Cheers, quiet relief in Sierra Leone as Taylor found guilty
Sierra Leoneans cheered or quietly let the news sink in Thursday as ex-Liberian president Charles Taylor was convicted of aiding and abetting a terror campaign by rebels during their country’s 11-year civil war.
However for many, a decade on from one of Africa’s bloodiest wars, the verdict changes little as they struggle to make ends meet in the west African nation which, while rich in minerals, remains desperately poor.
Victims, leaders and civil society representatives packed the headquarters of the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL), a modern building in the lush, hilly capital, to watch on monitors as the verdict unfolded in a courtroom thousands of kilometres (miles) away.
People fidgeted uncomfortably on the hard seats as the lengthy verdict was read out, their faces impassive as they were reminded of horrors such as human heads and entrails being used at checkpoints to instill fear.
Al Hadji Jusu Jarka, former chairman of the association of amputees mutilated by the rebels, watched the nearly two-hour judgement stony-faced, using his prosthetic arms to clasp a handkerchief to wipe his face in the heat.
“I am happy … I feel justice has been done,” Jarka said, after hearing judge Richard Lussick announce Taylor was guilty of arming the rebels who in 1999 hacked off first his left, then his right arm as he was pinned to a mango tree.
“We as victims expect that Taylor will be given 100 years or more in prison,” he added.
Sentencing will take place on May 30, Lussick said, ending some five years of hearings before the SCSL in a special courtroom on the outskirts of The Hague.
While some showed a quiet satisfaction, others cheered and congratulated each other.
“People were so happy,” said a broadly-smiling P.C. Kaimpumu, paramount chief for the southern Bonthe district.
The verdict served as a warning to the country that “you can’t just commit crimes without impunity,” he said.
Outside, the Accountability Now Club (ANC) silently held up posters reading: “Shame on you Taylor” and “Please give us our diamonds back before you go to prison”.
Information Minister Ibrahim Ben Kargbo said he was “satisfied” with the verdict that would allow the country to move on.
The verdict “gives us the opportunity to work to a way forward, after so many years of fighting, to put in place structures for development, to put aside impunity, to ensure human rights are protected,” he said.
Outside the compound of the sprawling court, children in brightly-coloured uniforms walked home from school in the cloying heat. Women and children hawked small items, and a team of men worked on one of the capital’s cracked, pot-holed roads.
For many the verdict was of little relevance.
They warned of joblessness, which government pins at 46 percent, and poverty, affecting more than 70 percent of the nation living on less than a dollar a day.
“Let us don’t worry over the fate of Charles Taylor. He has done his deeds. Let’s worry about the future of this country,” said Emmanual Noah, 25, a moto-taxi driver.
Eldred Collins, a spokesman for the rebels during the war, is now the chairmen of their political offshoot, the Revolutionary United Front Party (RUFP)
He maintains it was former RUF leader Foday Sankoh, who died in custody in 2003, who should have had his day in court.
“It (the verdict) is the court’s decision, but Foday Sankoh should have been tried. Charles Taylor wasn’t directly involved,” he said.
While many welcomed the guilty verdict, former child soldier Mohammed Lamin Fofana, now 25, said it did little to free him from his memories.
“Charles Taylor has disrupted our lives and the lives of all Sierra Leonean youth. Now my life has been changed, for this I will never forgive him.”
Ken Sesay, who lost his left leg, remains bitter: “You can try Taylor, jail him, but what about us the victims? What will now happen to us?”
Posseh Conteh, 18, struggled to voice her recollection of the war. She was four when rebels hacked off her left leg as she and her family ran from their village. Her mother and sister were killed.
“I was very small,” she smiled shyly. “I want him (Taylor) to be convicted to jail.”