- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 20, 2002

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone At 10 in the morning on April 28, 1998, Alpha Kanu, his wife, Fatimata, and their six children were walking through the brush in Kono district, eastern Sierra Leone, when they were met by a group of rebel soldiers.

Mr. Kanu was forced to the ground, where one of the soldiers hacked off his right arm just below the elbow. The soldier took the severed limb, smacked Mr. Kanu in the face with it, and ordered him and his family to flee. His wife and children were not harmed.

Sierra Leone's 10-year civil war was rife with such pointless brutality.

The United Nations, whose 17,500 military personnel there make it the largest peacekeeping operation in the world, estimates that nearly 4,000 people have suffered amputations, though only about a quarter of them survive. Analysts believe that more than 50,000 women are victims of sexual violence, many gang-raped. Tens of thousands of civilians have been tortured and killed, and hundreds of thousands have been forced from their homes.

But the war is over, and the country is trying to move on. More than 70,000 ex-combatants turned in their weapons in a disarmament process that ended this year. President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah was sworn in for a second term last month in Freetown, the capital, after winning an election that was peaceful and termed largely transparent by international observers. The country, with international help, has begun establishing a special court for wartime crimes and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

At the amputee camp on the western edge of Freetown recently, Mr. Kanu was trying to move on as well. Standing in his 8-by-14-foot canvas-walled room, he waved the stump of his right arm and said, "I know the man who did this to me. He's in the Sierra Leone army now, but I'm thinking of my children and we need peace. I forgive him."

It is a forgiveness reluctantly granted. "The Special Court will help our country," said Mr. Kanu, now 38. "But I can't go tell them that this man cut me. He has a gun because he's in the army. I will never go to that court. I will let God fight for me."

Mr. Kanu moved into this room with his family more than three years ago, and as he talked he was surrounded by mattresses, piles of donated clothes and plastic bags full of odds and ends. He smiled as he watched some of his children shoving clothes into sacks. Tonight would be their last in the amputee camp. In the morning, trucks would take the family to a new home built as part of the war-wounded resettlement program.

A few miles east of the amputee camp, a different type of resettlement was under way. Near the heart of Freetown, where Hall Street meets Elliot Street in a thicket of dilapidated concrete and wooden bungalows, is a four-room house made of rusty sheets of corrugated metal. It is the home of 10 young men who have fought in the civil war.

All in their mid-20s, they were lodged here by the government five months ago. They became fast friends, and while Mr. Kanu was packing his things at the amputee camp across town, the young men teased each other about their combat nicknames "Bad Evil," "Rapid Fire," "The Slaughterer."

Only one of them, Johannes Bahsco "Colonel Bedbug" had belonged to the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), the notorious rebel force that ignited the civil war in 1991. The others had fought for the kamajors traditional hunters from the south who were transformed into a pro-government militia to fight the RUF.

Mr. Bahsco, by far the skinniest of the group, sat in a chair surrounded by his new friends. "We hold no grudge," he said, fiddling with his silver rings and smoking a cigarette. "We used to talk about the war, but usually we just joke around. Now we mostly talk about our education."

These young men are beneficiaries of Sierra Leone's National Committee for Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration. Nearly 50,000 ex-combatants are being helped by the program, which offers vocational training, job placement and formal education opportunities.

Mr. Bahsco now studies African affairs and human resources at a local college. As he packed some of his books and prepared to go study, he said he disagreed with his housemates on at least one subject. He thinks the government should release Foday Sankoh, the former RUF leader on trial in Freetown.

"If they release Sankoh, the peace is sustainable," he said. "If they do not, then I cannot say. The government should not open old wounds with the Special Court. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission should be enough."

Edward Macauley is a housemate and a former kamajor who is now studying to become an engineer. He supports the creation of both the Special Court and TRC, and he sat next to Mr. Bahsco and laughed. "That one was a most dangerous virus," he said, referring to his former enemy, Mr. Bahsco.

Ilan Lax, a South African lawyer who has been involved in his country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission and is helping organize Sierra Leone's TRC, thinks the success of the truth commission will depend on "barefoot commissioners" willing to travel to every part of the country to hear grievances.

Another important element is money. The TRC's operating budget has been estimated at $10 million. So far, pledges have come from the United States and the United Kingdom for $500,000 each.

For now, though, growing numbers of war victims combatants and wounded are happy to be putting their lives back together. By 7 a.m. on moving day, Mr. Kanu and 186 others were loading their belongings onto trucks lined up outside the amputee camp. Four hours later, Mr. Kanu was beaming as he opened the door to his new house in Hastings, a new resettlement community a few miles outside Freetown.

One of his daughters gazed wide-eyed at the living room and freshly painted walls. "Papa, is this our house?" she asked.

"Oh, I am so happy I don't know what to say," said Mr. Kanu. "Today is a new life."

Like Mr. Kanu, few victims were willing to go home after the war. Many lost their homes and family members. Others could not face going back to where they had been attacked.

Nearly all those with amputations have spent some time in Freetown's camp, and all eventually will be resettled in communities like Hastings set up by the Norwegian Refugee Council, the World Food Program, CAUSE Canada and other groups.

Nearly everyone agrees that such international assistance is necessary to sustain peace in Sierra Leone. But as Mr. Kanu walked out the back door of his new home and surveyed his yard, he expressed another widespread sentiment: "This is where I will put my garden," he said. "I'm tired of gimme, gimme, gimme. I want to be independent."


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