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Hoping for peace, Sierra Leone grudgingly accepts its torturers

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  • Paul Dever
    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
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 5, 1999
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      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
      life.

      "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
      power-sharing government.

      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
      Guinea.

      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
      missing.

      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
      foreign affairs.

      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
      Freetown.

      Even those who support the treaty find few positive things to say about
      it.

      "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
      4,000.

      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
      two psychiatrists.

      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."

      Copyright 1999 The Associated Press. All
      rights reserved. This material may not be
      published, broadcast, rewritten,
      or redistributed.
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