Justice for who?

Yvonne Ndege is Al Jazeera’s West Africa correspondent based in Abuja, Nigeria.

Yvonne Ndege

The sentencing of Charles Taylor to 50 years in prison at a specially convened international court in The Hague in one sense closes a chapter on Sierra Leone’s bloody war – a war that lasted 11 years and killed around 50,000 people.

But the chapter it closes is the one of international interest and likely media coverage of the case and issue that arise from it. For the families of the thousands of people murdered, raped, amputated, and kidnapped to be child soldiers, today is still a living nightmare, no matter how many years Taylor will be incarcerated for.

I have been reporting from Sierra Leone for the last five years. With every twist and turn of the case going on in The Hague, I have found myself despatched to either the capital Freetown or other towns devastated by the war, talking to war victims, civil society organisations and the government about the proceedings in the Netherlands, trying to gage public reaction.

With each visit I noticed a huge disconnect between proceedings at The Hague, and the thoughts, feelings and views of people on the ground in Sierra Leone who went through the war.

The public fascination over the appearance of British supermodel Naomi Campbell, who appeared as a prosecution witness, stands out at as an example of the disconnect I am trying to describe.

Charles Taylor


Campbell’s appearance generated huge media coverage. Her hair, her clothes, were handbag, during her appearance, were discussed, analysed, debated, and dissected in forensic detail. Forget about what she had to say about Taylor’s iniquities.

I remember talking to victims at the time. None of the victims knew or understood who Campbell was, why the interest and her connection to their plight. The victims only understood their day to day suffering and were looking for the Taylor trial to alleviate their pain, quickly.

“How does this witness change my life?” they would ask.

For many victims, like Lamin Jusu Jaka, seen in the photo above taken in Freetown on 26 of April, the day Taylor was found guility of war crimes, Wednesday’s sentencing changes little.

I called him from Nigeria where I am based, just after Taylor’s sentence was delivered, and asked him for his reaction. He said: “Fifty years is not enough, 50 years changes nothing”.

And continued: “I have no hands and Taylor only gets 50 years?!” And went on: “He should never be free, he should be locked up for life”.

I believe Lamin’s feelings are shared by many of the victims I have met over the years. In the 10 years since the war ended, Lamin has only received $200 in compensation. Contrast that with the fact that tens of millions of dollars have been spent prosecuting Taylor.

Taylor will serve his sentence in the relative comfort of a British prison. With three meals a day, and other amenities. Whereas victims like Lamin cannot feed themselves, or families. 

Victims like Lamin always point this out. Even though a Truth & Reconciliation Commission was set up to help war victims, Lamin says they get virtually no support.

For the victims of Sierra Leone’s war the sentencing of Taylor is more of an antidote or warning for leaders around the world who commit crimes against people. That the law can catch up with you no matter where you go.

But sadly, it is less of a remedy for thousands of Sierra Leone’s war who are still suffering today and will continue to suffer. What they want is more compensation money, so they can provide for themselves, and their families.

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