Thursday, April 26, 2012

Charles Taylor convicted. Personal memories of Freetown in 2000.

I am pleased to see International judges at the UN-backed special court in the Hague  have found former Liberian leader Charles Taylor guilty of aiding and abetting war crimes. He was accused of backing rebels who killed tens of thousands during Sierra Leone's 1991-2002 civil war. Taylor was convicted of 11 counts including terror, murder and rape

In November 2000 I arrived in Freetown. Sierra Leone was one of the countries on the UK Foreign Office list of too-dangerous-to-visit-unless-you-absolutely-have-to. Years of newspaper headlines had linked Sierra Leone in my mind with child soldiers, child amputees and other war atrocities.

Sitting next to the BBC’s Kate Adie at a Network Awards Dinner a few weeks earlier,  I mentioned I was about to fly to Sierra Leone  for a ten-day visit. 
An experienced Sierra Leone hand, Kate proffered helpful advice about where to go and whom to meet.  We even had a brief discussion about body armour. And like the experienced war-correspondent she is, Kate said I was definitely to visit Paddy’s Bar.  

In 1997 women in Sierra Leone  invited me to come to Sierra Leone to work with them to  increase the number of women elected to parliament and local councils.  An outbreak of civil war had meant the postponement of my original planned visit until November 2000.  
November is the end of the rainy season.  Despite the signing of a Cease-fire there was a feeling of nervousness that the RUJ rebels would take use the advantage of drier weather  to move down from the north and  attack Freetown.

On my flight in a dodgy aircraft from Lagos to Lungi airport, officials sitting across the aisle were returning from negotiating a temporary cease-fire between the Sierra Leone Government and the rebels.  UN Nigerian troops in camouflage fatigues returning from home-leave filled the rear of the plane. The final leg of my trip was by a former Soviet Union helicopter from Lungi into Freetown.

Beleaguered and isolated by the RUF from its hinterland, Freetown seemed stuck in the era of Biggles and British Empire.   If Freetown had been Singapore I would have expected to bump into Raffles.  Place names are  Hastings, Aberdeen and Wellington.   

The RUF rebels controlled thousands of cocaine-addicted, scrambled-brained child soldiers.  For nearly a decade, the RUF tactic was to raid a village, round up boys and girls aged 10 or 11 years upwards.   A security official told me the children were immediately injected in the temple with crack cocaine or skin scraped from leg or chest so the drug can be rubbed straight into the bloodstream.  Early after their kidnapping, the drug-confused youngsters were forced to chop off a limb from one of their relatives before being taken away to become trained to kill. 

Sierra Leoneans had little confidence in the multi-national UN force that replaced the Nigerian-dominated ECOWAS. The Indian military complained Nigerian troops were corrupt. Nigerians retaliated by insulting the military abilities of the Indians. The Indian and Jordanian contingents were beginning to bicker, and pulling out and going home, simply running away from the problem.

The issue of whether or not Britain should be deploying troops in this former colony and protectorate was a political hot-potato back home in UK for Robin Cook, Geoff Hoon and Tony Blair but across Freetown you could feel the collective sigh of relief at the arrival of British marines.   Patricia, a retired Sierra Leonean radio broadcaster, said to me, "I’m a strong believer in God. When I heard the Indian and Jordanian UN troops were going home, I knew God would help us in some way. God did.  God sent us the British." 

Our rather too brightly painted helicopter from Lungi Airport came into land in Freetown, flying low over the kilometres of golden sands of Lumley beach, the sand dotted with après-work joggers, walkers and swimmers. Lumley Beach near the UN heliport is a favoured venue for human interaction of that certain sort – the sort I saw growing rapidly in Kosovo last year.  After years of corruption, greed and civil war in Sierra Leone, prostitution, fuelled by the influx of comparatively well paid UNAMSIL personnel, is one of the few growth industries.

My residence was the house of the British Council Director up on one of the several beautiful hill-sides above the city.  Next morning, in the dazzling early light of the tropical coastline, I looked down from the terrace to Aberdeen Peninsular.  The Royal Navy had arrived. Five ships appeared over the horizon and came to lay at anchor dotted across the bay. 
The British Military strategy was to conduct a smoke and mirrors strategy in the hope of warning the rebels not to break the ceasefire. The next day, 500 troops in amphibian craft accompanied by helicopter gun-ship air cover landed on the beaches of Aberdeen Peninsular.  I was conducting a British Council skills training workshop for future women leaders.  Inside the seminar room we all ducked in unison as a low flying helicopter roared over the British Council building.  Suddenly, from the beach, we could hear a British military band and thousands of Sierra Leoneans cheering and shouting ‘God Bless Our Mother Country’, ‘God Bless Britain’. 

A couple of days later I attended a special session of Parliament. The praise for Britain was so warm and effusive it was nearly embarrassing and, frankly, deeply touching.  Members of Parliament from all the political parties, both Christian and Muslim, stood up and offered paeans of praise to Britain. They thanked Tony Blair. They thanked Robin Cook. They thanked UK’s UN Ambassador Jeremy Greencroft. They thanked DfID. A Muslim MP said: "The British are a special people ready to live and to die for what they believe in, rather than for short term gain."  The MP mentioned the British belief in fair play and justice and added in for good measure the spirit of King Arthur. They even praised Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott.  It must be one of the few rave reviews our Minister for Transport and Wet and every other Controversial Thing had that year.

 At the end, perhaps recalling his Colonial period education, an MP stood up and said, "I could see the great spectacle on the beach from my window.  When I saw the British forces landing - nothing could be more reassuring.  If I may quote Wellington, "I don't know what they do to the enemy, but by God they put the fear of God in ME." 
The Marines and the Gurkhas did put the fear of God into the RUF. Finally today, Charles Taylor  the man responsible for causing the terrible atrocities has been convicted in the court in the Hague.  I hope it's a clear message to other political Leaders that impunity for atrocities may belong to a past era.

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