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Charles Taylor and the Limits of Justice

By
July 2, 2012

Jabati Mambu, a Sierra Leonean severely wounded in the civil war, watches as the Hague hands down a war crimes verdict.

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Images courtesy of Felicity Thompson

“A lot.” Jabati Mambu shakes his head. “Ah! A lot of blood. A lot of blood. My God. A lot of blood.” Jabati shakes his head again in the darkness of his one-room flat in central Freetown. The power is out tonight.

I am interviewing him, but the white-blue light from his battery-powered torch shines on my face, leaving me squinting at Jabati’s dark shape sitting on the chair opposite.

“I remember it very clearly in my head. I just remember the shock, you know, in my mind,” he says. “Like, Oh! Something passed by my hand — phhhht!” His gesture—an arm passing quickly through the air where his right hand should be. “When they came around I tried to fight with them. They tried to amputate my left hand, too. Look you can see the mark.” Jabati pulls up his sleeve and shines the light on his wrist to show the smooth scar of a machete blade.

* * *

When I first speak to Jabati Mambu a few days earlier, he is irritable and rude. He is tired of international journalists disturbing his day with requests for interviews and photos. “I will not change my schedule for you,” he says over the phone. “I have a job. If you can’t come at 1 p.m., then I can’t do it.”

I’ve been called last minute to shoot a portrait of him for a news wire ahead of the long-awaited verdict in the trial of former Liberian president, Charles Taylor, who is charged with abetting the atrocities committed in neighboring Sierra Leone over a decade of civil war. Jabati’s availability is not ideal—high noon African sun is the worst time to take even a half-decent photograph. I ask if I can please meet him at home after work. “No. I’m not going home. I’m watching the Chelsea game.” Jabati has given scores of interviews over the ten years since the war ended, local and foreign journalists asking him about how he lost his hand, taking photos of him and the clean white bandage wrapped neatly around his forearm.

“The night I was amputated, I lay with a corpse 'til the next morning. When your hand is off and you put it like this on your body,” he puts his severed right arm across his chest, “you feel the blood oozing from your hand like tap water. That’s the way it was.”

When I walk into his office at the leafy United Nation’s compound, he realizes he knows me. I occasionally use the UN gym and Jabati administers the gym passes. “Long time!” we say, even though it hasn’t been that long. We catch up a bit. He says he wants to move on and not focus always on his missing limb. I manage a few publishable shots, but not before Jabati gets antsy, muttering, “Photographers, they always say it will only take a few minutes …”

I thank him and go.

* * *

On the eve of Independence, Thursday April 26th, the Special Court for Sierra Leone dusts off its benches and is once again the center of national attention, as people from all over the country gather to watch a live broadcast from the Hague of the final word in the Taylor trial. Indicted in March 2003, Charles Taylor is the first sitting president ever to be charged with war crimes: specifically whether or not he was responsible for the estimated 50 thousand people killed in Sierra Leone, tens of thousands more amputated and raped, and some 17 thousand children abused—young boys turned into child soldiers and young girls made into “bush wives” for rebel fighters.

The vaulted ceiling of the Special Court is higher than most buildings in Freetown. The besuited lawyers and UN types sit in the air-conditioned well of the court, while young baggy-jeaned men, and people who have lost limbs, sit in the public gallery behind a large Plexiglas window. They are almost outnumbered by the journalists, flown in from far and wide to record the reaction. I see Jabati sitting behind me, next to Alhaji Jusu Jarka, an older man with a sweet smile, and two metal pincers in place of the hands he lost during the war. Alhaji founded the Amputee Association in 2002 at the war’s end to support some 27 thousand people whose limbs were taken during the conflict.

We say hello, and I give Jabati an envelope with two prints of the photos I took the day before. He takes it, puts it to one side, and continues his conversation with Alhaji.

I wonder briefly if he thinks there is money inside.

