Africa, Headlines

POLITICS-SIERRA LEONE: Reparations for War Survivors

Lansana Fofana

FREETOWN, Aug 19 2002 (IPS) - The authorities in Sierra Leone and non-governmental organisations are poised to pay reparations to survivors of the country’s decade-long civil war.

‘’It is their right and was provided for in the Lome Accord that ended the conflict,” remarked John Caulker, director of the civil society group, ‘Forum of Conscience’.

Lome, the capital of Togo, is where Sierra Leonean government and rebels held talks in 1999 to end the country’s brutal civil war.

Caulker is also national chairperson of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The commission, modelled along South Africa’s TRC, is expected to commence its operation later this year. It will bring together survivors and perpetrators of rights abuses.

Two weeks ago, a seminar was held at the British Council in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, on the issue of reparation as a way forward to lasting peace. It was not clear what form the reparations would take, but Caulker, who spoke to IPS later, ruled out cash payments.

‘’Once you start talking about cash reparations you will be raising more hopes and here we are talking of hundreds, if not thousands, of war victims, ” he said.

The true nature of reparations would be determined as time goes by, but Caulker said he was thinking of acknowledgements, monuments, materials or even community structural developments.

The civil war, which broke out in Sierra Leone in March 1991, lasted ten years. It was to be one of Africa’s bloodiest, costing more then 150,000 lives and leaving behind a trail of destruction.

A process of disarming and demobilising ex-combatants was followed by elections in May 2002 in which the main rebel group, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), participated but lost.

The country’s estimated 45,000 combatants were then introduced to skills training of various sorts and provided with tool kits to re-start their lives. But it seems nothing tangible was done for the survivors, thousands of who were mutilated.

‘’There is hardly any family that was not touched by the war; people lost loved ones as well as substantial property, so one cannot easily quantify the loses,” says John Kamara, a social worker in the northern region capital of Makeni.

The TRC, together with civil society, is working out ways of identifying the survivors who should benefit from the reparations and this is thought to be a difficult task.

Mariama Sillah lost her husband and two children in the course of the war. She insists that she must benefit from reparations if only to pick the broken pieces of her life.

‘’How do they expect me to start all over? I am a window, have no money or property. I think they should help us (the survivors) because after all, those who committed the atrocities are benefiting from donor support and government’s re-integration scheme,” says Sillah.

The peace deal that ended the war provided for the setting up of a special trust fund for the survivors. A committee for strategic Mineral Resources was to raise funds from the country’s rich mineral deposit to rehabilitate the survivors.

RUF leader, Foday Sankoh, who is currently standing trial on murder charges, was put in charge of the commission but then everything went wrong in May 2000 when the rebels briefly resumed hostilities.

According to the TRC, moves are underway to resuscitate the Minerals Commission with a view to creating the trust fund for the survivors.

Caulker says his group will conduct seminars across the country to raise awareness among the population.

‘’The state is primarily responsible for paying reparations to war victims. And I think the government should endeavour to receive the minerals commission,” Caulker maintained, adding that ‘well-wishers’ too should step in to help.

The West African country of about 4.5 million people is rich in precious minerals, especially diamonds. The unequal distribution of this wealth, coupled with years of bad governance, gave rise to the war launched by the RUF.

The government of president Ahmed Tejan Kabbah has not spoken yet about the issue of reparations, but a senior administration official told IPS that the Strategic Mineral Resources Commission would soon be revived. ‘’I believe the special trust fund would accordingly be established,” he added.

Meanwhile, the government, as well as non-governmental organisations, is working in the communities, in areas of rehabilitation and resettlement of returnees and internally displaced persons. ‘’If reparations come”, one man said, ‘’it might perhaps help us start picking the broken pieces of our lives”

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