Page last updated at 09:54 GMT, Friday, 6 November 2009

Did Sierra Leone get war crimes justice?

RUF soldiers (left); amputees after the war (right)

As Sierra Leonean war crimes convicts begin their sentences this week in Rwanda, the BBC's Umaru Fofana considers the achievement of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, which has now finished its work in Freetown.

Kadiatu, who had one of her legs chopped off in January 1999 by rebels, sat in her wheelchair at her makeshift shelter in Grafton outside the capital, Freetown, on the day the Special Court for Sierra Leone handed down judgement and sentences on Revolutionary United Front rebels.

I feel like my right hand which was chopped off some 10 years ago has been replaced
Amputee Jabaty Mambu

Of the thousands of people estimated to have had their arms and limbs amputated during the country's brutal civil war, only Jabaty Mambu was in the court compound last week.

He was excited - it was the last in-court activity on Sierra Leonean soil.

"I am happy that justice has finally been done," he told the BBC. "I feel like my right hand which was chopped off some 10 years ago has been replaced."

But Kadiatu, like many of her fellow victims of the war, could not care less.


For them, the daily survival "which has not been addressed by the world or our government" is what matters.

A child pictured in 2000 whose hand had been amputated by rebels
Amputee victims find it hard to survive seven years after the war ended

Most of them beg on the streets to feed. Society scorns them.

They have been used as a tourist attraction but they say they have not been given enough assistance to help them rebuild their lives since the 11-year war officially ended in 2002.

It is fair to say that the Special Court's Outreach Unit did its best while the trials lasted to get the people to feel and see justice being done.

But for the scarred victims of the war struggling to feed or educate their children, the many millions of dollars that has been spent on bringing about that justice could have been better spent.

This is the tightrope the UN-backed hybrid court has had to grapple with since it was set up in 2002.

Many have been asking about the use of the court when RUF leader Foday Sankoh did not get justice - dying as he did in the court's custody in 2003.

Megalomania halted

But for Binta Mansaray, the court's Sierra Leonean-born acting registrar, the money was worth it.

She says the money spent on the court does not come anywhere near the lives and resources that would have been wasted if the war had continued.

The Special Court indicted 13 people, including the then-sitting Liberian President Charles Taylor.

The others came from the RUF, the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council military junta which ruled the country for nine months in 1997/8, and the pro-government civil militia group known as the Kamajors.

From left to right: Fodah Sankoh, Sam Hinga Norman, Sam Bockarie and Johny Paul Koroma
From left to right: Of the 13 people indicted Fodah Sankoh, Sam Hinga Norman, Sam Bockarie and Johnny Paul Koroma were not sentenced by the court

However, only nine were sentenced following the death, also in custody, of former deputy defence minister and Kamajor leader Sam Hinga Norman, and the killing in Liberia of the notorious rebel battlefield commander, Sam Bockarie alias Mosquito.

For a court that does not impose life sentences, the Appeals Court upheld very stiff jail terms against most of the men from all three factions.

Rebel sympathy

Issa Sesay, who was persuaded by West African leaders to lead the RUF after Sankoh became unco-operative in ending the war is to serve 52 years in prison. Two other rebel commanders, Morris Kallon and Augustine Gbao, are to serve 40 years and 25 years respectively.

Isa Sesay
Sesay snatched a glance at me before bowing his head - probably thinking of those assurances he once sought

Although RUF waged a war that cost the lives of an estimated 200,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands of others, there is some sympathy for its former interim leader.

Sesay was a victim of a war sparked off by injustice, poverty and disillusionment and was hoodwinked into the ranks of the RUF after he had left the country for Ivory Coast.

When he was made interim leader of the rebel movement he had given his childhood to, he was very co-operative in ending the war as was admitted even by former President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah.

Sankoh did not seem to want to end the war. Not once, but twice he reneged on peace pacts.

On several occasions I flew on the same helicopter with him as we criss-crossed the country to meet and talk to his fighters to disarm.

In the diamond-rich town of Tongo Fields, he told them to lay down their arms.


For a man who rarely smiled, he laughed as if he was auditioning to advertise toothpaste.

Johnny Paul Koroma - missing, presumed dead
Alex Tamba Brima - 50 years
Brima Bazzy Kamara - 45 years
Santigie Borbor Kanu - 50 years
Sam Hinga Norman - died in custody
Alie Kondewa - 20 years
Moinina Fofana - 15 years
Foday Sankoh - died in custody
Sam Bockarie - died before capture
Issa Sesay - 52 years
Morris Kallon - 40 years
Augustine Gbao - 25 years

But after that open-air meeting, he said he wanted to meet his men in private. Somehow I managed to eavesdrop as he made a 360 degree about-turn and warned his men against disarming.