* * *

For eight years the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), a guerilla army, had been waging a brutal war in the provinces against a central government it saw as criminally corrupt. When Jabati was fifteen and studying for his secondary school exams, the rebels came to Freetown. The RUF funded their campaign with proceeds from the diamond mines in the rebel-controlled east of the country. Many RUF fighters were Jabati’s age—twelve, fifteen, sixteen years old. They stayed in his neighborhood for a few weeks, living peacefully with the residents, as the President and rebel leaders negotiated peace.

“They came to our houses and said, ‘Oh, we come for peace!’ There was no violence. They were friendly. They would bring everyone out of their houses in the evening and everybody was singing, ‘We want peace! We want peace!’”

As ceasefire talks failed in early 1999 and the Nigerian-led West African peacekeeping force, ECOMOG, began to push the rebels out of the city, the RUF launched a bloody offensive called Operation No Living Thing. Over 6 thousand people were killed and many more maimed and abducted as the rebels retreated from the capital. Jabati found himself suddenly surrounded on the street.

“The night I was amputated, I lay with a corpse 'til the next morning. When your hand is off and you put it like this on your body,” he puts his severed right arm across his chest, “you feel the blood oozing from your hand like tap water. That’s the way it was.”

“I pretended I was dead. So I just lay there. But I knew I wasn’t dead. I was still conscious, so I knew I wasn’t dead.”

* * *

The trial judge, wearing red and black robes and projected on three flat-screen TV screens at the Special Court, reads in a soft Samoan lilt through eleven counts of terrorism, killings, rape, sexual slavery, physical violence, pillage, and use of child soldiers. Charles Taylor, impeccably dressed in a blue suit and red tie and wearing fine no-frame glasses like an old Hollywood star, sits at the back, looking sadly at his knuckles. It takes a good hour to go through the charges and one of the baggy-jeaned young men sitting at the end of my row has fallen asleep.

I look over at Jabati for a reaction. None. He is watching the monitor like the rest of us. Photographers and TV cameramen are bending to get the best angle to shoot both an amputated limb and the monitor showing Charles Taylor.

The judge goes on, in a solemn, tired voice, explaining each charge in detail. He says, finally, that the prosecution failed to prove that the accused was “individually responsible” for the atrocities and criminal acts committed by rebels in the six-year period between the signing of the Abidjan Peace Accord, which was supposed to end hostilities, and the actual end of the conflict in January 2002.

* * *

“It was very difficult. When it first happened.” Jabati is twenty-eight now, athletic and with a broad, quick smile. But I try to imagine him at fifteen, skinny and scared and lying next to a corpse pretending to be dead. He was picked up the next morning by ECOMOG soldiers and brought to the Medecins Sans Frontieres clinic in the secure west side of town. He was there for a month.

Jabati’s parents, rural rice farmers from the southeast of Sierra Leone, had sent him from their village to Freetown as a child to get a better education, to live a better life, to have more than they had.

His parents knew nothing of his injury.

“I was thinking, Oh wow, how am I going to start? I kept crying, crying, crying. Every day you sleep, and you wake up your scar is still there, you have your injury, it sits in your mind.”

When his parents saw him for the first time with no arm, they cried. And then, every time after that, they cried. They could not stop crying.

“When my parents saw me it was like a dream for them, they just couldn’t believe it. And I could not see my mum or my dad for about two years afterwards because every time they saw me, they would cry and I hated that.”

* * *

In the gallery of the Special Court, the TV transmission cuts out while they change the tape (are they really still using cassette tapes?) back in the Hague. People here wander out into the sun for a coke or a soapy biscuit. Outside young men in suits stand holding up hand-drawn posters:

People of Sierra Leone, let this verdict unite us

This is a strong message to potential perpetrators of violence

Before you go to jail, give us back our diamonds

Everyone is looking at the messages, journalists get quick interviews, photographers snap the earnest men and their posters. It feels like a conference for a moment, almost like a positive event, or maybe it is just the small euphoria, the moment of relief we share, free from the heavy air of the courtroom. I look around for Jabati, but don’t see him.

