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Last Updated: Sunday, 20 April, 2003, 10:05 GMT 11:05 UK
Victims of a brutal war

By Jon Silverman
in Sierra Leone

A Truth and Reconciliation Commission has begun taking evidence to establish what happened during Sierra Leone's bloody civil war.

Anne-Marie is a slight figure in a blue-and-white gingham blouse. She says she's 21 but looks younger.

Child soldiers
All sides in the conflict used child soldiers
When she tells her story, the words tumble out and her eyes pool with tears.

"When the rebels came," she begins, "I was two months pregnant. They took me with them into the bush and later captured my husband who had been hiding.

"They killed him in front of me and then they gave me a shovel and told me to bury him. I had to drag his body to the grave myself.

"They left me alone until the baby was born and the day I delivered, the very day, three of them came and raped me. 'This is our price for taking care of you,' they said."

And so it went on.


After Anne-Marie, I speak to others whose experience is just as shocking. Aisha was seized by the rebels of the Revolutionary United Front from her home in Freetown and marched into the bush where she was held as a sex slave for three years.

"I was used by seven or eight men every night," she says softly. "I was a piece of goods to be exchanged."

Child amputee in Sierra Leone
Many children suffered atrocities during the war
Mariama cradles her six-month-old baby as she talks. She was just nine when the rebels took her.

Sierra Leone is a land full of war stories and now those stories are to be recorded.

Already, some 4,000 written testimonies have been taken by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and this week, it began public hearings.

The TRC's chairman is a Methodist bishop, Joseph Humper, and he told me that he hopes his report will serve as a definitive record of the abuse of women in civil conflict.

It will also address a particularly African scourge - the use of children to kill and torture in the name of whatever cause to which they're forcibly conscripted.

In the capital, Freetown, I met some of these child soldiers - half perpetrator, half victim - and they told me tales of being given cocaine, sometimes smeared into their scalps mixed with gunpowder, so that they would be unafraid to cut off the limbs of civilians on the order of rebel commanders.

Scared witnesses

From South Africa to East Timor to Chile, states divided by years - sometimes generations - of hatred have turned to truth commissions to bind wounds.

But the TRC in Sierra Leone carries a unique burden.

Under pressure from the UN, this post-conflict society is also about to hold war crimes trials.

Seven indictments have already been issued and perhaps 25 in all are expected. These are the warlords alleged to bear the greatest responsibility for the atrocities.

The problem is that ordinary people - and this is a country with an 80% illiteracy rate - struggle to distinguish between the commission and the court, and many potential witnesses to the TRC are scared either that they will incriminate themselves or be targets for vengeance by militia supporters.

UN peacekeeper in Sierra Leone
UN peacekeepers are still in the country
Samuel Komba is just such a person. We meet in his village, Tombodu, in the east of the country, not too far from the borders with Guinea and Liberia.

This is the diamond belt and the 10-year conflict was all about who controlled the diamond trade.

The deep scars on Samuel's arm are the work of a machete wielded by a rebel militiaman when Tombodu was overrun.

Two years after the conflict ended, there is barely a house which hasn't been blasted open to the sky and in one of these shells, Samuel shows me a scattering of skulls and human bones, where, he says, villagers were herded when the building was torched.

Cycle of impunity

Nearby is a lagoon under which disused diamond workings are said to contain hundreds of bodies. A wire cordon shows that the special war crimes prosecutor has been here seeking to preserve evidence.

Samuel says that one of the men indicted by the special court, Johnny Paul-Koroma, was in Tombodu shortly before the massacre.

I ask him if he knew the men who had cut his arm and done the killings.

"Oh sure," he replies, "and they're still all around this district. That's why I'm scared to give evidence."

Some of those who grasp the strategic picture rather better than Samuel is able to are also worried that the stability which Sierra Leone has enjoyed over the last two years might be jeopardised by war crimes trials.

But the prosecutors say that this country will never move forward until the cycle of impunity is broken.

And if, in the process, Sierra Leone can achieve both truth and justice, it will have given the world something even more precious than diamonds.


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