"At least they killed you in Rwanda," the woman said to us, her voiced laced with bitterness. As she spoke she held up her arms. Where her hands should have been were instead two mutilated stumps.
It was 2003, and we were in Freetown, the capital city of Sierra Leone. The woman was one of many survivors we have met from that country's bloody civil war that raged for 11 years until 2002.
Chopping off the hands and feet of civilians was one of the signatures of Sierra Leone's rebel army, the Revolutionary United Front -- armed, financed and directed by the brutal President of Liberia, Charles Taylor.
The 64-year-old Taylor is a Libyan-trained guerrilla, who in 1989 launched a civil war to become one of the most powerful warlords in his home country of Liberia. Then, from 1991 on, he used his soldiers and resources to spread civil war in neighbouring Sierra Leone.
In 2003, after Sierra Leone's war ended, the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone indicted Taylor -- by then President of Liberia -- for war crimes. Taylor resigned his presidency and fled into exile in Nigeria until he was handed over in 2006 to Liberian and UN authorities. When Taylor was flown to The Hague to stand trial for the crimes against humanity in Sierra Leone, he became only the second head of state to be tried for war crimes since World War Two.
Today, the Special Court for Sierra Leone found Taylor guilty for the atrocities he and his rebels committed.
Most of the world's eyes have been focused on another pocket of Africa and another brutal dictator, Joseph Kony, a warlord in Uganda. We've heard how he recruited child soldiers, and made them commit barbarities. Everything Kony did, Taylor's puppet army mirrored in Sierra Leone. But the Kony story is still getting headlines while past atrocities in Sierra Leone might get a paragraph in the back of the news section.
In the Sierra Leone city of Makeni, one of Taylor's former soldiers described to us the indoctrination ceremony he and other boys were forced through when they were forcibly recruited.
Taylor's men dragged out a corpse, hacked it into four pieces then made the boys walk through the gore. Then they were forced to eat parts of the body. Taylor's men told the new recruits it was ancient tribal magic that would make them invulnerable to bullets.
An estimated 10,000 children, mostly boys, were turned into fighters during Sierra Leone's civil war. Thousands more girls were taken and forced into sexual slavery.
The war's death toll stands at approximately 50,000. Many more survived, but with terrible scars. In our seven visits to the region since the war ended, we have seen few improvements for survivors.
Sierra Leone remains one of the least developed countries in the world. It shares with Afghanistan the dubious distinction of having the world's highest maternal and child mortality rates.
Thousands of child soldiers have spent the past decade trying to reintegrate into normal life without much success. At more than 45 per cent, Sierra Leone has the highest youth unemployment rate in West Africa.
Western nations bear a burden of responsibility for the plight of Sierra Leone. Our lust for the country's rich diamond resources fuelled the carnage. Taylor was the funnel for millions of dollars worth of "blood diamonds" from Sierra Leone to the world market, using the money to enrich himself and supply the rebel fighters. In a bloody vicious circle, much of the fighting in the civil war was focused on controlling the diamond fields, and the profits from diamonds provided the funding to keep the fighting going.
Sierra Leone is dependent on foreign aid from countries like the United States and Europe, but not Canada. Aside from some funding for the UN World Food Program, we have dumped Sierra Leone from our aid and development budget.
However even that aid is paltry compared to what other under-developed countries are receiving. According to the World Bank, in 2010 Sierra Leone received $81 per person in foreign aid, while neighbouring Liberia received $356 per person -- more than four times the assistance.
It's as if the world declared "mission accomplished" with the arrest of Taylor and moved on, leaving Sierra Leone to try and heal its own wounds.
Try to remember the last time you saw a news story about Sierra Leone. Supermodel Naomi Campbell got more news coverage in 2010 when it was revealed she had accepted blood diamonds from Taylor than the people of Sierra Leone have received in years for the suffering they have endured because of those diamonds.
It is a mark of the disconnect of the West from Sierra Leone that the UN court trying Taylor has chosen to release its verdict today -- the day before Sierra Leone marks its Independence Day. Perhaps the court felt there was some sort of poetic justice in choosing this date. However issuing the announcement at a time when emotions will already be running high in Sierra Leone will almost certainly provoke riots, bringing further suffering to people there.
We certainly hope Taylor lives out the rest of his life in prison for his crimes. However for Sierra Leone, true justice will not be served until development occurs.
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