Face to face with Charles Taylor’s victimsBy | Monday, June 11 2012 at 12:01
Charles Taylor, the strongman who the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone jailed for 50 years a fortnight ago, needed Sierra Leone’s diamonds to fund his own war in Liberia and no atrocity was too much to perpetrate to lay his hands on the precious stones. The following harrowing report is by Kenyan journalist ROYGACHUHI who once came face to face with the man’s victims:
When the international tribunal sitting at The Hague meets to consider Charles Taylor’s appeal against his 50 year sentence for crimes against humanity, I hope they enhance it to 80 years – which is the sum the prosecutor had asked for. I feel I have personal reasons to hope for this.
In August 2000, as consulting editor of Majeshi Yetu, the official magazine of the then Kenya Armed Forces, I accompanied a detachment of our troops to Sierra Leone.
The soldiers were part of Kenbat 6, the Kenya Battalion to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL). They were going to relieve their colleagues, Kenbat 5, who were returning home after a year’s tour of duty.
Kenya Defence Headquarters had embedded me in the contingent to observe the rotation for the magazine. Because of the Kenyan presence in Sierra Leone, I had developed more than a passing interest in the affairs of that country.
And because of my work for Majeshi Yetu, I had formed acquaintances with some of the officers who were serving there.
For instance, the Commanding Officer of Kenbat 5, Lt. Col Leonard Ngondi, had previously hosted me at Lanet in a day long engagement with the 3KR unit he commanded.
We were working on its profile as the oldest unit in the armed forces with a history stretching back to 1895.
As General Officer Commanding (GOC) Eastern Command, Maj-Gen Ngondi was the field general when ‘Operation Linda Nchi’ (into Somalia) was launched last year.
Today, he is GOC Western Command.
On arrival in Freetown, an officer from Kenbat 5 was tasked to mind me, the only civilian in a contingent of hundreds of soldiers.
He was to shadow me wherever I went. As it turned out, I was precisely the person he was yearning for. He couldn’t be warmer, friendlier and solicitous. I was intrigued by one of his first statements.
“It’s good they have brought you,” he told me. “You will see a lot for yourself.” Something in his body language, something in the sympathetic glint in his eyes, something in his gentle tone, unmistakably asked me to brace myself for the next few days of my sojourn.
It is the uniqueness of human communication; sometimes what is not said but only vaguely implied is clearer than what is actually stated.
That evening, we shared a drink. I tried to get him to give me a sneak preview of what I was about to see but his sentences kept breaking up before he could complete them.
“You will see for yourself,” he repeated, heaving repeatedly. There seemed to be a million demons inside him fighting for release.
But no matter what he was enduring, in my presence, he had to, as they say in the army, “kujikaza ki-ofisa”. (Steeling yourself like the officer you are).
I went to bed feeling unsettled. The following day, we drove to Makeni, 90 kilometres north of Freetown and headquarters of Kenbat 5.
There, Lt-Col Ngondi, the CO, gave the assembled troops a lucid status briefing. Afterwards, he and I caught up with whatever latest could be published in the magazine.
Then we headed back to Freetown late in the afternoon. That is when I began to see things. Somewhere along the way, my minder drew my attention to a group of school children who were playing football in their playground.
They hadn’t been there on our way to Makeni. All were in crutches. “They are amputees,” he told me, his eyes searching for my reaction. I froze in horror.
With a gathering feeling of sickness, I watched them, the poor innocents, until the bus left them behind.
“I see you are not very observant,” he told me. “There are many amputees that we have passed since morning but you haven’t noticed. But I don’t blame you.”
I asked him why.
He said: “As you well know, the RUF militia had a policy of amputating the limbs of whoever they deemed their opponents to be, children included.
“Before hacking off somebody’s arm, they usually gave their victims the option to choose between a short sleeve or a long sleeve. Short sleeve meant that the victim’s hand was hacked off at the elbow and long sleeve at the wrist.
“Many victims chose a long sleeve, this obviously being a natural inclination to lose as little as possible of oneself. When a victim dresses in a long sleeve shirt or jacket, you won’t notice that his hand is missing unless you look very closely.”
This, he told me, applied to legs as well. For a short sleeve, the victim lost his or her leg at the knee and for a long sleeve, below. It was a macabre lesson.
As dusk descended, I requested to change some money to the local currency. No problem, my minder told me.
'I believe in Jah'
Freetown, ironically, was much safer than Nairobi. Forex Bureaus operated in the open air, like Gikomba market, and I could change as many dollars as I liked into Leones.
He guided me into one such. It was run by an amputee. I felt a lump of something catch in my throat as I completed the transaction with the polite and friendly trader.
“Roast cassava is a very nice delicacy here,” the officer told me when we were done. “Do you want to try some?” “Yes,” I said. I was in very low spirits.
He guided me into a banda. Night had fallen now. It took a little while for me to notice that the seller here was also an amputee. I told him I was from Kenya, by way of starting a conversation.
Kenyans are good people, he said, Sierra Leoneans liked them. He spoke barely above a murmur and his eyes were always trained on the cassavas on the roasting mesh.
“I am sorry about what happened to you,” I offered. “I believe in Jah (God),” he replied in Creole. He went on tending his cassava. “Did they tell you why they did such a horrible thing to you?” I asked.
“Let them tell Jah. I leave all to Jah. All my life I give to Jah.” There was a tender resoluteness in his man-of-faith acceptance of his adversity.
“He took his fate with a serene face and calm demeanour. He gave no hint of bitterness or desire for revenge. Everything about him bespoke a simple market trader who desired no more than to provide for his family.
