Tag Archives: civil war

A deafening silence

Bonthe is like nowhere else I’ve ever been. It has no cars, no real roads, and just a few motorbikes. It is like stepping back in time. Crumbling colonial buildings line the town’s shore, looking across to the mainland. Behind them, are a mixture of mud houses, simple modern bungalows and metal shacks. For the most part, the only noises to break the silence are those of kids’ laughter, calls to prayer from the mosque and the ‘put-put’ of the odd boat, weighed-down with goods like rice, cement and petrol. It could be 1913 or 2013.

Bonthe is home to around 10,000 people.

Bonthe is home to around 10,000 people.

Bonthe is the main town of Sierra Leone’s biggest island Sherbro Island. It juts-out from the coast of Sierra Leone, a five-hour drive south of Freetown. It’s home to the island’s hospital, council offices, police station and prison. That small prison was one of the first stops on our JHR reporting trip to Bonthe.

There is no electricity on Bonthe, unless you have a generator.

There is no electricity on Bonthe, unless you have a generator.

The biggest prison in the country is Freetown Central Prison (a.k.a. Pademba Road Prison). It currently holds three or four-times the number of inmates for which it was designed. Many JHR-trained journalists have reported on these conditions over the past few years. This month the government said it plans to replace the facility. Because of Pademba Road’s reputation, I was prepared for even worse when visiting a small prison on an under-developed island in the Atlantic.

When we arrived outside Bonthe Prison, the staff knew nothing of our visit. It took a few phone calls back to Freetown to confirm that a white man did indeed submit a visitor request the week before. We were in.

The main entrance to Bonthe Prison.

The main entrance to Bonthe Prison.

The cramped reception office had two prison-bar gates on either side – the only barrier between prisoners and freedom. A blackboard inside the office categorized the prisoners. Long-Term: 7, Short-Term: 8, Remand: 2, Trial: 0. Total: 17.

The courtyard in Bonthe Prison.

The courtyard in Bonthe Prison.

The dusty courtyard inside was a little smaller than a tennis court. A toilet block beside the offices, and cells on the three other sides. Two or three male prisoners sat about in the shade. They seemed almost uninterested by our visit.

This prisoner is facing a charge of Wounding with Intent.

This prisoner is facing a charge of Wounding with Intent.

We spoke to the Discipline Officer. He told us there were 23 inmates. He was quickly corrected by the Reception Officer who said there were indeed 17 inmates:  Long-Term: 8, Short-Term: 8, Remand: 0, Trial: 1. Ultimately there was no practical way to find out which numbers were real.

A prison cell in Bonthe Prison.

A cell in Bonthe Prison.

Of the seven cells, four were in use. Four or five men to a cell. The ones we saw measured around four-by-three metres, and had two or three single beds each. The officers told us that men are allowed out of their cells from 6:30 a.m. until around 5 p.m. They are all required to preform “hard labour” in local paddy fields. Not an easy life, but nothing compared to conditions in Pademba Road. And I’ll be honest, while I was inside, I sized-up how easy it appeared be to escape over the low roof.

Bonthe Prison toilet facilities

Bonthe Prison toilet facilities

We made the five second walk back outside. Our story wasn’t what we had planned it to be (a better one later developed). As we walked away, JHR’s Bonthe-based trainer Samba Koroma pointed out a yellow building beside the prison. He told me that it was the original site of the Special Court of Sierra Leone (SCSL). (The permanent SCSL compound is now in Freetown.) The SCSL was set up to prosecute for crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in the latter half of the 1991-2002 Civil War.

The former Special Court building in Bonthe.

The former Special Court building in Bonthe.

The courtroom section of the SCSL in Bonthe is open on two sides. Unusually for government buildings in Sierra Leone, the walls seem barely scuffed, but the SCSL logo behind the bench is beginning to peel away from the wall. The wooden dock stands to the right of the bench. In March, 2003, rebel leaders like Foday Sankoh were indicted on this stand and kept in the prison next door. That month, the court also issued an indictment for then Liberian President Charles Taylor.

Inside the SCSL courtroom in Bonthe.

Inside the SCSL courtroom in Bonthe.

Sankoh died from a stroke later that year. Taylor is currently being held in The Hague, appealing his 50-year prison sentence for crimes against humanity and war crimes.

The silence inside the SCSL courtroom seemed to ring inside my ears. I didn’t feel like hanging around, so I took a picture and quickly walked outside.

I squinted in the sunlight and saw my colleagues chatting to each other in the distance. It was so quiet I could hear what they were talking about. That very different, timeless silence again. In Bonthe, it can be any year you want it to be, but it’s a safe bet that no one’s wishing for 2003.

Transforming arms into art in Mozambique

At the world-renowned artist studio Núcleo de Arte in Maputo, Mozambican artist Fiel dos Santos recalls a childhood robbed by military struggle.

“I grew up in civil war,” says Santos, who was five years old when his country became embroiled in a conflict that would last 16 years. “In my area the rebels were coming two times a week, every month, every day—but I’m here.”

In this video, Santos destroys weapons leftover from Mozambique’s civil war, and welds them into mixed-media sculptures. His artwork is part of a larger project called Transformaçaõ de Armas em Enxadas (Transforming Arms into Tools), which has amassed a collection of over 700,000 illegal weapons since 1995.

“I continue this project because it’s my contribution, my social contribution,” says Santos. “Transforming guns is transforming minds.”

