Sierra Leone – getting away with murder, mutilation, rape

Rebel soldiers in Sierra Leone
Rebel soldiers in Sierra Leone

A year ago this month, rebels launched an offensive on the capital of Sierra Leone in West Africa. The invasion went largely unreported, though the human rights abuses that occurred there have been described as among the most serious in modern-day warfare. Corinne Dufka has been in Sierra Leone since April of last year, conducting research for the New-York based Human Rights Watch organisation. Eric Beauchemin met her in the capital, Freetown.

Original broadcast: January 25, 2000

Photos: Eric Beauchemin


Welcome to a “Good Life” on Radio Netherlands, the Dutch International Service. I’m Ginger da Silva.

The paradigm between Sierra Leone and Africa and Kosovo and Europe has been drawn again and again and again. It gets people thinking about criteria for when an intervention should be called for when there are massive human rights abuses.

A year ago this month, rebels launched an offensive on the capital of Sierra Leone in West Africa. The invasion went largely unreported, though the human rights abuses that occurred there have been described as among the most serious in modern-day warfare. Corinne Dufka has been in Sierra Leone since April of last year, conducting research for the New-York based Human Rights Watch organisation. Eric Beauchemin met her in the capital, Freetown. Listeners may find the gruesome nature of the human rights violations described in this program disturbing.

According to Human Rights Watch, there were more atrocities committed during the January 1999 offensive than at any other period in Sierra Leone’s 9-year civil war. In the space of 3 weeks, over 100 people had their limbs amputated, 3 thousand civilians were murdered, 5 thousand homes were burnt to the ground, 5 thousand people – mostly girls and young women – were abducted and taken to the bush, and thousands were raped. Corinne Dufka spent three months compiling a report on the human rights violations committed during the January 6th invasion. It’s entitled “Sierra Leone – Getting Away with Murder, Mutilation, Rape”. It’s a shocking, grizzly report about the mayhem that reigned in the capital, Freetown, a year ago. All the military factions are guilty of human rights violations, according to Corinne Dufka, but the vast majority of the atrocities were committed by the rebels of the RUF, the Revolutionary United Front.

Corinne Dufka
Corinne Dufka

The rebels essentially waged war against the civilian population, which is why you have such a high percentage of civilian casualties. Which isn’t to say that there weren’t military casualties as well, but overwhelming, the majority of them were civilians, where they just basically perpetrated some of the most horrific war crimes, for no apparent reason. You know, you hear that again, and again, and again in the testimonies, of “we had never done anything to these people. We didn’t know who they were. We don’t know why they were targeting us. And yet, they burnt us alive in our houses, they amputated, they killed, without any real logic as to why they were picking one person and not the next. EB: What was the political context for this, these barbarous acts? Well, it depends on who you talk to. You know, of course, the rebels will say that they have lofty ideals about the revolution, about wanting to bring about change. And in fact, their reasons for starting the revolution were as revolutions go, not bad ones. The country had been devastated by years and years and years of corruption, of nepotism, of a completely and totally inequitable distribution of resources that left the country in one of the worst standings in terms of poverty levels which was so surprising given the wealth the country has and the relatively small population. So, many people would say that they probably had a good reason for wanting to overthrow the government. However, shortly after the revolution started in 1991, they began killing innocent civilians for no apparent reason and basically ruling by a policy of terror. They started exploiting the country’s resources. Their military objectives were Kono and Tongo Fields and the areas that had a large concentration of diamond wealth and mineral wealth. And they have never really executed their or any ways brought about in any positive objectives the political objectives that they claim to have. There are very, very few members within the RUF who can actually articulate their political objectives. They tend to be very uneducated. Most of them are illiterate. In fact they look at massive looting which has always accompanied all of their military operations as being the way they “pay themselves”. And so they end up stealing, not only stealing but also hurting and wounding and killing the very same civilians that they purport and claim to be wanting to protect and help. Again when you have a war that is not grounded in an ideology, then you get people who are very easily persuaded and distracted by material wealth, which is exactly what happened. Because the heart of the matter here is of course the diamond wealth of which there is a lot of in Sierra Leone. Not only that, but also many minerals and other precious metals. And essentially what has moved them is wanting a quick profit and when most of the protagonists in this war look towards their government, that’s exactly what they saw them doing: not working and exploiting the wealth of the country.

