Hoping for peace, Sierra Leone grudgingly accepts its torturers
The following is a bit graphic in places, but it is NOT indicative of all
of Africa. Sad to say, intervention would have been quicker had it been
farther north. It is sometimes difficult to explain excesses such as this
to others but this is the only type of war like it.
September 4, 1999 Web posted at: 6:29 PM EDT (2229 GMT)
FREETOWN, Sierra Leone (AP) -- Moments before the rebels were going to
kill Ishmael Dramane, a 9-year-old boy cradling a machine gun saved his
"He told his commander that they have a lot of people to kill, and they
didn't have to kill an old man," said Dramane, who at 42 is already long
past middle age in this West African nation ravaged by poverty and war.
The rebels argued about what they should do. Then they voted. Three years
later, Dramane, an itinerant miner and truck driver, still struggles to
find the words to describe what they then did to him that day in a jungle
village in eastern Sierra Leone.
Instead, he kneels in the dirt of the Freetown camp for war victims where
he now lives. He shows how the rebels tied his wrists behind his back and
how he obediently placed his hands on a small bench. He knew what was
coming. They'd told him what they were going to do.
Then, he says, one picked up a machete and chopped off both his hands.
Laughing, the group left him in the dirt, blood pouring from his forearms
as he screamed in agony. It took him 12 hours to reach a hospital.
"How can I live with these people?" Dramane demands angrily, waving his
stumps in a visitor's face. "I lost everything."
Thousands of people lost everything in Sierra Leone's civil war,
systematically butchered by a rebel movement with a fascination for
amputation and an undefined political agenda.
In a war almost completely ignored by the international community, people
as young as 3 and 4 years old lost their fingers, their hands, their lips,
their ears. All became living examples of the power and the sheer
brutality of the rebels, signs of what people who did not support them
could expect. Thousands of people were mutilated, and tens of thousands
more lost their lives or their homes.
But the government of Sierra Leone says it's now time to forgive.
Suddenly, rebel leaders dismissed as war criminals just months ago are
about to join the government. They stay in nice hotels, get chauffeured
around this ramshackle capital city and give TV interviews. They have
audiences with powerful politicians, diplomats and aid groups, and talk
endlessly about their commitment to peace.
In early July, the rebel Revolutionary United Front signed a shaky accord
ending eight years of civil war, trading peace for a role in a
It's an agreement that few people in Sierra Leone are comfortable with --
and few believe will bring long-lasting peace.
But, most people acknowledge, there was nothing else the government of
President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah could do. Broke, horribly bloodied, outgunned
and dependent on foreign aid, Sierra Leone knew it had to find peace
somehow. In January, a rebel offensive leveled entire blocks of Freetown
and left thousands dead, pushing the government closer to a deal.
"If Kabbah didn't accept this peace, the rebels would continue to kill
people, to amputate people," Dramane said. "Kabbah had to accept."
He admits this grudgingly. Dramane, who like most rebel victims was
randomly targeted -- lead into a trap by a young rebel boy -- has nothing
good to say about the peace deal.
A proud man with an easy laugh and a smoker's gravely voice, he once
roamed Sierra Leone dreaming of mining riches, of living an easy life.
"I'm a traveler," he says. "I can't stay long in one place."
Now, though, he no longer travels. He can't light his own cigarettes or
eat without help. His family has disintegrated, his wife and four children
spread among various homes and refugee camps in Freetown and neighboring
The civil war destroyed Sierra Leone. Kabbah's government is now little
more than an administrative shell. Its bills are paid by international
donors, and its security is handled by soldiers from a Nigerian-led
regional intervention force.
The rebels still control nearly half the country, including the
diamond-rich eastern provinces. Thousands of kidnapped children are still
After all this, forgiveness is an impossibly bitter pill for many Sierra
Leoneans to swallow.
"I don't like the rebels. I don't want to even see them," Dramane said.
Rebel officials, for their part, deny responsibility for the
well-documented atrocities. "Our position is a denial of this," said
Paolo Bangura, a former political science professor and minister of
He also expressed surprise at the public reactions to the accord.
"It's human to feel strongly," Bangura said, "but it's also human to heal
after a change in reality ... I hope whatever negative feelings they have
will be overcome."
But even as people desperately hope for peace, few are confident it will
last. Diplomats arrive in town with just a few suitcases, worried they may
have to be evacuated if the country again descends into anarchy, and
everyone who can is sending money outside of the country.
Less than two months after the signing, the peace accord is already
showing serious signs of strain.
Foday Sankoh, the charismatic rebel founder now visiting Burkina Faso, is
in no hurry to return to the country, while at home, members of Sierra
Leone's former junta -- a theoretically allied rebel group -- have
kidnapped top RUF leaders. The disarmament campaign that was supposed to
start weeks ago has not begun, and unemployed rebels roam the streets of
Even those who support the treaty find few positive things to say about
"My conscience still has a debt to pay for the 'reasonable decision' we
had to make," in approving the treaty, said A.O.D. George, a prominent
intellectual and opposition parliamentarian. "It's something that we have
to live with."
The scale of the butchery in Sierra Leone is difficult to grasp. The
victims have become a horrific testament to the grotesque imaginations of
their attackers: parents killed in front of their children, toddlers'
hands hacked off, women raped with flaming logs, preadolescent girls
passed around as sex slaves.
At the camp for amputees where Dramane lives, residents tell an endless
litany of horror.
There's Adama Conteh, who pleaded for the life of her grandchild, but lost
her left hand in trade for him. And there's Brima Muctaru, whose left
forearm was carried away by a rebel filling a rice bag stuffed with hands.
There's Nathaniel Bemeh, a 72-year-old man whose right leg was purposely
blown off at point-blank range. When he begged to be killed, the rebels
instead slit histongue to keep him quiet. While he was recovering in a
Freetown hospital, his wife was burned alive in their home.
The amputations apparently began with the 1996 presidential elections,
when the rebels warned they would cut off the hands of people who voted.
Soon, dismemberment had become a rebel hallmark.
No one is sure how many amputees there are. The low estimate is about
The government, of course, has no money to care for the mutilated, who
depend on handouts from foreign aid groups. The thousands of emotionally
traumatized people have next to no help at all -- Sierra Leone has just
And now, the future of this beautiful nation -- a place of swaying palm
trees, thick jungles and gently rolling mountains -- is being decided in
part by the people responsible for the nightmare.
For the war's victims, that raises any number of questions. They wonder if
the rebels are capable of keeping a promise of peace; they wonder if the
international community will stand up for them this time if the killings
begin again. They wonder how they'll survive.
"Who can take care of me?" asked Dramane. "Who can take care of my
children now? Who? This is the problem."
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