Friday, March 16, 2007

Dictator shattered diamond-rich Sierra Leone

Former Liberian president Charles Taylor is in a detention centre in The Hague, facing 11 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Almost four years after Taylor was forced to flee Liberia, the neighbouring West African nation of Sierra Leone still bears the scars of his murderous regime.

Burnaby resident Gibril Gbana­bome Koroma, a refugee from Sierra Leone, told the Straight in a phone interview that many in his home country see Taylor as the "mastermind" behind a bloody civil war that wracked Sierra Leone for a decade until it ended in 2002. Koroma, a journalist who moved to Canada in 2000, said that Taylor supported the Revolutionary United Front, which recruited child soldiers who committed atrocities, including cutting off people's hands.

"A lot of journalists were killed," Koroma said. "I decided just to leave."

The prosecution for the United Nations–backed Special Court for Sierra Leone has accused Taylor of selling diamonds to finance the RUF. Koroma, now editor of an on-line Sierra Leone newspaper called the Patriotic Vanguard , said that the civil war destroyed the country's infrastructure and ensured that a generation of youngsters never attended school.

"Most of them are not in school even now, as I'm speaking," Koroma said. "So you can imagine the kind of problems the country will face in the future."

Even though the country is rich in diamonds, Sierra Leone's gross national income per capita was only US$220 in 2006, according to the World Bank. The UN's 2006 Human Development Index ranks it 176 out of 177 countries. In a phone interview with the Straight , UBC professor Michael Byers, author of War Law: Understanding International Law and Armed Conflict (Douglas & McIntyre, 2005), described Taylor as a "warlord" who seized power in Liberia and then began exporting violence to neighbouring countries, particularly Sierra Leone.

Byers said Taylor fled to Nigeria but was eventually returned to Liberia and then turned over to the Special Court for Sierra Leone, which will try him in The Hague. "If and when he is convicted, he will serve his time not in Sierra Leone or in the Netherlands, but in the United Kingdom," Byers said. "Britain stepped up to the plate in offering to imprison him if he was convicted."

Philippe Le Billon, a UBC assistant professor of geography, told the Straight in a phone interview that he visited Sierra Leone in 2001 and in 2006. "I really have a sense that people have grown tired of war," he said. "Several people told me, 'We learned a lesson.'"

Le Billon, who studies wars fought over natural resources, said that several parties in the civil war, including the RUF, the army, and a civil-defence group called the Kamajohs, all committed atrocities. Le Billon also suggested that the vast majority of RUF soldiers, possibly as many as 90 percent, were forcibly conscripted.

He said the RUF didn't want child soldiers to escape, so they took extra efforts to separate them from their local communities. To accomplish this, child soldiers were often drugged, branded, moved to other parts of the country, or forced to commit atrocities, sometimes against their own family members, which would shame them in their villages.

Le Billon pointed out that youths don't have very much power in small villages in Sierra Leone, and they often carried grudges against abusive chiefs or abusive neighbours. "There was a lot of personally motivated violence," he said.

SFU graduate student Clement Abas Apaak, who hails from Ghana, told the Straight in a phone interview that the political situation has improved significantly in recent years in West Africa. He noted that both Ghana and Senegal are functioning democracies. Apaak also praised Liberia's new president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who in 2006 became the first woman in Africa elected as a head of state.

Apaak, host of an SFU campus-radio show called African Connection, noted there have also been improvements in Sierra Leone, and more stability in Ivory Coast. As for Charles Taylor, Apaak said he expects the former dictator to face justice for causing so much destruction in the region.

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