EB: One of the other characteristics of this war is the number of children who were involved in the fighting, isn’t it? Yes, the primary method of recruitment, again tied to the fact that it’s not an ideologically grounded revolution is abduction and most of those who were abducted were young women who could then be served as sexual partners for the rebels, and children. In many ways, children make very effective combatants. They don’t ask a lot of questions, they follow instructions, they’re easy to please and they often don’t understand and are able to evaluate the risks of going into war. So they made use of thousands of child combatants. They were among the cruellest combatants also. This is what people say. This is often what I heard from victims and witnesses that I identified, is that that they feared the children more than the adults because they said the children had not developed a sense of appreciation and understanding for the value of life. So that they would do anything, and the commanders would order them into the villages. They just had no ability to evaluate the effects of their acts. You know, kids are kids. They saw it as a game. They saw it…especially when they’re pumped up on drugs, they saw it as fun of going into battle, and you know, they were obedient and that’s what a war needs. And obedient children make, make for good combatants. EB: Were most of the combatants using drugs? From what people say, there was a high usage of drugs. And that ranged from cocaine to marijuana to alcohol. Something they called “blue boats” which are barbiturates and other types of amphetamines. I’ve interviewed a number of child combatants who also talk about the drugs that they were given and they were administered often forcibly at first and then later voluntarily taken. It seemed to be a very organised strategy of getting the kids, drugging them up, breaking down their defences, breaking down their memory, and then reforming them in the image of what the rebel leaders and commanders wanted their fighters to be. EB: So to make them fighting machines. Yes, essentially to make them fighting machines that didn’t have a sense of empathy and feeling for the people that they were trying to overcome which were the civilian population.

The other thing that people would often mention is during the January offensive, but also from before, is how they would take razor blades or knives and cut particularly around the temples, the temple of their head, and around veins, and they would put in a brown powder that they would call brown-brown. It seemed to be it was gunpowder, it was cocaine mixed together, and then they would put a BandAid or a plaster over that. And that very quickly, often within a matter of minutes, they would feel the rush of that. And the combatants that I interviewed often said that when they took this drug, nothing mattered to them and that the people that they were terrorising, they said, seemed so small. They said it was almost as though they were the size of chicken. You would hear this often, this description. “They were just the size of an insect or a chicken. They were so small, we could do anything to them.” And a lot of them talk about and express real feelings of remorse and guilt once they have come off of this thing. And some of them didn’t even remember what they’d done, and then of course with time, the memories start to come back and they feel terribly guilty. Others have no sense of remorse and guilt. EB: It would seem that there was some type of organised strategy to enlist children into this war because I’ve heard the figure of 60% of the combatants were children. Yeah. The rebels themselves recently to United Nations officials admitted that over 30% of their forces were rebel children, and in some factions it might even be higher. But one thing is clear about not only the recruitment and use of child soldiers but also in terms of all the atrocities that were committed, is that there really was a high degree of organisation. They were often very systematic. Getting back to the January offensive, people spoke of there being particular units that were dedicated to different types of crimes. So you had your “burn house unit” which are the ones that were specialised in burning houses and buildings. You had your “cut hands unit” which were the ones who would, who were specialised in amputations and lacerations. Then you had units that were specialised in killing in particular types of ways, and the ones who were involved in abducting civilians, and then those who were involved in training them. So it was very organised which is one of the reasons why we talk an awful lot about command responsibility. These were not acts of occasional violence. The rebels have often said that they were occasional acts of indiscipline on the part of their soldiers, and we’re saying, no, it was a very organised and systematic type of violence.