This crushed me and I requested my minder that we go back to our hotel. But further up the road, we came across two little girls accompanying an elderly woman, probably their grandmother. They hobbled on crutches.
There is something unspeakably galling about a grown man bringing down a butcher’s cleaver on the limbs of a child as a means of expressing his political point of view.
My minder and his fellow soldiers had lived for the last one year amongst these deranged monsters who had also raped the children and murdered many of their parents.
That night, when our eyes locked over the first drink, there was that infinitely sad look of recognition that said to me: ‘Now we are on the same page.’
It was a very long night and I will never forget it. It is on that night that the narrative of one of the world’s grisliest forms of political expression was laid bare to me.
It was also on that night that I gained a first-hand insight into the searing mental effects of living and working amongst such criminals and their victims was having on the soldiers of Kenbat 5. It cured me of all innocence regarding peace-keeping missions.
I acutely felt their loneliness and sense of frustration. Shackled by the restrictions of Chapter 6, the United Nations peace-keeping mandate, the Kenyans could not engage the murderous gangs.
Some of their colleagues were even taken prisoner by the rebels but they couldn’t go after them without first cranking the UN bureaucracy and upgrading the status of the mission to Chapter 7 – peace enforcement - a very tall order.
Writing for Majeshi Yetu, Kenya’s Maj. Robert Kabage, the Disarmament, Demobilization and Rehabilitation Programme Officer at UNAMSIL’s headquarters, said:
“On May 1, 2000, the RUF went on an all-out offensive against the peacekeepers. They attacked Kenbat 5 positions in Makeni and Magburaka and took some of the peacekeepers and military observers hostage.
“In a similar attack, 234 Indian peacekeepers and 13 military observers from 13 countries stationed in Kailahun District were taken hostage.”
The following day, we took a short helicopter hop over Fourah Bay to pay a courtesy call on the UN Force Commander, Lt.-Gen Daniel Opande, a fellow Kenyan, at his headquarters.
He operated out of a highly secure compound on a hill-top overlooking the Atlantic. After passing through a run-down airport, earthen highways, cramped streets and Spartan camps, it came something of a shock that such ornate offices, with thick carpets and air-conditioning, could exist in Sierra Leone.
The general was obviously delighted to receive his countrymen. But his conversations with the military personnel were business-like, cryptic with hardly a word of small talk.
With me it was different. With a flourish, he led me to his huge map on the wall and pointed out the locations of the various battalions at his command – India, Jordan, Ghana, Kenya of course, and others.
I waited for the right moment and told him I had seen the indescribable misery of amputees on the streets. This country is hell itself, general, isn’t it, I asked him.
He nodded and then sat me down and spoke at length about the need for peace. I wasn’t surprised when, after the outbreak of the 2008 post-election violence in Kenya, the now retired general became among the first Kenyans to jump into the peace drive to hold the country together. He had seen much.
That day, I spent a lot of time talking with the officers of Kenbat 5 as they prepared to return home. True, they confirmed, the atrocities in Sierra Leone were being carried out by men and the drugged child soldiers of Foday Sankoh’s Revolutionary United Front.
But to a man, they emphasised one thing: Foday Sankoh and his militia were just pawns. The conductor of the devil’s orchestra was Charles Taylor.
He was entirely responsible for the mayhem taking place in Sierra Leone. Taylor needed Sierra Leone’s diamonds to fund his own monstrous war in Liberia and no atrocity was too much to perpetrate to get them.
The men of Kenbat 5 told me that peace in Sierra Leone was impossible with Charles Taylor fighting to obtain power next door.
In the end, it dawned on Liberians that the only hope they had for peace was to elect him president; in a twisted logic, they thought that by giving him what he craved, he would leave them alone.
On a quiet ocean-side afternoon after lunch, I made conversation with Brig. (later Maj.-Gen.) James Mulinge, the man made famous by being abducted by the RUF.
I asked him whether the armed forces had programmes designed to deal with the trauma of soldiers exposed to atrocities such as they witnessed in Sierra Leone.
He said: “Your concern is legitimate and we are aware of these problems. But there are many complexities in dealing with these issues.”
My good minder and I were not leaving on the same flight back home. However, we had one last meal together. “Now that you know, what are you going to write about Sierra Leone?” he asked me.
I would like to write about the experiences of all you guys, I told him. But, I added, I had no idea where to begin or with whom. We agreed to talk more when both of us returned home.
I sat on the benches of Lungi International Airport watching Russian built Ilyushin and Antonov aircraft coming and going.
The behemoths were ferrying trucks, armoured personnel carriers, all manner of stores and military equipment and, of course, hundreds of soldiers belonging to UNAMSIL’s troop contributing countries. Lungi airport was virtually closed to all but UN traffic.
This, I knew, ran into hundreds of millions of dollars – and all for the purpose of trying to stop Charles Taylor from butchering innocent people.
I thought of the children playing football with crutches because Taylor’s goons had amputated their legs and I was overcome with a hatred for him.
I thought of him as a monster that had assumed human form, the ogre that ate up the children for real, not from my grandmother’s fables. To this day, his photograph fills me with revulsion.
Taylor does not deserve the death penalty and thankfully, the jurisprudence trying him doesn’t have that penalty in its books. Let him serve out the rest of his life in jail.
Let him live as long as he can and take whatever lessons about being a normal human being he might learn. He is beneath low and the world should never descend to that level by killing him.
— Roy Gachuhi is a writer with The Content House— firstname.lastname@example.org
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