Later this year, Fiel will be releasing a stop-motion animated short using metal sculptures created from decommissioned arms. The 17-minute film, Little Fiel, will tell the story of Fiel’s youth, growing up with two brothers fighting on opposing sides of Mozambique’s civil war.

In this video by Journalists for Human Rights reporters Sarah Berman and Sarah Feldbloom, Santos destroys weapons leftover from Mozambique’s civil war, and welds them into mixed-media sculptures.

Transforming arms into art in Mozambique

At the world-renowned artist studio Núcleo de Arte in Maputo, Mozambican artist Fiel dos Santos recalls a childhood robbed by military struggle.

“I grew up in civil war,” says Santos, who was five years old when his country became embroiled in a conflict that would last 16 years. “In my area the rebels were coming two times a week, every month, every day—but I’m here.”

In this video, Santos destroys weapons leftover from Mozambique’s civil war, and welds them into mixed-media sculptures. His artwork is part of a larger project called Transformaçaõ de Armas em Enxadas (Transforming Arms into Tools), which has amassed a collection of over 700,000 illegal weapons since 1995.

“I continue this project because it’s my contribution, my social contribution,” says Santos. “Transforming guns is transforming minds.”

Later this year, Fiel will be releasing a stop-motion animated short using metal sculptures created from decommissioned arms. The 17-minute film, Little Fiel, will tell the story of Fiel’s youth, growing up with two brothers fighting on opposing sides of Mozambique’s civil war.

In this video by Journalists for Human Rights reporters Sarah Berman and Sarah Feldbloom, Santos destroys weapons leftover from Mozambique’s civil war, and welds them into mixed-media sculptures.

Fighting for survival: Liberia’s ex-combatants in Cote d’Ivoire

Gabriel Swen, 25, fought in wars in Liberia and neighbouring Cote d'Ivoire. After disarming in 1997, poverty drove him back to fighting

Once, Gabriel Swen was a regional warrior.

He fought in his country, Liberia, for years, first picking up a gun at the age of 7 after losing his family in the West African nation’s 14-year civil war. He handed in his weapons to the UN in 1997 in exchange for some training in shoe repair, but after failing to find a means of survival without a gun, he took up fighting again the following year.

In 2001, Swen was part of a mercenary army that crossed Liberia’s eastern border to francophone Cote d’Ivoire following a January coup attempt on the then-newly elected president Laurent Gbagbo. Swen fought not for pay, but for the spoils of war, until he was seriously wounded in a car crash and returned to Liberia.

The phenomenon of regional warriors in West Africa is rearing its head again today, as Cote d’Ivoire hovers on the brink of civil war.

Thousands of combatants roam this fragile region from conflict to conflict, fighting as a means to survive in some of the poorest nations on earth, where peace without proper reintegration has brought not happiness but rather a life of idle deprivation for some former fighters, many of whom were coerced to take up arms as children.

According to numerous reports, Cote d’Ivoire’s death squads are linked to the security forces of Gbagbo, who is refusing to cede power to the internationally recognized winner of the country’s November 2010 election, Alassane Ouattara.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has confirmed that mercenaries, including former combatants from Liberia, have been recruited to “target certain groups in the population” during the current crisis that has left more than 200 dead.

The risk to regional stability posed by disenchanted and impoverished former fighters in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and surrounding countries is widely recognized by the United Nations and international bodies, as well as national governments.

The United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) noted as recently as June 2010 its concern about an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 Liberian fighters in western Cote d’Ivoire.

At various times since the Liberian civil war ended in 2003, UNMIL has responded to reports of ex-combatants congregating along the borders with Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire in hopes of getting picked up by a commander heading to conflicts elsewhere.

Over the last six weeks, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has repeatedly called on her country’s ex-combatants not to get involved in violence next door.

But the failure to provide the tens of thousands of ex-combatants throughout the region with viable alternative livelihoods continues to fuel regional instability and mercenary activity.

Nya D. Twayen Jr., assistant minister for youth services with the Liberian Ministry of Youth and Sport, calls the country’s thousands of street youths, many of whom are ex-combatants, the greatest threat to stability in the fragile post-war country.

“They are vulnerable. You give them five dollars and give them an AK-47 and say shoot… they’d shoot,” says Twayen. “As long as a portion of them still remain depressed and down and wayward, they will wage war on others.”

In a 2005 report dubbed “Youth, Poverty and Blood: The Lethal Legacy of West Africa’s Regional Warriors,” Human Rights Watch wrote that regional warriors identified poverty and hopelessness as motivators for them to risk dying in subsequent armed conflicts.

“They described being deeply affected by poverty and obsessed with the struggle of daily survival, a reality not lost on the recruiters,” the report reads.

“Many described their broken dreams and how, given the dire economic conditions within the region, going to war was their best option for economic survival.”

Swen retired from a decade of fighting before he was 18 years old. Now repairing shoes on the streets of Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, Swen says he wouldn’t want to go back to war. But eight years of peace haven’t got him anywhere. He still has no job and can’t afford to eat most days; he says he’s haunted by memories and holds little hope for the future.

“I need help to stop thinking,” he says. “I think about the war that happened, I feel bad.”

If a truck rolled up and offered him a couple bucks and some food to return to a frontline somewhere, he says with a shrug, he might go.

“The future? I do not have no hope for it.”