EB: One of the other ways that the men were paid was by women, right? Yeah, I mean, I don’t think that human rights activists or counsellors or government officials have even begun to come to terms with the amount of sexual abuse that has occurred during this war. Again it was very systematic. There wasn’t questioning. The rebels would go into the bush. They would abduct young women and they would then make them into their wives. There was no question, and the women themselves often talk about it as though it was something that just happened. And there was no sense of indignation on the part of… they felt as if there was nothing they could do. Often, they didn’t even have to point guns at them because they knew. There were enough of them who had been killed after trying to escape, they didn’t even try to fight anymore because they knew what would happen to them. EB: Does the fact that many women in Sierra Leone are undergo female genital mutilation also make the rapes more painful or more horrific for the girls? About 85 – 90% of women within Sierra Leone go through female circumcision. It’s a very, very strong part of their culture. One of the things I noticed in my research was how many of the girls would take about profuse bleeding after rape. Now, when they are very, very young, 10, 11, you can of course understand them, but even those who were 15, 16, 17. And I spoke with a few doctors about it, and they said that they felt as though the fact that the girls had gone over, through circumcision created a tightening of the vagina that then created more tearing. So they were treating an awful lot of vaginal tears. So I think it does complicate the rapes because the girls would talk about bleeding for days on end, and it’s just something interviewing other rape victims, you wouldn’t hear that. One of the other problems that we are going to be seeing in the future is the transmission of AIDS, the HIV virus. EB: What type of rape took place in Sierra Leone? I’d like to talk a bit about rape as a war crime. You know, you had individual rape, you had gang rape, you had torture, you had sexual slavery, forced pregnancy, and then because of the systematic nature of it, in humanitarian law terms, you can really consider this a crime against humanity because it was so profound. One of the things that has also been upsetting in my research and I’ve interviewed scores and scores of these women and girls. Number one is the age. You know most of them seem to be minors, when we speak of 18 and under. The other thing is the number of them who have suffered from gang rape. It may be two or three, but you have women and girls talking about 10, 12, 15 men raping them. Then the other thing has been the horrific ways of torture. You know I interviewed a woman who had firewood, kind of small pieces of burning firewood put into her vagina. One woman was three months pregnant and accused by one of the rebels of having taken money, and he took an umbrella and shoved it inside of her, causing an abortion and you know horrific problems and complications after that. Women who had hot oil poured inside of them. Hot or burned with coals, just horrific forms of torture, sexual torture. So there have been all different types of sexual crimes.

Perhaps even more gruesome and more difficult to imagine – let alone comprehend – were the amputations. They have become the hallmark of the rebel movement.

We think that there are probably several thousands of them that have been done. The estimate is also very difficult because so many of the victims died in the bush. We got a sense of that during the January offensive and that was even when hospitals were closer than they are certainly in the bush. I interviewed a number of morgue attendants and those who were responsible for burying the bodies. And they said that in fact they had seen a lot of the dead who had had their arms hacked off or nearly hacked off and had simply bled to death. So it’s difficult to know the numbers, but certainly in terms of the amputees, there are thousands of them. Where it comes from, again, is difficult to say. We can describe what happened, but we can’t really explain it. Certainly, the number of amputations started increasing markedly during the 1996 election campaign. And part of that was because – using rebel logic – if you cut off the hands, you couldn’t vote, so it was a way of punishing people for voting. Also one of the slogans during the 1996 campaign was something along the lines of “let’s put our hands together” or “let’s put our hands together to create a new future”. So that could have been part of the kind of symbolic use or reason. Again, as I mentioned, there were special units devoted to cutting off hands. And there was this particularly perverse practice of rewarding rebels when they came back with bags of hands. I didn’t believe this when I first heard it but then I kept hearing it again and again and again, where they would put the hands of the victims into a rice bag and carry it back to their commanders. I have interviewed members of cut hands gangs within the rebels, and one of them actually told me that as well, that in fact it did happen. That he actually got a promotion when he brought back a bag of hands. So it is particularly perverse. And you just, it’s unfathomable really to think how someone could do this, knowing that they would render usually illiterate victims who were usually dependent upon soughing the land to be to survive. You wonder what goes behind it because it would involve such anger at a population to do something like that, and yet you wonder what had the civilians ever done to these people to provoke such a response. EB: The amputation of the hands has got a lot of coverage but I was also struck here by the fact that people’s ears were cut off, people’s noses, people’s legs. I mean it was amputating all these different parts of the human body. Yeah, some cut hands commandos liked to do different types of amputations. And sometimes, peoples’ mouths and tongues were amputated. I often, often heard this story, or had it described to me, that when after a man had his hands amputated, he would scream at the rebels, “just kill me. You’ve killed me already. Just kill me. Finish me off. Just shoot me.” And some of them would chase after the rebels with their bleeding stumps, just urging the rebels to kill them. And so the rebels would then come around and cut off another part of their body and that usually was either the ear or the mouth or the tongue because they were protesting. So again, you know, that profound level of trauma that these people have suffered.