Special Court staff begin herding people back inside. “We are coming to a very important part of the proceedings!” They say, waving us toward the doors. “Please, everyone, back inside!” And we all rush back in to hear the final part of the verdict.

“[The Taylor verdict] sends a clear message. The message is No More Impunity. And I hope that others in powerful positions in the world can really take an example from that.” His words feel pre-recorded, media-ready.

When the trial judge goes through each count again, finding Charles Taylor criminally guilty of them all, the response in the courtroom is subdued, almost inaudible, anti-climactic. There is no clapping, whooping, or singing. There is no joy. Photographers crowd Alhaji as he uses his metal pincer to pull a white handkerchief from his pocket to wipe his eyes. Charles Taylor’s face, sad and serious, does not change.

* * *

As we all file out of the courtroom, blinking into the bright heat of the Freetown morning, over a hundred Paramount Chiefs, traditional custodians of the land in the provinces, walk toward us in their bright bubus and traditional gara cloth robes and hats. They each wear a blue-ribboned medal, announcing their status. They gather, a few women amongst the large-bellied men, to have a photograph taken together in front of the Special Court building. All 149 chiefs have come to Freetown to mark this historic day.

Chief Alimamy Umaru Jalloh, a tall and slim middle-aged man, travelled from Nieni Chiefdom in the far north, an area that saw much devastation during the war. I catch him as a bunch of Paramount Chiefs stand on the curb outside of the Court waiting for taxis.

“Justice has been done,” Jalloh says. “The totality of the crimes during the war was incredible, so those responsible must be held to account or it will set the impression of impunity. Also it means a lot for the victims. They will get a restorative justice.” Jalloh says his people are eager to hear news of the verdict, so he is returning immediately to his chiefdom to share the result personally.

* * *

When I ask Jabati, in the darkness of his room the night after the decision, if the verdict will allow him to move on with his life, he seems surprised by the question. For him, the Taylor trial is the end of a process started a decade ago when the Special Court first indicted the thirteen people it considered to bear “the greatest responsibility” for the atrocities; the only difference is that Taylor was once a head of state.

The Special Court tried twelve Sierra Leoneans—leaders from each of the three armed groups involved in the conflict. All were convicted for their role in the atrocities, although three died and one fled Sierra Leone before the end of the trial. The remaining eight are currently serving their sentences halfway across the continent in Rwanda’s Mpanga Prison, which meets the security and detention standards required by the international court.

“When I think of what happened to me,” Jabati says, “if somebody fueled it to happen, and that person has been brought to court to answer for what he abetted, I have no problem with that.” He shrugs. But his words seem disconnected from his heart.

He gives me his response to the verdict: “It sends a clear message. The message is No More Impunity. And I hope that others in powerful positions in the world can really take an example from that.” His words feel pre-recorded, media-ready.

In fact, it is not the verdict that has allowed him to move on with his life. From his hospital bed, at fifteen, he says, he realized crying could not solve his problem. Months later, he saw that the anger growing inside him could not undo what had already been done. “I thought, wow. If I keep holding that [anger] in my mind, I will just be thinking of angry things, getting anger within myself. So let me think of other things, let me get myself adjusted to society.”

* * *

Campbell Street at night bustles with the busyness of city life. Street vendors sell fried chicken feet and peppery beef sticks by the light of paraffin lamps, young boys hock cold water in plastic packets and imitation Coke from coolers lodged in second-hand prams.

“How can a man be chopped of a hand or a limb, and you come and give him $200 as a life pension?” he asks.

Jabati walks to the junction for his dinner, rice and sauce, at a local cookery shop. People know him on the street, say hello as he walks past.

In an attempt at reparations, victims of the war—the amputated, the maimed, the raped, the widowed, the formerly conscripted—were counted and seven years later were compensated for their suffering in the form of varying sums of cash money. No one received more than $200.

