Fleeing the Jurisdiction

When I grow up…
February 1, 2007, 3:54 am
Filed under: Development, Sierra Leone

I saw him the night before, grizzled and dusty as he stepped out of the wreck of a car. When I speak of the vehicle in those terms, I don’t disparage its make or upkeep, but rather suggest that its owner had miraculously survived a brush with death. Its chassis now resembled more a failed origami experiment in four-wheel drive manufacture than a serious mode of transport. He seemed nonchalant, all the same, smoothing the broken glass from his clothes and tossing the keys through the busted door onto the seat. He ran a hand through greying hair and laughed as he walked off.

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Fire, fire
January 31, 2007, 1:53 am
Filed under: Development, Law, Sierra Leone

Packed into the NGO standard-issue white four-wheel drive along with the full complement of interpreters and investigators, we made a late exit from Freetown, speeding along roads fit to make a civil engineer weep. At regular intervals, we would pass the sagging shapes of other vehicles mournfully stopped kerbside like defeated triathletes. Palms punctuated the landscape. The RUF’s symbolic use of these ubiquitous but top-heavy, shallow-rooted trees, easily toppled by strong winds, now seems absurdly prophetic. I was to find, though, in the following days spent upcountry with ex-combatants, that some still see – or wish to see – life in the fallen movement.

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Making a killing
January 11, 2007, 3:27 am
Filed under: Development, Law, Sierra Leone

Most Sierra Leoneans seem to support the general thrust of the Special Court’s work, recognising the need to provide a deterrent to despotism and root out impunity. The need for this to occur in an environment that upholds human rights – even the rights of the accused – largely receives grudging acceptance. What rankles, however, is the the expense. There’s no denying that the trials, both in terms of duration and associated infrastructure, are a massively costly exercise. Donor countries, including Australia, justify this, reasonably enough, as an investment in the future stability of the country. The enduring benefits are, however, often confined to this abstract and unquantifiable category. The practical, tangible dividends are few. The Court building itself, for example, is fitted with full-length bullet-proof glass partitions that make natural ventilation impossible. In order to make it habitable, enormous generators are required. It is widely hypothesised that when the Court is handed over to the Sierra Leonean government in a flag-waving ceremony of partnership and magnanimity, it will immediately become a white elephant utterly unused by a community that, without the UN to ship in tankers of fuel, simply does not have the electricity to run such a facility.

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Meeting the devil in Monrovia
January 3, 2007, 9:30 pm
Filed under: Development, Government

A housemate here in Freetown had worked with the UN in Liberia, and travelled regularly back to visit her partner there. She seemed pretty well connected and had passed along some details, promising to make arrangements on my behalf when she visited for Christmas. Unfortunately, it appears illness intervened – she never made it. So it was with some trepidation, but nevertheless more determination, that I set off – to a country rarely described without the prefix ‘war-torn’ thanks to the ravages of Charles Taylor’s regime – and with no more than a phone number by way of planning. Having endured the short flight run by Slok Air, whose cabin crew helpfully suggested using the seat cushions as flotation devices in lieu of lifejackets, I managed to bluff and smile my way past the customs officials wanting their holiday season ‘dash’, or graft. I sat myself down next to the dried cow hoof vendors, hoping that my hasty and half-heard calls, trading on faint associations, had turned up a contact to meet me at the airport. I needn’t have worried.  I was greeted with broad smiles and was swiftly adopted by a circle of new Liberian, Nigerian and Guinean friends who quizzed me on Australia – how far was it? how easy to get a job? – on the long ride through blue-helmet checkpoints into Monrovia. A local convent offered cheap, clean rooms and simple food, so I dumped my bag and joined the gang at a roadside cafe for a political discussion, fueled by strong ‘atayeh’ tea, that ran late into the night and spanned English, French and (testing my ear) various creoles.

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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.

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