EB: How could anyone have thought this up? Well, that’s a question that I have spent a lot of time thinking about and have tried to talk with sociologists and psychologists and historians to try to figure out where this came from. I think to a certain degree, one must look at Liberia because the core fighters that began in 1991, a large percentage of them came from Liberia. Although even there you didn’t see some of the aberrations and some of the types of violence, like the cut hands. The level of brutality is profound, and the indiscriminate nature of the crimes is so, is so upsetting, really. You see civilians being targeted but there’s some kind of reason. You know, within Rwanda it was an ethnic reason: one was a Hutu or a Tutsi and within Bosnia, it was one was a Moslem, or a Croat or a Serb. And here there just seems to be no reason why they are targeted. EB: But you seem to say that it was systematic and so it was ordered. So how do you reconcile those two things? Again, I think it comes down to resources. You know, when you look at revolutions, like for example in Latin America, you had people trying to organise the masses, as they called them, organise the civilian population with a political objective that was within the paradigm of the Cold War particularly. But also they talked about the concepts of justice and fighting against impunity and so on, and they needed the civilian population who could serve as intelligence for them, who could cook for them, who could care for them, who could carry things for them. And also they recruited them. But here, I think if the objective is resources, the objective is the exploitation of diamond resources particularly, the civilian population then becomes competition. Not only do you have to care for them, take care of them, which is expensive and time-consuming, but you have to share the wealth with them. So ultimately I think it does come to a question of wanting to control the resources, where then the RUF became a similar type of political organ that they were fighting against.

EB: One of the things that you make very, very clear in the report that you wrote is that many of these actions, the amputations, the rapes, the random violence, were to create fear, generalised fear among the population. That has been the method that we have observed throughout the war is to terrorise, to sow terror within the civilian population, and again it comes down to control. Rape is used like that, and killings and certainly the amputations as a way of frightening the population: a) so they flee and b) so that they are easier to control, and the rebels can get what they want out of them without having really to take care of them. You know, you wonder why they couldn’t have got the same thing out of the population if they didn’t terrorise them. You would think it would have been easier for them. I interviewed a rebel recently. I went up to a place called Kabala to interview some of the recent human rights abuses of which there have been many in three main areas within Sierra Leone. These were demobilised soldiers and most of the current atrocities that we’re seeing occur within the context of food raids where they go into the villages and surprise people and steal their food and beat them and rape them and occasionally kill them and torture them and so on. So I asked the rebel, “why is it that you just don’t ask people for food. If you just ask them, tell them you are hungry, that you would like…you want them to cook you something.” And he said, “no, you don’t understand. The civilians are wicked,” he said. “And you must flog them because unless you flog them, then they want give you what they want because they don’t want give you. But they don’t realise who you are as a rebel and how important you are.” And so it’s this kind of element of narcissism that the rebels have, this sense of superiority, that just because they have the power, then the civilians must give them what they want.

Peace, however fragile, finally returned to Sierra Leone last May, when the government signed a ceasefire agreement with the rebels of the Revolutionary United Front. The cost of peace was high, very high – in fact, it’s a pact with the devil. Under the peace accord, the RUF was included in the government, and a blanket amnesty was extended to all the perpetrators of human rights violations that occurred during the 9-year civil war. Human Rights Watch and other groups have condemned the blanket amnesty for absolving the perpetrators of some of the most serious crimes against humanity ever committed. They’ve also been scathing in their criticism of us, the international community, for having focused almost all our attention on the human rights violations in Kosovo – which were taking place at more or less the same time – while turning a blind eye to Sierra Leone’s madness. But, still Corinne Dufka believes there are lessons that can and should be drawn from what happened in this forgotten corner of Africa.

