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Last Updated: Monday, 7 June, 2004, 08:18 GMT 09:18 UK
Justice on trial at SLeone tribunal

Alastair Leithead
BBC, Freetown

Sierra Leone amputees playing football
Sierra Leone is trying to come to terms with its brutal civil war

Safinatu Karoma was just nine years old when the last thing she ever saw was her father being murdered.

The rebel soldiers had come to their home, and with a characteristic brutality killed first the man of the house and then turned on his daughter.

Safinatu was screaming, crying uncontrollably, and the killers ordered her to be quiet.

When this traumatised child did not, they blinded her.

"When I was still crying they burst my eye and they melted plastic in my other eye," she said in her soft voice, dropping her head towards the floor.

"I found it difficult because it is very hard to be blind."

She is now 14 and her family have abandoned her.

She lives in Freetown's Milton Margai School for the Blind.

Safinatu remembers everything about that terrible day - and the last thing she ever saw - but has an incredible outlook.

"God said we should forgive the people who do bad to us, so I forgive them - for the sake of God."

Deep wounds

Forgiveness is sometimes difficult to understand.

Justice and punishment is much more tangible.

Tens of thousands of people were killed in Sierra Leone's brutal and devastating civil war, and there are many stories like Safinatu's.

Peace has returned to this beautiful country, but the wounds are deep and rebuilding the nation will take many years.

Guards outside war crimes court in Freetown, Sierra Leone
The tribunal is also about justice seeing to be done

There is a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which has brought some hidden atrocities to the surface, and now there is a court where those responsible will be brought to justice.

The Special Court for Sierra Leone is a hybrid international criminal court, run jointly by the United Nations and government where the atrocities were carried out.

The first trial is of three men who face eight indictments, among them unlawful killing, physical violence, mental suffering, looting, burning, terrorising, "punishing".

They were leaders of the Civil Defence Force, a pro-government militia.

One, Sam Hinga Norman, led the notorious Kamajors, associated with terrible violence against civilians.

The first trial is the pro-government militia, next month the rebels.

Foday Sankoh would have been here had he not died in custody.

And the former Liberian president Charles Taylor, blamed with fuelling West Africa's bloody wars, is avoiding arrest in Nigerian exile.

Investigations continue

The chief prosecutor, David Crane, has issued 13 indictments. Nine people are in custody, two have died and two remain at large.

He has made it clear the investigations are continuing and more indictments could follow.

"In August of 2002, I arrived here and began the process of which to investigate and indict those who bear the greatest responsibility," he said.

"That's why we are here to represent the 500,000 murdered, maimed, raped and mutilated victims of Sierra Leone and hope that we can get some justice for them."

We are here to represent the 500,000 murdered, maimed, raped and mutilated victims of Sierra Leone
David Crane
Chief prosecutor, Special Court for Sierra Leone

It is all about justice, and justice being seen to be done.

In his opening remarks as the first trial began, Judge Benjamin Itoe stressed its importance.

"Justice delayed is justice denied," he said, warning the defence and prosecution not to stall this trial any more than was necessary.

Lengthy and expensive delays have dogged the court's sister tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.

Only hours after opening on day one, the trial was adjourned until next week as Sam Hinga Norman sacked his defence counsel.

In an aid camp for amputees - victims of the war - I found Alhaji Lamin Jusujarka.

His arms were cut off by rebels as he saved his daughter from kidnap and rape.

He is now an observer in the new court as the chairman of the Sierra Leone Amputees and War Wounded Association, and believes prosecutions are essential for rebuilding the country.

"If you can chop off your brother's arms, there is a need for justice to prevail and to bring those to the court of law," he said.

"You need to set an example to make sure that what has happened will never happen again."

In the coming weeks and months, this court will hear some terrible accounts of atrocities committed in a war that killed tens of thousands of people and destroyed the lives of many, many more.

Only if justice is seen to be done can this court really have an impact on preventing this from happening again, and helping to heal the wounds of civil war.

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