The slogan during the run up to the 1996 elections, which occurred in the middle of Sierra Leone’s bloody, eleven-year civil war, was “Power is in your hands.” The Revolutionary United Front responded by amputating the hands of anyone who went to the polls, resulting in an estimated 20,000 amputations.
The civil war of Sierra Leone, which lasted from 1991 to 2002, tore the country apart. Fighting occurred in every corner of the country, causing between 20,000 and 75,000 deaths and two million displaced persons in a country of only 4.5 million. Villages were burned to the ground, children were forcibly conscripted by all sides, families were divided, sons were forced to watch while their mothers and sisters were raped, friends were made to beat or even kill the family members of their best friends. The consequence is a fundamentally broken society. Even the most basic levels of social organization, the family and the village, were destroyed. As one amputee survivor put it, “Love was lost is the mists of war; now all we have is hate.”
What Sierra Leoneans need is to feel that justice has been done on both a community and a national level. The international community attempted to provide justice though the creation of the Special Court of Sierra Leone (SC-SL), whose mandate is to try those “most responsible” for the atrocities of the war, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). However, the Western-style SC-SL and the TRC are not enough to heal the interpersonal, inter-village and familial relations shattered by the war.
A visiting German professor of psycho-social counseling at Fourah Bay College, gave us his perspective on transitional justice in Sierra Leone. He told us, “Africans just want peace.” It is the Westerners who insist on “justice.” While this simple analysis does not tell the whole story, it gives some important insights into the complex nature of transitional justice in Sierra Leone. Most importantly, it hints at the need for a multifaceted approach to justice.
This need can be felt during discussions with survivors of Sierra Leone’s war. The average Sierra Leonean continues to be pulled in contradictory directions, wanting those responsible for their suffering to be punished while also wishing to put their bloody civil war behind them. In order to begin to address these complex notions of justice, a more traditional, community based form of reconciliation as well as a reparations program are needed to fill in the gaps left by the SC-SL and the TRC.
An organization called Fambul Tok (Krio for “family talk”) International (FTI), has attempted to fill the need for a more localized form of transitional justice. The staff of FTI aids communities in leading their own reconciliation processes. Communities are asked if they are ready to reconcile, what reconciliation means to them, and what they would like the reconciliation process to look like. Most communities engage in truth-telling bonfires and traditional cleansing ceremonies. FTI and other organizations like it, work at the community level to heal specific injustices between individuals.
Reparations are also an important aspect of the transitional justice system in post-war Sierra Leone. Many Sierra Leoneans who suffered during the war feel a continued sense of injustice because those who caused their suffering, ex-combatants, benefit from the government-sponsored and internationally-backed disarmament, demobilization and reintegration program, while they continue to suffer. While many survivors receive benefits and attention from international non-government and aid organizations, the sense of injustice will continue until their own government is able to provide adequate opportunities and support for them. The reparations program is an attempt to fill this need, and while it is fundamentally flawed in several ways, it is a good start.
These localized, individually-oriented justice measures have begun to address the inadequacies of the national programs, but that is not to say that the efforts of the SC-SL and the TRC have done nothing. While these lacked the focus necessary to work at a community level, many believe the SC-SL had positive effects on the Mano River Region as a whole. One of the members of the prosecution team at the SC-SL who met with our group insinuated that one reason Guinea had not yet erupted into violence was that the prosecution and punishment of leaders of Sierra Leone’s warring factions had brought an end to impunity in West Africa. Sierra Leone’s civil war is largely blamed on the violence in neighboring Liberia, and while many other factors come into play, a peaceful region will help to ensure peace in Sierra Leone.
Everyone you ask in Sierra Leone will give you a different definition of “justice.” What they all have in common is a sense that justice has yet to be done for them. While it may be tempting to look at the successes of the SC-SL and the TRC, these top-down, Western mechanisms of justice alone are not enough to heal the interpersonal, inter-village and familial relations that were shattered by the war. In addition to these, FTI is setting an example for a more traditional, community based form of justice, and the government has begun to implement a reparations program for survivors. It is only through the continuation and expansion of all these different types of justice that Sierra Leone will begin to heal.
Deanna Tamborelli was in Sierra Leone for a two-week course led by Dr. Pushpa Iyer of the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Deanna’s blog is part of a series of reflections by Dr. Iyer and her students on the challenges to building peace in this war-ravaged country. -Ed.
Deanna Tamborelli is a Senior “Feb” (graduating in January of 2011) at Middlebury College where she is working towards her undergraduate degree in International Studies with focuses in Latin America and Political Science. She was born and raised in Rhode Island but has since lived in Italy, Peru and Vermont. Future aspirations include: returning to Africa, attaining a Master’s Degree in International Relations, volunteering with the Peace Corps and much more.