There are many war victims in Ukraine. Someday they will be paid reparations. How to determine who suffered more? Thereʼs no way. People tried to do it in Sierra Leone — nothing worked

Oksana Kovalenko
Yevhen Spirin
There are many war victims in Ukraine. Someday they will be paid reparations. How to determine who suffered more? Thereʼs no way. People tried to do it in Sierra Leone — nothing worked

Two tailors work together in a camp for amputees in Sierra Leone.

Getty Images / «Babel'»

Ukrainian lawyer and former lawmaker, Olena Sotnyk, proposed that those who were raped in the war to be the first to start receiving reparations. Sotnyk suggests taking money from special funds. However, according to the lawyer, some of her colleagues think this will cause controversy in society, because it is the victims of sexual violence who will be prioritized. Usually, in wars, the issue of reparations was determined by special Truth Commissions. After the war, such a commission also worked in Sierra Leone, but the country had no money, so compensation was given only to a few categories of victims — for example, amputees. During the war, armed rebels cut off the arms and legs of civilians. When the war ended, many victims were given $100 each. Others got nothing. This outraged society. "Babel" correspondent Oksana Kovalenko tells about the experience of Sierra Leone, reparations, and an attempt to single out the most affected among the victims. Spoiler alert: nothing came of it.

Sierra Leone is a small country in West Africa, located on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, which until 1961 was a British colony. After gaining independence, the government took a democratic course, and there were at least two political parties in the country: the Sierra Leone Peopleʼs Party (SLP) and the opposition All-National Congress. In 1967, state and military coups began: the military governments were replaced by civilian representatives of the All-National Congress and for some time representatives of the SLP were in power. Army corporal Foday Sankoh participated in one of these coups, but he was detained and imprisoned for 8 years. After his release he sought out radicals to unite and seize power. In 1978, a one-party system was established in the country — the only party allowed was the All-National Congress.

In 1991, a national referendum was held: citizens were asked whether they were satisfied with one party in power. As a result, the Constitution was changed, and the country returned to a multi-party system. During this time, Sankoh met the President of Liberia, Charles Taylor. Later, he founded the United Revolutionary Forces. Foday Sankoh sought support from other countries to overthrow the government of Sierra Leone and got it from Charles Taylor. On March 23, 1991, rebels from the United Revolutionary Forces attacked the eastern regions bordering Liberia, where Taylor was already fighting for power. These eastern provinces are known for their diamond mines. The most important areas of their mining are located closer to the border with Liberia — in the east and southeast of Sierra Leone, in particular in the Kono area, where more diamonds are mined than in other areas. Before the war, diamond mining was monitored by a government agency, but in reality, diamond smuggling was very common and amounted to 50%. It was at the expense of these diamonds that the rebels bought weapons: the stones were smuggled out through Liberia, and small arms were imported back.

Rebels attacked civilians, robbed, raped and tortured them. They involved children — they were often kidnapped, drugged, forced to fight, and kill and maim civilians. In 1996, elections were held in the country, Sankoh didnʼt take part in them. The UN official representative Ahmad Tejan Kabba won the elections. His slogan “The future is in your hands" caused the rebels to cut off peopleʼs hands and call on their victims to ask the president for new hands. Amputation became a typical brutality of the civil war in Sierra Leone: "Short or long sleeve” was asked, and the arm was cut off either at the wrist or at the elbow.

In the war in Sierra Leone, both the government and the rebels used children as fighters. They committed terrible crimes.


Such cases were documented by journalists and human rights defenders.

Bobo Jayah worked on a rice farm. That day, as usual, he left his family and went to the field. There he was surrounded by armed rebel teenagers. They knocked him to the ground and demanded to know where he kept the rice so they could take it. Bobo refused to answer them because that was where his family was hiding. The boys cut off his left ear, stuffed it into his mouth and forced him to eat it. Bobo refused. Then they started cutting and stabbing his neck and then cut off his penis. He miraculously escaped from them and survived, despite the loss of blood. His arms and legs were intact, he lived in a special camp and could not get a job after the war. There was also no money to return to farming again. And his wife left Jayah immediately after the injury.

