Fleeing the Jurisdiction

Obligatory Conrad reference
December 28, 2006, 8:08 pm
Filed under: Sierra Leone

With the broken glass atop the compound walls twinkling like Christmas lights in the early morning sun, I left for a few days respite down the coast. Arriving at River Number 2 after a long and dusty trip, I saw at once why this place was held by many to be the most beautiful beach in Sierra Leone. Apparently, an advertisement for Bounty chocolate bars was filmed here in the 80s, suggesting it is, at least, the advertising industry’s idea of paradise. With this view of coconut-fringed white sand and gently breaking waves; a stack of books; my iPod primed; and all the seafood I could eat, very little was going to get to me. Even the disturbing proliferation of middle-aged white women disporting themselves with much younger African boyfriends would not, I determined, spoil my mood. I spoke with the manager about how this place was entirely staffed and run by the local community, providing vocational training, regular income and fostering connection to place. Despite many offers to buy the land, the community has seen it as incumbent upon them to preserve this resource for future generations. This was good to hear, since in Freetown, there is – among certain expats – a prevailing sense that Sierra Leoneans are loathe to pass up short-term gain no matter the longer term consequences. Continue reading


Aloo gobi and armed resistance
December 22, 2006, 12:58 am
Filed under: Government, Sierra Leone

Late in the working day, a colleague, known for his ability to wheel and deal, suggested I join him that evening for dinner at the home of a business acquaintance. After dark, we rolled cautiously into the insalubrious downtown area known as PZ. Glancing warily about, we were ushered up a dull staircase and into an apartment crowded with brocaded sofas and a widescreen television topped with an icon of Ganesh. A woman in a saffron-coloured sari stared shyly from a doorway before disappearing. We were shortly swept into the lounge and introduced to our host, a local trader, of Indian heritage; his elegant wife; and his son, who sported a plummy English accent. I soon learned that our host had been born in Freetown and had remained throughout the conflict. Rather proudly, he displayed the bullet holes in the glass and railings of the balcony that had occurred as a result of a crossfire in the street below, between the rebels and the ECOMOG (Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group) intervention forces. Speaking about the worst period of the civil war, he related how he and the 500 other Indians comprising their small community in Freetown, had hidden together in the Hindu temple, since the well-guarded hotel compounds had been commandeered by United Nations and diplomatic personnel. At horrendous expense, he had later chartered a helicopter for members of his family, flying them out to the only available destination, Liberia – then scarcely less dangerous than Sierra Leone – from where they were able to travel on to the UK. He noted, with obvious emotion, that the Sierra Leonean staff of his small general stores had all the while protected his goods, and their livelihoods, from looters. Continue reading

Security, and the lack of it
December 18, 2006, 8:32 pm
Filed under: Government, Law, Sierra Leone

Joining the already-swollen ranks of local expat victims of home invasion, I was awoken on Sunday morning by an understandably shaken housemate who quickly showed the strewn contents of our rooms relocated to the living area, whence they had evidently been taken while we slept for a more private, thorough search. A number of items were missing from each of us; all the more unsettling was the notion that someone had leaned over my sleeping body to snatch my phone. What would have happened had I awoken then does not bear reflection. Thankfully, no-one was harmed. The guards could shed no light on the situation, so we called Court security, who arrived to liaise with the local police. Bleary-eyed and stumbling on a Sunday morning, we trooped to the filthy warren of the Congo Cross police station, whereupon our guards, who had joined us to help explain the situation, were promptly arrested as suspects and detained –  despite our protests. Following another peering examination of our apartment and personal belongings by a throng of security personnel of various stripes, hand- and footprints were found (not by the police) on the balcony railings, revealing that the thieves had likely climbed the building to the second floor and managed to fiddle the locked door to gain entry. The police wanted to take crime scene photos, but had no camera, so asked to borrow one – a futile gesture since we had reported it stolen. Likewise their demand for a mobile phone contact from me.  Statements were taken by yet another set of police, as we struggled to locate the passport of another housemate, who had been in hospital. Fortunately this turned up at the office. Court security, on our expressing concern for our guards, who might yet be held for days during whatever investigation ensues, simply advised us to let the police do their job their way. What that means, I don’t know. As many have mentioned, we cannot, after all, rule them out. Ironically, one of few things of value not stolen were envelopes containing Christmas bonuses for our compound staff, including the guards.

Continue reading

Revenge of the insect kingdom
December 16, 2006, 2:12 am
Filed under: Sierra Leone

As I sat playing cards with my housemates, ploughing ill-advisedly through vodka best fit for fueling Romanian tractors, an odd delivery was made. Opening the envelope, I found a calligraphically perfect invitation to the British High Commission christmas party. As one of my cohort remarked, the only suitable addition would have been ‘carriages at midnight’. The next evening, I represented the colonies and wondered exactly how it was that I seemed to have jumped several rungs on the social ladder. Here around me were the types who ran NGOs, negotiated treaties, led foreign investment. Linen suits and polos the uniform. A number sported haircuts that spoke of a military background, all wore tans that spoke of a long acquaintance with these surrounds. A number had brought their children – who would no doubt grow up interestingly, and quickly, in this context. In the manicured gardens of the Residence, though, we could have been anywhere – but for the oppressive heat sending uncomfortable trickles down the back of each Ralph Lauren shirt. Graham Greene, in his book “The Heart of the Matter”,written while in the Foreign Service here, refers to sweat as the body’s nasty confession, its way of telling you that you are not in control of your own person, much less your environment. As we perspired, we listened to a local school choir singing carols, reading from braille songbooks and swaying with the involuntary unselfconsciousness of the blind. Or rather, some listened. Others seemed loudly preoccupied. Perhaps they had discovered, to their mutual amusement, that they had been in the same year at Eton. Meanwhile, African hands served canapes and wine. Continue reading