He was erratic. He was unreliable. His megalomania combined with what many believed was schizophrenia, annoyed West African leaders.

Unlike Sankoh, Sesay was meek and almost subservient.

Such was his respectful nature that you would ask yourself if he was capable of leading men to commit the atrocities he has been convicted for.

After a meeting in his rebel-held territory with West African leaders including Nigeria's Olusegun Obasanjo and Mali's Alpha Omar Konare, Sesay came up to me.

He wanted assurances that he would not be prosecuted if he helped end the war.

"No idea," I said. "I am just a journalist."

He looked unsure, but determined to bring peace back to the country.

As he stood in the dock last week there was a thick protective screen between us, Sesay snatched a glance at me before bowing his head - probably thinking of those assurances he once sought from me.

Lesson learned?

Earlier, the Appeals Court had sentenced the Kamajor chief initiator and priest Alie Kondewa and director of war Moinina Fofana, who are to serve 20 and 15 years respectively.

Their relatively lenient jail terms have hardly surprised anyone here because of the role they played in resisting the rebels.

With the disappearance and presumed death of Major Johnny Paul Koroma, the former leader of the Armed Forces Ruling Council military junta, three members of the junta are to serve lengthy jail terms.

Alex Tamba Brima, Brima Bazzy Kamara and Santigie Borbor Kanu are to serve 50, 45 and 50 years behind bars.

What remains now is the trial of Mr Taylor which is underway at The Hague, where it had to be moved because of security concerns.

While the eight other men will serve their jail terms in Rwanda, Mr Taylor, if convicted, will be lodged in a British jail.

While many believe the trials will serve as a deterrent for future warlords, others wonder why they have not served as a continental deterrent to Darfur, Somalia and Zimbabwe.

Do you think international courts are worth the money spent for the convictions?

Thanks for your comments. Please read a selection below:

Courts are the "easier" half of the solution, the criminals get free shelter, food and medical services. Helping the victims is the "neglected" half of the solution.
Artur de Freitas, Johannesburg, South Africa

This is another case of selective and cosmetic justice. Spent over 500 million dollars to try 5 or 6 rebels??? Over 20,000 rebels were involved and they are all roaming about in Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Cote d'Ivoire. For such colossal expenditure, they could have tried at least 500 criminals (combatant as well as white collared bosses).
Diam, Conakry, Guinea

Justice is Dear, they say! The money, time and labour invested in that court worth the outcome of the results. Am a Sierra Leone aged 23. I was born and got to only know one world, that of war wherein women and children were raped, killed, maimed and burnt in front of me. Like any other Sierra Leone, we saw our kid brothers conscripted n drugged to perpetrate heinous terror in our land. We turned on each other n devoured ourselves. The barrels were silenced, reintegration n reconciliation were cultivated and justice was meant to ensue. One would argue that the cost of running the court was unprecedented but wisely, it worth it! It was set for the prosecution of those who bore the greatest crimes against humanity. Oh yes the ECOMOG had excesses, but that's part of war, bringing thugs to halting misanthropes. Birds of a feather. But Justice, I think was brought. The issue of our amputees is a national issue and we must be grateful to the International community for their immense help rendered to SL which we have squandered and left our people roaming the streets of Freetown disgruntled and poor. Our destiny is in our hands. We dedicate it to the survival of our nation and save posterity. We can't be saved by the west, but they can as they have always been help us when we are ready!
Timothy Musa Kabba, St.Petersburg, Russia

In my view, to certain extent "yes" and to certain extent "no". Yes, in the sense that it is the beginning to end "impunity" especially in Africa, and to strengthen the claimed sense of nationalism and love for one another. Indeed we are free from imperialism, but sometimes I still wonder why we still bully ourselves after decades of abuses from colonial masters. On the other hand, no, because these courts are just meant for impoverished nations, and to create jobs for the so-called Western legal experts, who will continue to enrich themselves, and convicted few at the expense of the victims. For instance, in the case of Sierra Leone, what has been done for the victims? Little or nothing at all, as they are still struggling for their daily bread. So what's Special? In fact, whether you agree with me or not the West is responsible for this mess, and many of its leaders are war criminals, but it is because they "pay the piper", they always calls the tune we should dance on. So think we have to change our perceptions and love each other, rather than waiting to be told on what to do.
Abubakar, The Netherlands