Another victim, Kumbah Momo, was pregnant when the rebels came to their house. At first, she was forced to watch how the limbs of others were cut off, and then the rebels forced her to stretch out her hand and put it on the ground. One of the executioners took a machete and cut off the arm just below the elbow, but it was not possible to completely cut it off — the arm dangled on the skin. Momo hid on the farm for four days. She was in so much pain that she decided to cut off the part of her arm that was dangling. Momo had four children, in order to somehow survive, she begged.

And Ishmael Daramy told CNN how after the war he met a man who ordered to cut off both his hands. They recognized each other. Ishmael invited him home, his wife prepared dinner. When the reporter asked if the man had apologized for what he had done, Ishmael said there was no apology, and the man explained that it was just war.

Militants dragged Lansan Sesay out of the house and cut off both of his hands. Now he and his family live in a camp for amputees. He needs help in everything, even his grandson Joseph holds his cigarette.

Getty Images / «Babel'»

After the war, which ended on January 18, 2002, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established to seek justice. One of its recommendations is reparations programs.

In addition to amputations, the Truth Commission documented a vast number of crimes committed by the rebels: forced cannibalism, detention, forced recruitment, sexual slavery, forced drug use, forced labor, assaults, torture, rape, looting and destruction of property, extortion, forced displacement, murders, cannibalism. Sometimes the same person became the victim of several crimes. In total, approximately 55,500 people were injured in the war. But only 29,733 people were registered as injured, including 1,285 amputees and 4,675 wounded.

The truth commission limited the categories of victims who were eligible for reparations: amputees, war wounded, victims of sexual violence, and special categories of children. The commission did not take into account that the victims could have mental problems and need psychiatric help. Children were recognized as victims only if their parents were civilians and died, or if the children were born as a result of rape.

According to estimates of the National Commission for Social Action, $14 million was needed for reparations — the government did not have money for that. In the end, the amount was much smaller, so not even all registered victims received money.

In 2008, the United Nations Peacekeeping Fund provided Sierra Leone with a $3.5 million grant. But the victims were so numerous that the payments were distributed only among amputees and women who had been raped during the war. The vast majority of registered victims received a one-time payment of approximately $100. In addition, the flaws in the program led to a negative experience for most victims, with some people even refusing to receive their benefits in the end. The government promised that the rest of the money would be paid later. In 2011, the second grant provided by the United Nations Development Program made it possible to pay another $300 to 1,138 amputees. The rest of the victims never received their money. They did not understand why the money went only to amputees, this caused a heightened sense of injustice and shook trust in the state.

As researcher Eva Ottendorfer from the Frankfurt Institute for Peace Research noted in her report, most of the victims spent the money they received not to recover, but to send their children to school or repair their homes. Only one program helped not to “eat the funds” — some of the affected women were trained in various professions so that they could earn a living.

Two refugees from Sierra Leone who lost their arms during the fighting play checkers as part of a rehabilitation program at the National Orthopedic Center in Conakry.

Getty Images / «Babel'»

The reparations program was suspended in 2014 when the Ebola epidemic broke out in Africa, and particularly in Sierra Leone, although Ottendorfer notes that it is likely that victims of the war became more vulnerable during the pandemic. The reparations program did not live up to expectations. According to Ottendorfer, different groups received different benefits, this caused social envy and mistrust among the victims of other social groups that received more help.

After the war in 2002, several camps were set up in Sierra Leone for amputees. They were looked after there, as often people could not help themselves. The camps often lacked water, food and electricity. Some of the residents of such camps begged because there was no money.

In 2002, the Flying Star Amputees football team was created, which grew into a football club and helps victims of war. “Our goal has always been to support and help improve the lives of people who lost limbs during the war,” says the website of the football club, which not only allows football to be played, but also creates jobs for amputees.

Translated from Ukrainian by Anton Semyzhenko.

Reparations, compensation — Ukraine still has to get acquainted with these concepts, and we are already telling you about it. Support Babel: 🔸 in hryvnia 🔸 in cryptocurrency 🔸 via Patreon 🔸 or PayPal: [email protected].