Sierra Leone puts hopes in polls

Citizens hoping to shake off bloody legacy see elections as way to better future.

Solomon Cooper was forced to have his right arm amputated several years after he was
badly burnt and scarred during an RUF attack on his house in the town of Kono

The West African country goes to weekend polls that could indicate if it is ready to leave behind its violent past. But Al Jazeera finds that the legacy is a heavy one.


Three days before landmark presidential and parliamentary elections, the centre of Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown has a carnival atmosphere.


Chanting and singing proliferates on every street corner as young people dance away to open-air sound systems.



Q&A: Sierra Leone votes

This time it is supporters of the All Peoples Congress (APC) showing their colours – red and white – and bringing the traffic in central Freetown, hardly fluid at the best of times, to a complete standstill.


The energy being expended by the crowds at what is officially the APC’s final rally reflects the optimism many in Sierra Leone hold for Saturday’s elections.


The hope is a new government will tackle some of the vast social problems facing the country and finally leave its violent past behind.


Brutal past


But at the end of a two-hour slog past the throng and out of town is a stark reminder of the legacy of that past.


Lamin Jusu Jarka had both his arms hacked off below the elbow during the country’s brutal decade-long conflict between 1991 and 2002 when an estimated 50,000 people died and at least half a million were displaced.


Members of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebel group arrived at Jusu Jarka’s door in 1999. Fearing they would rape his teenage daughter, he told her to escape through a rear window. His arms were removed as a “punishment” shortly after.


Supporters of the All Peoples Congress
showing their colours

Jusu Jarka, now adeptly using prosthetics, heads a nationwide association helping amputees and other permanently wounded victims from the war.


He and 10 other families have been among the relatively lucky ones through a scheme in co-ordination with the Norwegian refugee council that has seen them relocated to a camp in the country and housed in former military barracks.


The accommodation is rudimentary but the amputees are able to work off the nearby farmland and scratch together a living, unlike many of the other estimated 6,000 people missing limbs in Sierra Leone after the war.


Jusu Jarka says that despite efforts at reconciliation for victims made by the government of Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, the outgoing president, the psychological scars are permanent.


“People are dying here,” he says. “There is a lot of pain and suffering and people do not have medical facilities. They are asking themselves ‘how can I live like this’.”


Al Jazeera exclusive

The political opposition
courts the youth vote

Solomon Cooper was forced to have his right arm amputated several years after he was badly burnt and scarred in an arson attack on his house in the town of Kono by the RUF.


A passionate dramatist and a part-time stand-up comedian, Cooper says he believes strongly in an “ability and disability” and says he encourages fellow amputees in the towns of Bo and Kenema in the southeast of the country to make a life for themselves and not beg on the streets.


No compensation


Yet, like Jusu Jarka, he says further development can only be attained for victims when they get the reparations he says are due.


The distribution of ballot papers and voter lists
is taking place under tight security [EPA]

A long-awaited report from the UN-backed Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation committee in 2004 recommended the government should pay compensation to victims and their families and provide them with trust funds and pensions.


Government reparations have not been forthcoming, however, and Cooper believes the “problem is they pay the perpetrators”, referring to claims that former combatants in the war have received funds and training in return for disarming.


“It is sending the message that it is better to do harm than good,” he says.


But both Jusu Jarka and Cooper are confident this weekend’s elections could aid their development.


“We are all very excited and we are registered,” Jusu Jarka says. “This is democracy at work.”


Sierra Leone has made efforts to reconcile itself with its violent past, primarily through the internationally-backed special court in Freetown.


Established after the ceasefire that ended the war in 2002 to try those who “bear the greatest responsibility for the atrocities”, the court recently handed down its first verdicts against former militia leaders and is currently trying Charles Taylor, Liberia’s former president, in The Hague.


But as well as the more infamous figures of the war who have been indicted or died since the conflict ended, those who committed atrocities that the public is not aware of should also be brought to justice, John Caulker of the Forum of Conscience, a Freetown-based rights group, says.


Caulker, a student activist leader during the war who was threatened by one of the leaders of the RUF at gunpoint, says all political parties have failed to fully acknowledge their roles in the war and that reconciliation cannot be achieved for victims until justice is done.


“Reconciliation is far from happening. Even with peace it is still a relative term, and many would say their life is deplorable.”


Deep wounds


Caulker wants those who committed atrocities
that the public is unaware of to face justice

While all the political parties say they are committed to the special court and the reconciliation process, Caulker says any new leader or government needs to be asked: “What will you do in your first 100 days?”


“Let’s have this for the records,” he says.


Across town, away from the sea of red and white that has been colouring the capital for the APC rally, Abu Kamara’s T-shirt shows his allegiance to the ruling Sierra Leone’s Peoples Party.


The party’s green masks more wounds from the past.


Kamara’s chest is a patchwork of bumpy scars, the legacy of an RUF rocket-propelled grenade attack on his camp when he was a member of the notorious West Side Boys.


The group, a splinter faction of the Armed Revolutionary Council that temporarily removed Kabbah in a coup in 1997, were renowned for their harsh tactics, alcohol abuse and their use of child soldiers.


Kamara is proud of his military time but says he will vote SLPP because it was the party that brought peace to the country and he can not risk supporting another movement for fear of reprisals over his past.


The former fighter, now shorn of his long hair, is another embodiment of the contradictions in Sierra Leone today.


Child soldiers were one of the grim 
features of Sierra Leone’s war [AP]

Upon leaving the military again after being retrained by the British he, like many Sierra Leoneans, could not find a job and now spends his days on the streets with his friends.


Yet he is also imbued with the spirit of optimism that seems to be spreading in the country before the elections despite the difficult conditions and disappointing governance.


“Elections are democracy,” he says.


Caulker also remains hopeful thanks to the apparent narrow margin that separates the parties in opinion polls.


“Six months ago with this government we were saying we risked our lives for nothing,” he says.

“Now they are all doing everything to get power. This is democracy at work.”

Source: Al Jazeera

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