Thanks BBC for your eye opener and the opportunity that you give people to vent out their independent feelings without any prejudice. the present government of sierra leone is one of the most useless govt the country has ever had. the country was even better when it was under war than now. just imagine all the international assistance the country has got since the end of the war. we are no more under war and sierra leone is still blessed with its natural resources and god is even blessing us with more. check the number of people living in sierra leone. the govt is filled with bunch of crooks that still think that sierra leoneans are still stupid. we sierra leones are tired and we really need a govt that will not kill to be elected simply because they have a hidden agenda to make themselves rich. we all know that the international court is a cover up because there is no court on earth that will take more than a month to find charles taylor guilty of the crime that he is accused of.
koroman keh, yengema

On paper, Sierra Leone has got war crimes justice and the international community is happy. That is good. But as all other things in Sierra Leone, there are few signs of war crimes justice on the ground or on the streets of the main towns and cities. Freetown and Bo are crowded with amputees and people who were severely affected by the war and they have had no justice. They still continue suffering on a daily basis while the war criminals are taken to "luxurious international standard prisons" where the only thing they will miss will be the liberty to move around but all will be well for them. There will be food on their tables for the next 50 years or as long as their sentences last while the poor victims don't even have a hand to fend for themselves. Is that justice? Well, probably even JUSTICE might be considered a relative term.
K.V.Sesay, F.Town, Sierra Leone

The purpose of the court is satisfactory, i belief Justice has been melted out, according to francis kay, his interested in the survival of the victims, although there are many NGO catering for this several country are assisting but i belief this is another branch that will take care of this, Human being in general don't like truth even if manners fall from heaven we still complain to GOD, if the Europe and America are asking justice to be done to ourselves and we only look up and still blame them that they only help in this area, we should be grateful and just ask for more as oliver twist instead of believing the court was setup to enrich there citizen, i got to sierra leone and for 3 years i can't taste the foods on the street will this not be a punishment for even any normal person in US or Europe that have been eating normally, have light 24 hours and everything going than to come down to Sierra Leone and suffer, he who don't think can not thank, we should ask other African leaders what is are they doing to make one of there members not to suffer, i realized the truth in time and my face are full of shame to see the government of the day in Sierra Leone still been accuse of not doing anything, even after revitalising the power sector which even The giant of Africa(Nigeria) still battling from time immemorial.

You only have to look at the number of NGO personnel who eventually took jobs in the International Special Court. It was a nice money-spinner for the international community.
John Daramy, Chesterfield, UK

I acknowledge that the Special Court was absolutely necessary, not only to punish the guilty but also to serve as a warning to others. The cost of the special court however was about as justifiable as the average British MPs expenses claims. Having worked in Sierra Leone for 2 ½ years (2003-4, 2006-7) I saw the money that was throw at the legal teams and the UN support staff . It may only have been a minor UN 'Gravy Train' but it was all the more noticeable, as Sierra Leone at the time was being designated by the same UN, as the least developed country in the world. If the UN had spent 75% of the cost of the Special Court on; building, staffing & running a hospital in Freetown, tens of thousands of lives would have been saved over the past 7 years.
N Roberts, Birmingham UK

Funny how we started our own war, killed our own people but blame the special courts for not doing enough. I've even heard people say it's only justice, give people something to eat. Reminder it is our own responsibility to take care of ourselves not that of an outsider. I say "Good Job" to the Special Courts. During the war, I did not see or heard of any British, American or French Army Personnel cutting off people hands. Those terrible acts were committed by Africans, most of them Sierra Leoneans on our own people. It's about time we start taking care of our own business and stop blaming others.
Arnold Zac, nc usa

There is no doubt that the main culprits of the civil war in Sierra Leone should face the full wrath of the law, under international law and I have no qualms about that. However, I believe that some of the money allocated to prosecute the RUF ring leaders could have also been used to resettle and reintegrate the victims of the civil war back into normal life. As was wisely said, most of the victims of the war, especially the kids can be found today roaming the streets of Freetown as beggars. The Past and present government has not done a very good job in addressing that problem. Their excuse has always been that they do not have the necessary funds to address the needs of the war victims. If that is the case, the international community sponsoring the special court in Sierra Leone should also step in and take care of these people.
Foday Bangura, Woodbridge, VA

The notion that war crimes tribunals serve as deterrents to potential warlords and criminals is a false one in my opinion. The endless Nazi trials; and criminals whom are still being sought and tried 60 years after such horrendous acts were committed did not serve as deterrent to Saddam Hussein, Polpot, Idi Amin and Charles Taylor.