The compensations
December 11, 2006, 10:08 pm
Filed under: Sierra Leone

It had been something of a rough week of having my room ransacked; learning the compound had been attacked with rocks; my housemate getting malaria; and night after night of wrenching, testimony-inspired dreams of, among other things,  a pregnant woman disemboweled for the sake of a bet on the sex of her child. There was clearly only one thing to do: get out and hit the beach. The roads around the Freetown peninsula are so bad that most travellers go hours of their way in order to travel on surfaces marginally less pitted, uneven and likely to snap an axle. The red of these sinuous trails has been added to of late by the dust of the approaching Harmattan. This is the Saharan wind that blows into Sierra Leone during the dry season, lowering temperatures by way of its impressive trick of blocking out the sun. Its name, from the Ghanaian language Twi, means ‘to tear the breath apart’, and it’s classified a natural hazard. Though barely beginning, already a fine haze has settled like a bloody fog. So, coughing as we went, we meandered our way through the dense ghettos of the city’s east, where the retreat of the rebels had hit hardest, and into the thick green of the hills. Continue reading

Young people today
December 8, 2006, 5:52 am
Filed under: Development, Law, Sierra Leone

54% of Sierra Leone’s population at the outset of the civil war was under the age of eighteen. This conflict is notorious for the use of child soldiers, many abducted and given ideological training before being sent for frontline duty in so-called Small Boy and Small Girl Units. Charles Taylor is known to have proselytised on the loyalty of soldiers raised to such service. By way of caveat, I should note that the extent to which such units operated, and in what capacity,  remains under question. Certainly the prospect of an eight year old effectively using an AK-47 merits skepticism. The effect of such combatants, however, some reputedly as young as eight, cannot be underestimated. Though far from an expert on the psychosocial ramifications of wartime trauma, I can hazard some hypothesis that an immature and perhaps easily manipulated view of events might breed a collective disjuncture, a sense of unreality. Reading the grotesque deeds of rebels who have dubbed themselves, inter alia, Superman and Rambo, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the conflict, for all its palpable and horrifying consequences, for many took place in some fantastic, otherworldly landscape constructed to avoid the alternative shroud of greed and cruelty. Though I would never suggest that institutionalised Peter-Panery excuses the truly nightmarish misdeeds that have become the international face of this shattered country, it does go some way to explaining the shameful bewilderment and disbelief with which many ex-combatants, now grown men,  confront their participation. It is like they have woken up from a dream of killing to find blood on their hands. Ironically, due to the war, the proportion of Sierra Leoneans under the age of eighteen is now higher than ever before.

Equality of arms
December 6, 2006, 3:44 am
Filed under: Law, Sierra Leone

I’m increasingly noticing that all is not fair in love and war crimes at the Special Court. There is a clear disparity in the resources and precedence afforded the prosecution and defence limbs of the institution. To some degree, this is undoubtedly a legacy of the planning of international criminal hearings. Defence has previously been an occupation taken up entirely outside the closed set of the court – to the degree, I’m told, that members of the defence at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia were until recently not so much as allowed to use the canteen, let alone procure office space and support.

The Special Court here, at least, has moved with the times to admit a Defence Office organisationally situated under the Registry. Though this does, in some sense, acknowledge the importance of observing the rights of the accused, the extra layer of attendant bureaucracy – not shared by the freestanding prosecution – is considered by many to be a substantial hindrance to that end. Whilst, in certain circles, it may simply be fashionable to deride the UN bureaucracy, this dysfunction does have ramifications pertinent not only to the lofty ideals of international justice, but more immediately to those who face a life behind bars.

Whilst still a long way from the risible ‘cash for conviction’ model apparently in play presently in Iraq, it appears that here also, the formal presumption of innocence is, for an influential few, worth lip service only. Surely, if the process is to lay some collective ghosts to rest for the people of Sierra Leone, rather than serving only as a sterile legal ornament, it must be evenhanded and beyond reproach. What lesson in negating impunity would otherwise be delivered by a failure to adequately exercise fundamental tenets of the rule of law?

On a different note, spent much of my weekend eating the freshest of fish at the beach, overcoming my grimacing disaffection for Star beer and feeling oddly disturbed by the flock of vultures that gathers on the rusting tin of the tenements below my window. They have their eyes on me, I tell you. Pleasant dinner with an American capital case defender, who skipped as lightly as I imagine is possible over the personal impact of having a client executed. Whilst not a feature of UN-sponsored instruments such as the Special Court, the death penalty is, mind you, still on the books in Sierra Leone.