At one end they were chopping the limbs, mercilessly using machetes to saw off parts, applying axes as if they were looking for choice parts for a village feast.
At the other end, the ears were sliced off, lips carved like the preparation of a pig’s head for a family roast. Somewhere in the middle, what was deemed unwanted was thrown away, buried in pits the way a housewife gets rid of kitchen garbage.
Only that these were people, flesh & blood human beings. Had Africa been a person, the year 1999 would surely have led to a coma and death by excruciating pain and excessive loss of blood.
In that year, the chopping of limbs was at its worst in Sierra Leone, where rebels backed by then Liberian President Charles Taylor never hesitated to cut off the hands and feet of civilians.
In that year, the abductions in northern Uganda hit a climax, with unprecedented violence, including the slicing off of the lips of innocent Acholi women who had gone to the stream to fetch water.
Limbs stuffed in pots
Personally, I was to face my biggest ethical dilemma as an editor, on whether to publish photographs of people’s limbs stuffed in pots waiting to be boiled by the LRA in the middle of a rural road.
That was the year when, in mid-January, a new group of fighters appeared in the Congo War. While they were referred to as a resistance group they were, in truth, just a band of ruthless killers.
In the course of my professional duties, I was offered a photo of a scene of a hastily dug pit in which a headless body had been dumped and a band of ‘victorious’ Mai Mai rebels stood on a fresh mound of soil holding up a severed head as a trophy.
I was told the head was that of a Tutsi fighter (the ones who overthrew the Kinshasa government, with the backing of Rwanda and Uganda), but we did not publish it because it was bloodily tasteless and we could not verify its authenticity.
That year, 1999, was representative of Africa’s suffering – perhaps aptly symbolic as the closing year of a century that saw unimaginable suffering.
West Africa heaved under Taylor’s bloody rule, in Liberia and in Sierra Leone; Central Africa saw Zaire/Congo imploding as five African armies looked for a way out of a bloodbath caused by their invasion; East Africa had its own bloodletting in indescribable evil in Northern Uganda.
Add on countless other conflicts – genocide in Congo in the 1800s; genocide in Burundi and Rwanda in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and 90s; massacres in Uganda in the 70s and 80s, and in Angola, Mozambique, Sudan, and Algeria - and it is evident that too much blood has been spilled in our history.
How, then, do you atone for it? In most cases the perpetrators got away with it. The agents of the Belgian king Leopold never got to pay for their sins – instead they left a bloody legacy which occasionally erupts into bloodletting even today, more than a century later.
Many of the perpetrators of Rwanda and Burundi’s cyclical genocides have tended to get away with it, though post-94 Rwanda has done well in prosecuting suspects. Angola recorded a victor’s justice in the killing in action of Jonas Savimbi. Sudan’s President Bashir stands indicted of Darfur’s suffering, and Joseph Kony is a most wanted man.
The conviction of Taylor for his role in the atrocities committed in Sierra Leone, including mass murder, sexual slavery and the use of child soldiers is therefore a big breakthrough in the road to atonement.
But, as Amnesty International has observed, while the conviction is a milestone, there is concern that thousands of people who suffered atrocities during a decade of armed conflict are yet to see their perpetrators brought to justice. There are many more out there. Go get them.
I never could have imagined, for the life of me, that Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Kaka would each miss a penalty, all three in the space of 24 hours. After all between the three of them they hold the title for the world’s best footballer in the last half decade – Messi in 2011, 2010, 2009; Ronaldo in 2008; Kaka in 2007. They score for fun (and for records, many of them).
So how did each one conspire to miss from six yards out in the European Champions League last week to deny their respective clubs a big shot at glory? It all goes to show the unpredictability of life, even when you seem to have to life pretty sewn up. Let us take care (and jubilate at the silencing, for now, of the silly debate about Messi’s all-time status. He is yet to best Pele and Maradona).