“How can a man be chopped of a hand or a limb, and you come and give him $200 as a life pension?” he asks. Here, now, his anger comes to the surface. “Where can that take you?”

With his job as a managing admin at the United Nation’s compound, Jabati makes a living wage. But for those survivors less fortunate, Jabati is disappointed with his government. “Walk around the city, see how these people are begging.”

The Special Court trials cost $250 million to bring to justice those held most responsible for the terrible things that happened in Sierra Leone. “They spent a huge amount of money on the court,” he says. “They did not do wrong. But also for us as victims, we wanted to see fast-track things happening in our lives. We suffered a lot. But these things are not forthcoming or they are very, very slow and very small things.”

* * *

In his clean white-walled office at the United Nations compound, Jabati is surfing the net for the football scores. He is a die-hard Liverpool fan. “When I was young, I always thought of being a professional footballer.” In school, Jabati played defense, number three. Even after he was amputated he played. “I still have a lot to do, you know,” he says. “I have to push myself to higher things.”

When I ask him about women, he smiles and leans backwards, balancing on the back legs of his chair. “I am still looking.” Women in Africa, he says, just want men for their money. “So I’m looking for a professional woman. Otherwise you get a lot of trouble.”

The United Nations Peacebuilding mission is expected to draw down shortly after elections in November of this year.

As he thinks about the future, Jabati’s fingers are playing around on his iPad, eyes flicking to his desktop computer screen. “When the UN closes, I’d like to get a job doing IT stuff. Or study for a master’s. I like computers and I like electronic things. I like to invent.” He flashes me a bright quick smile.

* * *

Last month, the Special Court for Sierra Leone reconvened for one last time to sentence Charles Taylor for his crimes.

Jabati believed Taylor would get around forty or forty-five years. “It is too small. But that is what was given to the RUF and AFRC guys. It’s too small, of course, for such atrocities. But that is the decision of the court.”

The court gave Taylor fifty years in a British prison, minus time served since his detainment in 2006. He is currently appealing the sentence.

* * *

Sometimes, early on a Saturday or Sunday morning, I go down to the long, yellow stretch of Freetown’s Lumley beach and see Jabati stretching in the sand, jogging up the beach. Men with one leg, men with one arm, even some women, are there too, training hard, sweating in the growing heat. Sometimes a car zooming down the beach road will stop and the driver will watch for a few minutes. Like me, he is surely mesmerized by the sheer determination and physical agility of men playing football with one leg, clattering doggedly on old crutches down the sandy pitch, heading for the goal.

Jabati is there in the goal waiting, then diving, his whole body taut, horizontal almost, reaching to block the shot.

G

Felicity Thompson has lived in various African countries from Tanzania to Senegal over the past decade. She spent two years in deepest, darkest Iowa learning to write and eating cheeseburgers cooked in centuries of grease at George’s. She is a journalist and a filmmaker, but most of all, a writer. She currently lives in Freetown, Sierra Leone.

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2 comments for Charles Taylor and the Limits of Justice

  1. Comment by Leanne Cunliffe on July 2, 2012 at 10:43 pm

    Thankyou Felicity Thompson for Jabati’s story. $200 for Jabati and $250 mil for these court hearings and payment to those participating is another uncomfortable story for all involved. It would be timely to examine the diamond industry as a catalyst for these atrocitiesand other sad scenarios facing some African nations.

  2. Comment by Ibraheem Aruna on July 3, 2012 at 3:59 pm

    It is unfortunate that all Charles Taylor got for plundering the wealth of Sierra Leone, supervising the maiming of children as old as five years old,excluding countless deaths is a mere 50 years in a British Prison.In the opinion of several africans, a prison term is insufficiently not severe enough to act as a deterrent. It is like going into a glorified five star hotel in comparism to his crime, while his victims are ruined for life.The court should find ways of looking for a much more severe alternative in future.

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