‘We can forgive but we can’t forget’

Survivors of the brutal conflict in Sierra Leone may have celebrated the conviction of Charles Taylor on Thursday but the practicalities of everyday life remain a challenge.

For many, finding food is a daily battle. Others want more help with the long-term medical care they need and the educational opportunities they have missed out on. None I spoke to feel enough has been done to address their suffering.

Jusu Jarka, 49 years, is a survivor of amputations to both arms. He describes his ordeal in January 1999 when RUF fighters invaded Freetown: “The rebels went from door to door. They told me to open the door or they were going to fire. My 14 year old daughter was in the house and he told my daughter – ‘Get my bag and follow me into the bush. I now have my wife.’”

Jusu describes how he helped his daughter escape but suffered the consequences for saving her life.“They took me to a mango tree where a man was wearing a t-shirt that said ‘C.O. Cut Hands’. There they had a bag where they collected hands to show to their commanders to [receive a promotion for] doing a good job.”

The first two men in front of Jusu were shot dead as soon as their amputation was finished.  Jusu was next. “They tied my hands behind my back like a prisoner.

I was crying and pleading ‘please don’t cut my hand my brother’ but he said, ‘You are not my brother because you did not join us to fight.”

Jusu continues: “They cut my left hand first and then my right. Then they said, ‘Let’s not waste a bullet on him – let him die on the way.’ “

Jusu survived but little has been done to address the injuries he suffered. He says, “There are no plans to make reparations for victims. We have been asking them for years throughout the court proceedings to find ways and means to compensate us but victims are still languishing in the streets and begging for a living.”

Indeed, across Freetown the survivors of brutal amputations are visible as they beg in the streets to make a living.

The government and the international community have made some efforts to enact the reparations recommended by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) but many feel more should have been done.

This sentiment was shared by many of the people I spoke to. Mohammed Kamara, 42 years, suffered a gun shot wound to the foot and cuts to the rest of his body from a cutlass in 1998.  Mohammed said, “If Charles Taylor is found guilty I will be happy but there is heart sickness that the rebels were well taken care of but the victims have not been taken care of.”

“We can forgive but we cannot forget.  The pain is still there,” Mohamed says pointing to his foot.

Matilda Koroma, 36 years, told me how she was gangraped by five men after being taken from her village in 1998.  “They entered in the night. I had just given birth to a one week old baby boy… They grabbed me and took me to one corner.  Five men raped me and beat me. When they thought I was dead they raped me with a big stick.”

Matilda still suffers the wounds caused by this horrific ordeal. She says, “No man wants me. My husband left because he is not satisfied with me. I cannot bear children so no man wants to be with me.” While the government has given her some compensation and medical assistance – she states she only received 300,000 Leons (roughly $70USD) one year ago – she must pay for continuous medical care from the meagre wages she makes weaving.

While the Special Court has set a precedent for international justice, much more needs to be done to address the issue of impunity in Sierra Leone.

Mohammed expressed this sentiment. “The issue of impunity is not just about Charles Taylor – all the perpetrators should be dealt with. This way others will be afraid to do the same thing these people have done.”

When I asked Matilda how she feels about Charles Taylor being tried she said, “I am happy Taylor is being tried because he is the one who brought this to our country but there are others. The direct perpetrators should be arrested and prosecuted.”

Jusu on the other hand believes the Special Court has served its purpose, he says, “The lion has been handled.”