FREETOWN (Reuters) - Fighters in Sierra Leone raped and killed Halimatu Jalloh’s sister during the country’s civil war, but on Thursday the 27-year-old student felt the pain of her loss ease with the conviction of Charles Taylor, the Liberian leader who backed the rebels.
Standing outside the local seat of the Special Court for Sierra Leone in Freetown, Jalloh’s hand-painted sign said it all: “Orphans, widows, widowers, rape victims, amputees, and all the war affected, wipe your tears as the dawn of justice has come.”
A United Nations-backed court in The Hague on Thursday convicted Taylor, Liberia’s former president, of war crimes, marking the first time a head of state has been found guilty by an international tribunal since the Nazi trials at Nuremberg.
Taylor, 64, was charged with 11 counts of murder, rape, conscripting child soldiers and sexual slavery during intertwined wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone, during which tens of thousands of people were killed.
For many victims of the fighting, the verdict soothed years-old pains and offered some hope that similar atrocities around the world could be avoided in the future.
“It’s good, this one is good, it’s a signal to other people that they should not completely use their money on war, ammunition, to destroy lives,” Jalloh said.
But for others in Sierra Leone and neighboring Liberia, among the world’s poorest nations with crumbling capitals lacking power, water and paved roads, the trial was at best a distraction from a difficult existence.
“A lot of people, instead of concentrating on the verdict, they are struggling to find money for food,” said Allieu Komba, a 35-year-old theology student in Freetown. “During the war, everyone was engaged in it, but it is over now.”
In Liberia, ethnic and regional allegiances also means former president Taylor maintains pockets of strong support.
“The international community should let him free and for him to return to Liberia, that would make us very happy,” said Prince K. Forkpa, 29, a money change, at the ministry of education building in downtown Monrovia.
Alhadji Jusu Jarka had both hands hacked off by fighters from the Sierra Leone RUF rebel group during a January 6, 1999 assault on Freetown, and he now hopes Taylor - accused of leading the group from his base across the border in Liberia - will pay for the crime.
Such amputations were common during Sierra Leone’s 11-year conflict, which by 2002 left more than 50,000 dead.
“His assets should be sold and that money should be given to the victims of the war,” the unemployed 46-year-old said. “My hopes are it will be in the range of 100 or more years (of jail) given to Taylor.”
U.K.-based human rights group Amnesty International said Taylor’s conviction was an important step to ending impunity since the war but needed to be accompanied by additional prosecutions and reparations for victims.
Taylor’s conviction by the Special Court for Sierra Leone - a so-called “hybrid” court staffed by both international and local personnel - comes amid mixed feelings across Africa about the role of internationally-backed courts in the continent’s affairs.
The International Criminal Court, all of whose current cases are from Africa, has been accused of unfairly targeting people on the continent instead of looking at atrocities committed by leaders in the West.
“We really should be asking, why always focusing on Africa, is Africa really worse than Europe in terms of human rights? I don’t thinks so,” said professor Pilo Kamaragi, a sociology lecturer from Ituri in Democratic Republic of Congo.
“George Bush destroyed Iraq, what has happened to him?” he said, referring to the former U.S. president.
But in Sierra Leone, Taylor’s conviction was seen in simpler terms. “We are happy because he brought in anarchy to us,” said Foday Momoh Gulama, 50, a paramount chief of Kaiyamba Chiefdom in Moyamba district.
Additional reporting by Alphonso Toweh and Clair MacDougall in Liberia, and Bienvenu Bakumanya in Congo; Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Giles Elgood