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Survivors give testimony of cruelty in Sierra Leon conflict

Thursday, July 22, 2004

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone -- Witness TF-1196 told her story: Rebels used machetes to hack all movement and life out of her husband. Then a rebel young enough to be her child raped her.

She raised the rounded tips of her arms to show why she had not signed her statement, delivered before a U.N.-backed war crimes court for the diamond-rich west African nation of Sierra Leone.

"After they had killed my husband, a rebel ... chopped off my right and left hands with a cutlass, into four bits," TF-1196 -- a downcast, middle-aged woman -- told the court.

Survivors this week and last have started telling their accounts of one of Africa's most heartless wars: a 1991-2002 campaign by rebels who killed, raped, kidnapped and hacked to pieces hundreds of thousands of civilians in hopes of terrorizing Sierra Leone into ceding control of its government and diamond fields.

Rebels, many of them children as young as 5, followed Foday Sankoh, whom they called Pappy. Sankoh gave his fighters AK-47s, marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines and encouragement to kill in the most brutal way their immature minds and unmolded judgment could devise.

The majority of the rebels' campaign played out in Sierra Leone's countryside, leaving the death toll uncertain. And their victims' accounts are attracting little world notice, in contrast to war crimes trials for Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

But the stories -- told in a sterile, specially built courtroom in a country that is officially the world's least-developed -- stand up to any about the extent of human cruelty.

Another woman, Witness TF-064 -- the number was assigned by the court to protect her identity -- testified this week about the day rebels came to her village.

TF-064, the prosecution's fifth witness, was able to make it through telling the court how rebels raped her, even though she was heavily pregnant.

Her tears came only when she spoke of gunmen separating the adults and children of the village into two groups: adults inside a building, eight children -- including her 1- and 3-year-old sons -- under an orange tree.

"We heard the children screaming," she said.

"After a while, the screaming stopped. ... When we came outside we saw the corpses of the children lying on the ground."

At that point, Witness TF-064 cried for 10 minutes, uninterrupted.

"Please hold your heart and speak," Presiding Judge Benjamin Itoe finally told the woman, and she continued.

Rebels killed most of the villagers, then forced survivors to leave with them, she said. They spared one boy to carry a sack dripping with blood.

The rebels eventually called her over to show what was inside the bag -- the heads of the village's children, including her sons'.

"Before we left, I turned round and looked at the bodies on the ground. The rebels asked me to laugh as a gun was pointed at my head," she said.

"I pretended to be laughing."

Sierra Leone's people are following the testimony via nightly summaries on radio. Most foreign media left after the trials' first days, in June.

Some among the witnesses now appearing spoke of being the only person left alive to tell of a particular attack.

"They came to me directly and asked whether I was the one leading the prayers. I said, 'Yes,' and they replied, 'Your life is finished,"' said one 67-year-old Muslim man, testifying about the day in January 1999 when rebels overran the capital, Freetown.

"I said, if God agrees."

Muslims and Christians alike, including one terrified man holding a prayer book and cross, had sought sanctuary in his mosque, he said.

"They started firing randomly from beside me," the man testified. "One man who was struggling to die kicked me, and I fell down."

He lived -- to later count 71 dead at the mosque, he said.

The horrors as rebels repeatedly overran Freetown ultimately helped prompt military intervention by colonial ruler Britain, neighboring Guinea, and U.N. and West African forces, crushing the rebels by 2002.

Sankoh died, of natural causes, in U.N. custody last year.

Prosecutors accuse foreign leaders of giving Sankoh arms, training and cash to help fight the insurrection. Ousted Liberian President Charles Taylor is a fugitive from an indictment against him. Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi is named in indictments as an unindicted coconspirator.

Thirteen people have been indicted, nine of whom are in custody. Three former rebel battlefield commanders now are standing trial.

On Tuesday, the tribunal heard for the first time from the other side -- that of the killers.

TF1-199 was 12 when rebels abducted him in 1998, as he was fetching water, he said.

Rebels trained him how to fire an AK-47, how to smoke marijuana, and how to rape, he said. He learned when his commander gave him a terrified 15-year-old villager.

"I told him it was new to me, and that I was a young boy," he said.

Ultimately, threatened with his death and that of the girl, he complied and raped her.

"My heart was so mixed up, doing this evil act that he introduced me to," TF1-199, now 17, told the court.


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