Successful demonstrations of contrary resolutions to such criminal acts were demonstrated in the Arusha Tribunals and the Truth and Reconciliation courts held in Kenya and Rwanda respectively. Both countries are thriving nations with more information voluntarily offered by criminals and culprits than that forcibly gained from legal wranglings from the S/L proceedings. Rwanda in 10 years is now a tourist destination, whilst Sierra Leone is still being black-listed as a unsafe and politically unstable nation.

It would seem sensible that a nation (S/L) that has been in the top 10 least developed nations list for 10 of the last 15 years, would seek development first rather than international recognition as a UN Law abiding nation. How many developed countries who can provide for its people are involved in Wars or political Strife?
Joseph, Atlanta Georgia

I just want to console my nation for under going such an unnecessary and horrible phase in history, all this penalties will never be equivalent to the atrocities committed. it is just very sad it happened in my country, how many lives lost? how many properties damaged? how much time wasted? how much trauma inflicted? can this pay for all that. may Allah make it not to happen to any nation on earth and in space. amen.
Mohamed Ibrahim Sesay, Pretoria, South Africa

The international courts are only set up in impoverished countries as an employment agency for the powerful nations. I do not for one moment believe the money and time spent are worth the convictions meted out. The local courts in those countries would have spent less than that amount and still hand down the same convictions. How can this so-called international tribunals actually justify their outcomes in places like Sierra Leone where majority of the people live on less than a dollar a day and yet they can spend $20m on a prison to house a handful of people? But then I must know that he has has the roof set the rules. They have the money they tell us what to do even if it means throwing out our constitutions they helped and sometimes forced us to draft.
Cillaty Daboh, Wonde Gboyama, Sierra Leone

International courts are worth every cent. It is because we skimped out of building strong institutions that these atrocities happened. Impunity cannot be allowed to stand. You cannot kill, rape, maim, disfigure someone because of ethnicity or divergent political opinion and then have a reconciliation. There is poverty all throughout Africa but that cannot be reason to turn a blind eye. The costs have been mounting because for years we turned a blind eye. It is happening today in Guinea, It happened in Kenya during the elections, in Liberia, Rwanda, Burundi, it happened and is happening in Uganda, in both Congos, CAR, Zimbabwe, The Sudan, Eritrea. If we took time, money and the pains to build institutions, we would better allocate resources, alleviate poverty and grow our nations. "Prevention" is always better than "cure" but No, there is no cost to great to bear for justice.

To some extent it worth it but in the case of sierra leone, it is not worth a cent. we are talking about 200,000 or more lives that was taken in the most inhuman way one can think of. do you want to tell me that these people that are now being jail are the only ones that brought about or incited the killings? if justice is to be done for those who died and for some of us who suffered in the hands of ECOMOG and all the other forces because we refuse to let our wives, sisters, mothers, daughters and women be exploited by the nigerian soldiers, SLA and the kamajors, then someone should answer for each of these killers, rapist you name it. shame on international court. what is good for the goose is good for the gander, you spent more than $100,000,000 to jail less than half of those responsible for the war crimes and left us to cry every day for our amputee brothers and sister when we see them begging on the streets. we are left to wonder what is really justice when the few you jail get square meals, good medical care out of the soil they shed their victims innocent blood. if justice was what you promise the sierra leonean people, let them have it without opening old wounds.
francis kay

I am a sierra leonean and of course I was born in the heart of the country in a town called Makeni. I was in Sierra Leone throughout the long civil war the ended in 2002. I do not think that the international is acting wisely in trying to help bring justice in the country. I think it would have been better if the international community provided some assistance for those who were amputated and deformed during the war. I do not condemn outright the court, but I think they should have provided at least something to help the as they can never be able to earn their living if they are not help. Then the court would have proceeded trying those useless people. I have more to write as my father himself died during the war. Thank you BBC.
Ismail Lofty, Egypt

Setting up the special court and to apply the rule of law is amazing just to bring justice. But the question we need to ask ourselves, "does the court serves it purpose that it was intended for". I can say yes, but was the objectives met, the answer is NO. There are thousands of people misplaced, go without food or water and the country is in a state of collapse, but we can afford to spend ridiculous amount of money to bring justice. Justice is for people that have no hope and looking to blame others. What the leaders should have done was to reprimand the culprits and a movement of reconciliation should have been used and the money is used to help those that need it most. The country is almost the poorest in the world, even other country that still have war currently are better off. So please explain to me, where is the JUSTICE?
Beresford, UK

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