Sierra Leone

What hope of reparations for Sierra Leone's war victims?

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Sierra Leone - Seven years after the official end of the conflict in Sierra Leone, work has finally begun in acknowledging the atrocities inflicted on civilians, including women and children over a 12-year period.

The setting up of a reparations programme, a key recommendation of Sierra Leone's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 2004, has taken time, not least because of the difficulties in defining the worst atrocities, identifying the most vulnerable among the war victims and in raising the funds to provide eventual and actual assistance.

Of all Sierra Leone's war victims, those whose limbs were chopped off in acts of needless violence, or were wounded in the war, or were victims of sexual violence as well as war widows and orphans, have been deemed to be in particularly pressing need of relief and recognition.

Reparations, identified as a key to achieving national healing and rehabilitation in the aftermath of a vicious war, will largely be delivered through medical, educational, vocational and, for particularly vulnerable victims, housing assistance.

The National Commission for Social Action (NaCSA), a government agency, has been given the job of implementing the programme. The UN's Peace Building Fund has provided US$ 3 million dollars to cover the programme for a year with a contribution of US$ 250,000 from the Sierra Leonean government.

So far, 28,000 people have registered for assistance with 20,000 of them having received US$100 as a micro-grant or for educational support. About 200 victims of sexual violence have received medical assistance including fistula surgery. But limited funds, tens of thousands of people likely to require reparations assistance, and the need to provide reparations in a fair, effective and transparent manner - and fast - has made NaCSA's job extremely difficult.

It now has the support of IOM, which with its extensive expertise in large compensation and restitution programmes worldwide, is providing technical assistance to NaCSA. Tangible results in 2009 for impatient victims, resentful at having their plight and needs ignored for so long, will be key to securing full funding for the programme. A future of peace and stability in Sierra Leone also rests on providing renewed hope to those unable to live a life like others through no fault of their own.

Here, NaCSA's head, Commissioner Saidu Conton Sesay, talks to IOM's Jemini Pandya about the challenges he and his team are facing.

Q: Why are reparations necessary for Sierra Leone?

Commissioner Sesay: I think they are necessary for several reasons. They are really for civilians who didn't take up arms. And looking at the fact that the war was against the State, for civilians to really have suffered means that they suffered unjustly. They need to be acknowledged - that yes, they went through this punishment. It was not their fault. It was the fault of others. They need to feel confident that the government has recognised that this harm has befallen them and that the State is there to aid and support them.

We (NaCSA) are there to make sure that the rights that have been violated are actually restored and to recognise that their dignity was really trampled upon. Reparations are an expression of concern over what happened to them as well as an expression probably of the fact that the government didn't quite fulfil its own obligation in providing protection to these people.

Q: Why has it taken so long to get the reparations programme underway - hasn't its delay caused unnecessary concern and suffering among those who needed the greatest attention?

Comissioner Sesay: Yes, I think concerns have been raised both by the public and the victims themselves. The TRC report was published in 2004 and the expectation was that immediate action would follow in providing reparations. But we are only starting now. And that time lag can actually insinuate a lot of things - neglect, lack of attention. But that is really not the case. I think it has basically been a question of mobilising the necessary support, mobilising the necessary wherewithal, including the logistics, systems and support, to be able to actually start this process. Yes there is anxiety out there. There is a lot of anxiety. It is one of the challenges we have in implementing the programme. How are we going to manage the expectations already out there given the limited resources we are able to lay our hands on? But as I said, there was nothing deliberate to delay the process.

Q: But demobilised soldiers were given assistance in the immediate aftermath of the conflict.....

Commissioner Sesay: That is exactly the point that victims themselves are putting forward - that those that actually inflicted these atrocities on them have got some attention while they - they are still out there, unattended to.

However, let's not forget that it is crucial to disarm those that are behind the violence and to bring them back into the civilian fold if there is to be any chance of long-term peace and stability. It was necessary. But so is the reintegration of victims through reparations for sustainable peace and true reconciliation.

Q: You spoke earlier about the challenge of managing expectations among the victims. Is that your main challenge?

