science Monitor, the Toronto Star, Maclean's magazine, ABC radio news, CTV News, and CBC radio. He also served in two United Nations peacekeeping missions and worked for the UN in the West Bank for nearly three years. He is the author of Victory For Us Is to See You Suffer: In the West Bank with the Palestinians and the Israelis and Sowing the Dragon's Teeth: Land Mines and the Global Legacy of War.

Rebels with a stolen Nigerian anti-aircraft truck circling a tent where UN negotiators were talking with rebel commanders. From Philip C. Winslow: Sierra Leone photos
The last time I talked with Sierra Leone's war criminals in the terrorized West African country some years ago, they were swaggering, threatening, drunk or confused, and sometimes a mixture of those.

This week in a sterile, glass-enclosed courtroom in Sierra Leone's capital, Freetown, the swagger had gone out of three of them as they were sentenced to long prison terms for multiple war crimes and crimes against humanity. The sentences were welcomed by veteran human rights activists. "The deadly cycle of impunity is slowly being broken in Sierra Leone and West Africa," Corinne Dufka, the senior researcher for Human Rights Watch in West Africa, told me from Dakar, Senegal.

During Sierra Leone's civil war from 1991 until 2002, armed groups such as the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) perpetrated a countrywide reign of brutal terror. The commanders of the RUF and various factions -- Foday Sankoh, Johnny Paul Koroma, Sam Hinga Norman, Sam "Mosquito" Bockarie -- planned and instigated serial atrocities in a nation already flat on its back. Their tools of terror included the mass rape of girls and women, forced marriage, child slavery, and mass amputations, all against a non-hostile people, their own people. The leaders fancied themselves rebels and revolutionaries, but in reality they were criminal mercenaries linked by diamond wealth to Liberia's president Charles Taylor across the eastern border.

Sankoh and his rivals in the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), the Civil Defense Forces (CDF), and the West Side Boys had no recognizable political ideology, and no moral restraints. Lesser figures down the terror chain became victims themselves, such as the child soldiers who were forced to kill their families and were bound to their captors with cocaine, amphetamines and more violence. At the hands of these gangs, tens of thousands of Sierra Leoneans were killed, more than two million were displaced, and many thousands more survived with appalling physical and mental wounds.

Since the war ended, the horrors gradually have been addressed with charges and trials by the Special Court for Sierra Leone, a hybrid tribunal created by the government and the United Nations. In 2003 the court indicted Foday Sankoh on 17 counts of crimes against humanity and violations of international humanitarian law; he died of heart disease in a Freetown prison four months later. Bockarie was killed in Liberia the same year, two months after he was indicted. And Norman died in custody of natural causes.

This February, after a trial that lasted more than four years, the court found three surviving commanders – Issa Hassan Sesay, Morris Kallon and Augustine Gbao – guilty on multiple counts of war crimes, including acts of terrorism against civilians.

Finally, on April 8 the three men were sentenced. Terms on the multiple counts will run concurrently. Sesay, who was interim leader of the RUF, will serve a maximum of 52 years. Kallon, an RUF commander, will go to jail for up to 40 years. And Gbao was sentenced to 25 years.

As the news unfolded, I reflected with some friends around the world on the bad years and what the court's ruling means for recovery and for international justice generally.

"My thoughts are focused on the war dead and wounded . . . the thousands of innocent civilians killed during murderous and rapacious assaults," Joe Poraj-Wilczynski, a retired British army lieutenant-colonel, told me. Joe served for six years in Sierra Leone, first with UN and British forces and later as chief of security for the Special Court. "Sierra Leone now has a chance to build on the hard won peace and to choose democracy and the rule of law."

Col. Rob Symonds saw the atrocities when he was British Military Liaison Officer in Sierra Leone. "[The punishment] finally puts to bed the horrendous period through the 1990s. [I]f this allows the people of Sierra Leone and Liberia to . . . create a future of opportunity and hope for their children then it has to be worthwhile," he said.

UNAMSIL, the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone, then was the world's biggest peacekeeping mission with 17,500 armed troops, military observers and police from nearly three dozen countries. Serving with UNAMSIL in 2000 I traveled the country with the peacekeepers by helicopter and in armored personnel carriers, and had numerous chats with fighters and rebel leaders -- several times with Sesay, occasionally with Kallon and Gbao and twice with Sankoh in Freetown. Kallon never appeared to be sober, and Gbao was faux-ideological and menacing. Sankoh was completely addled and incomprehensible. And the cold-eyed child soldiers under their command scared the hell out of me and everyone else in Sierra Leone.

