As the glamor and intrigue continue today in the trial of former Liberian president Charles Taylor—with a Hollywood actress and a supermodel’s former agent testifying in The Hague about diamonds and a diva—the view from Sierra Leone looks decidedly less chic.
Charred buildings lined the street going east out of Freetown, the country’s capital, with young men lingering on the roadside, despite the heavy rain.
“See those boys?” asked Desmond, my taxi driver and an evangelical pastor. “A lot of them were child soldiers. I have no pity for them.”
We were weaving through traffic on the same road that Sierra Leonean rebels had marched down eleven years ago, burning houses, looting, and terrorizing civilians as they launched an attack on the city in 1999.
Desmond started recalling his memories of the brutal 11-year conflict. He remembered rebels splitting open the stomachs of pregnant women to settle a bet on the sex of the unborn baby; frightened men and women jostling to sleep in fresh graves among dead bodies because the cemetery was the safest place to be at night; the fear he felt during the curfew while scavenging for food for his family.
“You can’t even imagine the things they did—they were on drugs, it made them crazy, they did not even know what they were doing,” he said, shaking his head in disgust.
We arrived at the house of Jusu Jarkah, a double amputee whose arms were cut off below the elbow during the war—a signature crime committed by rebel forces. Jarkah said he hopes that Charles Taylor will be found guilty of the 11 charges he faces, including war crimes and crimes against humanity. Taylor is being prosecuted for his alleged role in supporting rebels in a campaign to inflict terror, destabilize the country, and get rich from Sierra Leone’s diamond wealth.
Jarkah also wants to go to The Hague to see the verdict handed down, which is expected next year. He’s been there once before to watch the trial, and encountered Taylor through the glass window of the courtroom.
“Taylor looked at me and I held up my arms to show him what the rebels did to me—he just turned his head and looked away,” Jarkah said. “He did not want to acknowledge it.”
Jarmah had followed the testimony of supermodel Naomi Campbell last week, when she said she had received “dirty little pebbles” after a charity dinner hosted by former South African president, Nelson Mandela in September 1997. She had assumed the pebbles were rough diamonds from Charles Taylor, though she did not know who the two men were who woke her that night to give her the gift.
(Prosecutors hoped Campbell’s story would strengthen their allegations that Taylor exchanged weapons for diamonds, as the dinner took place a month after rebels allegedly delivered him diamonds, and a month before a weapons shipment landed in Sierra Leone.)
Jarkah said he was pleased she told her story because it brought attention to the issue of blood diamonds and “the activities of Taylor during the war.” He pointed to the example of Kono, a diamond rich district in the country’s east. There, he said, shipments of diamonds would be flown out to Liberia, and the same helicopter would return back to the country with weapons.
Taylor, however, has denied all charges against him and has said he neither received diamonds from the rebels nor supplied them with weapons.
In the lead-up to Campbell’s appearance last Thursday, young men also debated the issues behind the supermodel’s testimony while I passed through Kono district.
Sitting on a long bench on the verandah of a ramshackle house in the diamond-rich town of Small Sefadu, a heated exchange broke out among the youth, some of whom were former child soldiers. They had not heard of the supermodel, nor that she was coming to testify. But sitting in midst of a town overtaken by rebels—with burned out houses all around them—their views on Taylor’s alleged exchange of diamonds for weapons warmed up.
“Liberian rebels were here—they were sent by Charles Taylor,” one said. “They captured many people here and forced them to work in the [diamond] mines without feeding them and in terrible conditions.”
Another disagreed that Taylor was behind the crimes.
“There is no proper evidence for Charles Taylor—we never saw him here,” he said. “So it is our Sierra Leonean brothers who did this.”
“Let them try Taylor for Liberia’s war and let’s blame our own brothers for ours.”
Today, actress Mia Farrow and Campbell’s former agent, Carole White, testified about that night in 1997 when the alleged diamond gift was given. As they did so, the world again focused—fleetingly—on the Taylor trial and the horrific crimes committed during Sierra Leone’s long war.
But for those who lived through it, the reminders of the crimes are constant and everywhere. Only time will tell whether Taylor will be held responsible for them or not.