Commissioner Sesay: I would say it is one of the major challenges. There is also the question of whether what we are delivering now constitutes sufficient reparations in the eyes of the victims. The amounts of resources we foresee being required for this kind of work we think are very huge. And the government has the responsibility of providing these. So the starting point would have to be the government's own resources. But, you know, these are very limited. We also have to rely on external support to augment what the government provides. But it is not clear what the extent of that support will be.

There is also another challenge further down the road. We have funds for one year. We are now looking for support for another three years. But we may not have fulfilled all that is required within these four years in terms of providing reparations. How are we going to take that process forward?

Q: But people could argue that if Sierra Leone's 'blood diamonds' were used to fund the conflict, why can't diamonds fund reparations to innocent victims?

Commissioner Sesay: From an outsider's point of view, that sounds like a legitimate assumption. But the reality is different. Yes there are diamonds, but the government itself doesn't mine. Mining is in the hands of private people and private external companies. What the government relies on is taxes levied on the miners' proceeds. And of late, the mining industry has not been yielding much - as much as is expected. This is because in the past, we had what is called alluvial mining where you can just go scratch the ground somewhere and find something. Now it is much deeper, deep mining which requires huge investment and there are not many companies engaged in that. And so, we don't get as much back from the diamonds as the outside world would imagine. Other areas of revenue are really basically other forms of taxation, which are very limited. So if we put that side by side with other huge, competing priorities, I think the government is in a corner.

Q. What are these competing priorities?

Commissioner Sesay: Well, there are issues around primary and secondary health as well as maternal and child health. Sierra Leone has the highest child and maternal mortality rates in the world for example. We need to strengthen the agricultural sector so that there is enough food for the people. We have to develop sources of energy so that industries can come and flourish and provide employment for people. There is the issue of infrastructure, roads, which are in a very poor state.

Q: Given the stigma around rape, how will you get women and girls to come forward and register and protect them?

Commissioner Sesay: We have an obligation to protect their identity and the information they provide to us. The staff handling this would receive technical support from qualified people to help manage that kind of information. And we are also working with women's groups in order to build the confidence of the women. They can talk to their peers and that information can be transmitted to us. This way, we hope to reach them.

Q: But by giving them assistance, they will be identifiable.

Commissioner Sesay: I agree. But those who will receive medical treatment, you can't easily conclude that that person had gone to the doctor's because of a rape act. It will also depend on the medical personnel handling those cases to make sure that whatever information the patient gives out, is kept in confidence.

Q: Does that mean victims of sexual violence aren't eligible for housing assistance?

Commissioner Sesay: Some will be. I think we are looking at the worst cases. Not just those who suffered rape but those who sustained some injury that would make it difficult to remarry, would make it difficult to bear children. These are the more critical cases. We will rely on the doctors to identify them.

Q: Who decides who gets help and what that help is?

Commissioner Sesay: The registration process actually records what kind of support that they are looking for. It also identifies the various categories..the amputees, the war wounded, victims of sexual violence, war widows, child victims including children born out of sexual violence ...All this information goes into a database. And once we have that information, we have to do a validation check carried out in the community with community elders and representatives to be assured that yes, victim A is really eligible. Once that is done, a steering committee takes the policy decision on whether we can proceed with delivering services or not.

Q: You say the programme is there to help the most vulnerable. How do you define that?

Commissioner Sesay: This is all really about livelihood as much as it is about dignity and respect. If we approach it from that angle then the most vulnerable would be those who would find it difficult to sustain their lives on their own without any external support. So for me, if you have both of your hands chopped off, that renders you essentially inactive. If you sustain an injury that makes it difficult for people to come around you, that makes people ignore you, neglect you, in my own judgement, that makes you one of the most vulnerable.

Q: What are the implications of the programme not going beyond year one due to lack of funds?

Commissioner Sesay: It would have implications for the maintenance of peace itself. We are talking about a group of people that have been terribly hurt and not to make any effort to make sure they feel belonged and to feel cared for - well I would not expect such category of people to cooperate, or to respect authority. I can expect tension which can trigger other uncomfortable circumstances within society. Above and beyond that, I think that we actually live in a society that is fairly close. We have may have chopped each others arms and legs, but we are generally close. This mutual care and support for each other is what has helped most people. Not taking this programme forward would probably destroy that kind of culture.

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