Of the commanders, it was Brig. Gen. (as he styled himself) Sesay I remember most vividly. Sesay, aged 30 at the time, took a liking to me and called me "baba" or "father," a term of respect which I found slightly chilling because "Pa" was what the conscripted child soldiers called Foday Sankoh. None of them had fathers anymore, and almost anyone would do. I was older than Sesay, and unlike my UN military colleagues I was not in uniform (I wore shorts in the jungle, which the rebels found amusing). We repeatedly encouraged him to disarm, and he thought about it. The last time I saw Sesay was long before his arrest, in a UNAMSIL Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) camp near Freetown. He felt alone, unprotected and anxious, and didn't know how to fill the hours. I lost track of him after that.

A more enduring memory comes from an earlier meeting at Sesay's headquarters in Koidu in eastern Sierra Leone. He was sprawled in an armchair under a tree, looking as though he was holding court and occasionally swigging from a quart bottle of Tia Maria liqueur he kept at his feet. We were surrounded by twitchy bodyguards wearing wraparound sunglasses and carrying AK-47s with fixed bayonets. The only thing clear to me that edgy afternoon was that Sesay enjoyed power, protection and a supply of women (I use the word "supply" intentionally. They were not there by choice; his headquarters was full of beautiful young women who kept their eyes on the floor around us.) I understood that part of Sesay wanted to get out, to enter DDR and rebuild his life. But like the child soldiers, how could he go home again? With a big reputation but without the rifle or machete, you were pretty far down the food chain.

As much brutality as I had seen in other conflicts, I found the barbarism unfathomable. Drunk or sober, mid-level commanders would talk about "true revolution to save Sierra Leone". But they never got beyond the words, and had no vision or plans, only mayhem.

The shoes in the road always got to me. When we entered an upcountry village and saw the road littered with shoes – usually flip-flops and women's flats – it meant that villagers had fled into the jungle ahead of a terror attack. They seldom got far.

Rape victims in a destroyed hamlet near Magburaka. From Philip C. Winslow: Sierra Leone photos
One day near Magburaka, on the Rokel River in central Sierra Leone, I had seen enough shoes, and went for a drive alone. When I stopped to take a photo of seemingly abandoned burned huts, women and girls came out when they saw my UN jeep. Of the 16 women and girls I talked to, 13 matter-of-factly described how they had been raped.

Up the road from there, two armed teenagers had a barrier across the pavement and a tin bowl for "donations" on the ground. They told me, with no friendliness, that their names were "Killer" and "Good Soldier." Killer managed to wield an assault rifle with his right arm and the stump of the left; he told me he had lost it during the RUF's murderous rampage through Freetown in 1999. Killer and Good Soldier received no salary from their leaders, and subsisted by extorting the locals. What else they did, I didn't ask.

The evidence was abundant – from the Freetown peninsula to tiny villages on the eastern borders with Guinea and Liberia, and I have not forgotten one story that was told to me. Nor have I forgotten the rest, such as a procession of child slaves silently led out of the jungle and turned over to the UN; too small to fight, they had been used as porters and cooks. Still with me is the acrid stink of charred huts and clay pots in a burned village where we had gone to seek the remains of some of our Kenyan peacekeepers who had been killed; scraps of their uniforms and shoulder patches lay about the blackened ground.

Sierra Leone is a decades-long complex tragedy, from the coups and corruption since independence in 1961 to the civil war. The common thread throughout is the unrelieved suffering of innocent civilians. Their accounts fill my notebooks and photo archives.

But beyond those destroyed villages, there is a bright light. It's justice. Not by execution, but by these painstakingly mandated international tribunals. Human rights activists, jurists and international bodies have worked hard and against odds to get this far.

Through the 1980s and 1990s, who would have figured that people such as Slobodan Milosevic, Radovan Karadzic and Charles Taylor would be hauled up on charges of war crimes? The trial of Taylor, the mastermind of great misery in Liberia and Sierra Leone, continues in The Hague.

Justice works slowly, but it works (Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Cambodia). And where it hasn't yet (Zimbabwe, Sudan, Burma) it can. Joseph Kony of the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda, for instance, is well aware of the International Criminal Court's indictment and outstanding arrest warrants, and so is Sudan's president Omar al-Bashir.

"[The] sentencing [of the RUF] will not only provide relief to victims and survivors, but also put on notice current day perpetrators worldwide that no one is above the law," Corinne Dufka of Human Rights Watch, wrote me.

As encouraging as the news was, thoughts this week were with Sierra Leone's victims and of their tormentors, those now in jail and those still at large.

And I still wondered about Issa Sesay, and whether I once accurately sensed the spark of humanity that could have turned him around when there was still time. I always kind of liked the guy.

Below, click through to view a web album of Philip C. Winslow's Sierra Leone photos.

Philip C. Winslow: Sierra Leone photos