The rebels who lined up Victoria Kajue's family against a wall and opened fire will never be punished for killing her six children - or the tens of thousands of other civilians who died in one of the most barbaric civil wars this continent has ever seen.
"I saw them execute all of my children and a two-year-old grandson," says Mrs. Kajue, caressing photos of her lost children with trembling fingers. "And I have nowhere to lay a complaint. I have no justice."
The eight-year campaign of terror waged by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) against this West African country ended in July with a peace pact that gives a blanket amnesty for war crimes committed by the combatants.
Sierra Leone's democratically elected president, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, is now compelled to welcome eight of the world's worst war criminals into his cabinet - four ministers and four deputies. RUF leader Foday Sankoh will take a position equivalent to vice president and supervise sales of the country's bountiful diamond reserves.
The amnesty pact angers Kajue, the mother of six, and a host of human rights observers who all ask the same questions: Can there really be peace without justice? Why has the world not condemned this deal?
"The world seems to seek justice in Kosovo," says Kajue, her anger pouring out amid tears. "Are we on a different planet? Are my children worth less than the children in Kosovo? Why don't we get the same treatment?"
The comparison to war crimes in Kosovo is made again and again by survivors here.
A case can be made that the Sierra Leone rebels were more ruthless than Serbian fighters in the Balkans: There was a concerted terror campaign by the RUF. They amputated people's limbs, raped children, kidnapped boys for their armies, burned civilians alive, used human shields, massacred people in churches, and violated the rules of war - outlined in the Geneva Conventions - at every turn.
While the death toll in Kosovo is estimated at 10,000 over three months, more than 5,000 died during a January rebel siege in Freetown alone. At least 50,000 have perished over the years and more than 1 million Sierra Leoneans have been forced to flee their homes.
The United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights, former Irish president Mary Robinson, concluded during a June visit that there had been "more loss of life" here than in Kosovo and "more violations of human rights."
Why then, by comparison, has the war here been largely ignored by the developed world?
"Well," sighs one Western diplomat, "the difference is, who's looking? It is the difference between Africa and Europe."
"We are of no strategic or economic interest to the West," fumes Kadi Sesay, chair of Sierra Leone's National Commission for Democracy and Human Rights, a government entity. "So the international response is: 'Oh, here goes Africa again. They are killing each other, but let them sort it out themselves.' "
Adds Marie Manyeh, a local aide worker: "It's like the world believes that we as black people can absorb more horror than the white race."
The UN representative here, Ambassador Francis Okelo of Uganda, signed the controversial peace pact as a "moral guarantor." He received last-minute instructions from New York to insist upon a disclaimer noting the UN does not recognize amnesty for genocide and crimes against humanity - an add-on that came so late it does not appear in copies of the agreement sold on the streets of Freetown.
There has been no mention of pursuing Mr. Sankoh, the RUF leader, in an international court - and the UN has not heeded calls for special investigators to document atrocities.
"I don't see the problem," says an exasperated Mr. Okelo. "Really, human-rights people can be so sanctimonious sometimes ... If we did not agree to this amnesty, there would have been no peace ... We had no choice."
So it would seem.
President Kabbah has had to rely solely on foreigners to fight his war against the RUF - and the peace deal was
struck because they didn't have the stomach to continue.
Sierra Leone's ill-paid soldiers - long accused of colluding with the rebels and under attack from civilian militia groups - staged a military coup in 1997, just one year after Kabbah had been democratically elected. The mutinous troops joined forces with the RUF and embarked on a brutal looting campaign. Schools, businesses, and government offices all ceased to function.
Kabbah's exiled government relied upon the Economic Community of West African States for help. But, of the six member nations (Ghana, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Nigeria, and Togo), only Nigeria fulfilled its pledge to provide a substantial numbers of troops to the Economic Community Monitoring Group (ECOMOG).
Nigeria to the rescue
The Nigerian-led ECOMOG force restored Kabbah to power in February 1998, but the rebels returned to invade Freetown in January this year, killing the Kajue children and thousands of other civilians during a mutilation and killing rampage.
ECOMOG pushed the rebels into retreat two weeks later but the country was on its knees by the time peace talks got under way. Nigeria, whose military regime had since been replaced with a democratic government, was under intense pressure to bring its soldiers home. More than 500 had been killed, and the war effort was costing Nigeria $1 million a day. Britain, which had spent 30 million ($48 million) on efforts to keep Kabbah in power since 1998, instructed the president to accept peace. The United States, which had poured more than $250 million into Sierra Leone for humanitarian aid over the years, also ran out of patience.
"We wanted to see a solution," says Joseph Melrose, the US ambassador who had personally attended the peace talks.
And the solution was to accept an amnesty deal. While Mr. Melrose stresses that the amnesty agreement is a domestic affair, Ms. Sesay, points out the government negotiators were left with no choice.
"We were negotiating from a position of weakness," explains Sesay, the human rights watchdog who became a key government negotiator at the peace talks. "We weren't getting the international support, and Nigeria was ready to pull out. The rebels were not going to sign that deal without an amnesty. If we had insisted, Sierra Leone would still be at war."
Okelo was among those who demanded the agreement include a future commission on truth and reconciliation. "That is the balance, the element of justice," says the UN ambassador. But, unlike South Africa, it's unlikely that little will be uncovered by such a process.
There was no secret killing campaign in Sierra Leone: Rebels hacked off people's arms to advertise their capacity for cruelty.
"We are aware it may often seem convenient in the short term to grant amnesty ... as a means of inducing rebel leaders to lay down arms," Human Rights Watch told UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. But in the long run, "such impunity breeds contempt for the law."
The group points to Rwanda and former Yugoslavia for the "terrible consequences" that can come from allowing gross human-rights violators access to power. While human rights observers recognize it is unrealistic to expect full-scale trials of all those responsible for war crimes in Sierra Leone, they insist that at least the worst offenders should be put on trial.
A grieving Kajue is among those who say they cannot pay taxes to a government that includes Foday Sankoh, the rebel leader. "The government asks us to forgive," she says. "But I will not. Never."
Remarkably, however, there are many in Sierra Leone who are prepared to accept the painful compromise. Some 200 representatives of civil society - groups of women, church leaders, students - agreed to the amnesty provisions at a national conference. In fact, says Sesay, they applauded it: "People just want the war to end."
Tamba Ngaujah, who lost both of his arms to machete-wielding rebels, agrees: "We must accept this is the price for peace."
Even the acting minister of information, Momodu Koroma, is willing to work side-by-side with rebels whose soldiers killed three of his brothers, slaughtered his grandmother, and razed his village. "I have taken rebel representatives to my house," he says. "I've provided dinner for them, I have taken them to clubs, entertained them, provided cash for them.
"I cannot afford any personal feelings.... What we want is a solution to silence the guns."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society