One of them is that the level of corruption that existed within this country and the level of suffering that essentially brought the country down to the place of being one of the poorest countries in the world didn’t happen overnight. This was happening in the 60s, 70s, 80s. So one of the lessons I think is looking at how corruption affects a country like this. If you ignore the needs of your population, that it can end up in a conflict like this. So that is one of the lessons. That could be done through measures with the World Bank, the IMF, and so on, and through international pressure. I think one of the other lessons is looking at regional, a kind of regional analysis of problems. Of course this country and the war in this country again didn’t spring up from nowhere. It could not have been launched and facilitated without the help of other countries, regionally, like Liberia, primarily, which was a conduit for getting arms and ammunition and help through to the rebels and also getting diamonds out. You know, along the same lines, is looking at the whole issue of the diamond business. And thankfully there has recently – over the last couple of years – been quite a lot of effort on the part of international organisations to try to curb this kind of illicit use and sale of diamonds. First world countries like Belgium, for example, is involved, and then Israel is involved, in terms of buying these diamonds. And all of those who purchase a diamond from Sierra Leone are usually unknowingly involved as well. So I think that is another one: of looking at…when you look at a conflict, don’t just focus on the immediate protagonists, but look wider at all of the different international bodies and countries and business people that are involved. EB: What about in terms of human rights? Do you think that there are lessons that can be drawn from the types of violations that occurred in Sierra Leone and also the way Sierra Leone has dealt with it up until now? Yeah, I would say that there should have been a lot more documentation and monitoring from the very beginning. People didn’t pay attention to the country. You know, it was in Africa, you had Liberia blowing up, you had so many different wars going on really, in the early 90s, and I think people simply didn’t pay attention to it. Lots of human rights groups could have paid a lot more attention to what was happening in Sierra Leone, writing reports, trying to bring about international advocacy. And also, the human rights movement needs to try to focus on the double standards, you know, how you have one standard for human rights abuses in Europe and another one for human rights abuses in Africa. So try to get people to think about that more. And in some ways we were helped by the fact that Kosovo happened. Again, we would never say that the response to try to curb the human rights abuses in Kosovo was too much, because that was the appropriate response. You know, you had teams going in there, forensic teams going in, the FBI, you know, everybody going into exhume bodies and so on and so forth, which was an appropriate response to a human rights emergency. Similarly in East Timor. But what we are saying is we just would have wanted something like that here. There actually has been a lot more media interest, and people are starting to look at it, and the comparison, the paradigm between Sierra Leone and Africa and Kosovo and Europe has been drawn again and again and again. Which is positive. It gets people thinking about that and looking at setting up criteria for when an intervention should be called for, and what type of an intervention should be called for when there are massive human rights abuses.

EB: You’re talking about these things in a very matter of fact way, but I mean these things are so barbarous, so horrible, how do you deal with this interviewing so many people and hearing all these horrible stories? I mean, I noticed at one point, I thought, I don’t want to hear any more stories because each time a new detail, a more gruesome detail emerges and how far can it go? Well, yes, it does get difficult and what’s often more painful than hearing about the actual act or atrocity itself is seeing the effect that it has had on that person and their family. You know, what’s even more tragic really is seeing a young girl who’s had to drop out of school and who’s now 8 months pregnant and waiting for a baby that she doesn’t want. That is actually even more upsetting than even hearing about the rape. Because Africans are very strong. They tend to get on with things. They get on with their life because they don’t have any other choice, given the economics. They’re not afforded the luxury of time to properly grieve and deal with a trauma. But when you realise and see how their lives have been completely torn about by this thing – that is often even more upsetting than hearing about the atrocity itself. EB: And how has writing these reports and speaking to so many people changed you? I was a journalist for 10 years, and before that I was a psychiatric social worker, so coming here has kind of brought together a number of different skills that I have acquired over the years. And one of the reasons why I wanted to come here was because I wanted to be able to spend more covering one conflict. Because, in essence, what has happened here has happened in varying degrees in many other countries in Africa…and in fact the world. And as a journalist, you end up covering death, destruction and disintegration without really understanding what’s happened and why it’s happened. Not that I’ve really come to understand it completely, but by spending more time here and by being able to really listen to people, I’m getting closer to it. So I think from that level, it’s been a very interesting experience, and it makes me even more committed to the whole issue of human rights, and that one thing that is very clear after doing this June report. And I think the strength of that report which had nothing to do with me, it had to do with the voices of the people. It’s simply letting people speak for themselves. And when you write down people’s testimonies, there’s no one in the world, hopefully, that cannot empathise with that. And I think that it helped people within the First World who were within positions of power to be able to empathise with the way that this war has affected the ordinary people of Sierra Leone.

Corinne Dufka in conversation with Eric Beauchemin. If you’d like to read Ms Dufka’s report, entitled “Sierra Leone – Getting Away with Murder, Mutilation, Rape”, we have linked it to our Web site at: Technical production this week was by John Nieuwenhuis. I’m Ginger da Silva. Stay well.