Sierra Leone must care for war-crimes victims

The special court has meted out justice to perpetrators. Now victims need help.

When the Special Court of Sierra Leone handed down historic war-crimes judgments last week, Tamba Finnoh was one of the first to hear the news.

He is one of the victims of the vicious cruelty used by all sides in his country's 11-year civil war: amputation. Mr. Finnoh lost his right hand and barely escaped with his left in 1997 when rebel forces caught him in the bush. Today, he is one of the few amputees in the country fortunate enough to have a job; he serves tea to witnesses who testify before the court. It is ironic that when defendants are called to testify during trial, they are treated as witnesses – and Tamba Finnoh finds himself serving tea to the very men who masterminded the violence that cost him his hand.

Last week's convictions of five top commanders from the Civil Defense Forces and the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council, two of the war's three fighting forces on trial, include the world's first-ever convictions for solicitation of child soldiers. The judgments have been rightly hailed as groundbreaking by the international community. But the fact remains that the rulings will have little bearing on those most in need of justice – the victims of the war, particularly those who were brutally amputated. As Finnoh says, "Whether or not these people are caught or are unpunished, it cannot bring back the hands."

Unlike Finnoh, thousands of amputees face the ongoing challenge of trying to find work to provide food for their families and pay school fees for their children. Tamba Ngaujah was the first amputee of the war; both of his hands were cut off by rebel soldiers from the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in 1991. Today he lives in a four-room zinc shack on the side of a steep hill outside Freetown, with his wife, six children, and two other relatives. He is the sole provider for his household – no small feat for a man who has no hands. The RUF trials are still ongoing and judgments are expected in 2008. But even then, Mr. Ngaujah will still be searching for justice. "Those who have caused these problems, to jail them or do whatever to them, why can't [the government] think about the people who suffered from the war and come to their aid?" he said last week.

In fact, the final report of Sierra Leone's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) issued in 2004 recommended that the government make reparations to amputee victims, including free medical treatment and free schooling for their children. Unfortunately, the government has yet to follow through with the commission's recommendations – a source of growing disillusionment here. Sadly, people like Finnoh and Ngaujah struggle not only with the injustice of the lack of government benefits, but they also face a daily struggle against social stigmas: Increasingly, the word "amputee" has become synonymous with "beggar."

The government is not bound by the TRC recommendations, and it argues that it doesn't have the resources to enact them. Sierra Leone ranks high on the failed-states index and is notoriously corrupt. But the government must quell the growing discontent among the war's victims. For victims to find peace and a sense of justice, the democratically elected government must find a way to care for those whose lives were shattered by the war.

But despite the lack of attention given to war victims, many Sierra Leoneans we have met believe the current ruling party will emerge victorious in this August's elections as the lesser of two evils.

International nongovernmental organizations line the streets of Freetown, but responsibility ultimately lies with the government. The international community is not likely to pressure Sierra Leone through sanctions or other measures. But the issue of reparations is nonetheless a crucial question that the international community must consider as it seeks to support stable conditions here and in so many other troubled areas throughout the African continent.

While the world applauds last week's historic convictions, Ngaujah faces a day just like every other day. He will get up, his wife will dress him in a neatly pressed shirt, and he will climb the steep, stony slope up to the road. He will make his way into the busy streets of Freetown. There he will stand patiently, with dignity, for hours. "Good morning, sir," or, "Good afternoon, ma'am," he will say, hoping a kind heart will drop a few leones in his pocket.

Angela Lederach and Claire Putzeys are research fellows with the Voice to Vision project of Catalyst Peacebuilding ( www.catalystpeacebuilding.org ), which is dedicated to gathering and telling the stories of forgiveness and reconciliation in postconflict Africa. Voice to Vision field program director Sara Terry contributed to this piece.

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