FREETOWN, SIERRA LEONE — They gather every day in a tiny former dry goods shop on a residential street here in this West African capital, and to the neighbors they are what they seem: seven women in front of sewing machines learning to make brightly colored dresses, dashikis and slippers. But the women share a secret.
"It's a very long story," said one of them, Christiana John, a tired look on her face. "I don't like to remember most of the things that happened to me."
Among the many victims of Sierra Leone's brutal, decade-long civil war are the "bush wives," the girls and women who were kidnapped, raped and forced to "marry" combatants and bear their children. Even now, seven years after the war ended, they remain ostracized by their families.
The daily sewing class, a few blocks from the international tribunal that has tried and convicted the worst of the war criminals, is one woman's effort to help some of those victims learn a skill -- and, perhaps, win back a scrap of their self-respect.
The "small skills tailoring institute" was launched 15 months ago by Renate Winter, an Austrian judge who presides over the Special Court for Sierra Leone, and it is both unofficial and deeply personal. Winter raised money for the project primarily from friends and former colleagues -- women in Austria's justice and foreign affairs ministries, including the minister of justice. It is, Winter said, "a women's project for women."
Thousands of former men and boy fighters have been disarmed and re-integrated into Sierra Leone society since the war ended in 2002. But many of the tens of thousands of women affected by the war have not been as fortunate.
One reason is cultural -- in Sierra Leone, as in many parts of Africa, families and clans are reluctant to welcome back women who were forced to marry war combatants. And families are especially reluctant to embrace the children of those unions.
"The worst of all the victims in this war, like in Rwanda, were the women," said Winter, 64, a specialist in juvenile and women's justice who joined the court in 2002 after U.N. assignments in Rwanda and Kosovo.
In 2004, the U.N.-backed court in Sierra Leone added "forced marriage" to rape and sexual slavery as offenses prosecutable as crimes against humanity. It was the first court in the world to single out forced marriage as a criminal charge; three defendants have been convicted of the charge. Their appeals are pending.
A short walk from the heavily guarded court complex, on a rare tranquil block in this gridlocked capital of 2.5 million, these women damaged by war sit on wooden benches, chatting with one another. A few work the pedals on Chinese sewing machines. Some are hand-stitching shirts, dresses and slippers. Everything is hand-designed and made to measure.
The tailoring institute had just six women in the first six-month class and has seven in the class now ending. Winter has kept it small on purpose, "so it's not interesting to anyone who might come along and demand a bribe," she said. "That happens quite a lot with these projects."
When the women graduate from the program, their clothing is displayed and sold in a show at the Special Court. The women are given those proceeds, a sewing machine and $100 in seed money and sent back home to start their own businesses.
The women who graduated from the first class say they long for the sewing bee atmosphere and would like to work together again. But they don't yet have enough money to rent a sewing room. For now, they work in their homes, hoping that business will pick up around the holidays, when Sierra Leoneans return from abroad and stock up on traditional African clothing.
On a recent day, the students, ranging in age from 21 to 55, showed an easy camaraderie. Much of the discussion focused on a rumor sweeping Freetown that the government was introducing a new electricity source and everyone would need to turn off major appliances at 3 p.m. "It doesn't really matter that much to me," Christiana John said dryly. "I don't have power in my house."
The women enjoyed teasing their instructor, Morlai Kalokoh, 40, a tailor. He took it all with a genial smile. In the afternoon, the group turned its attention to Kalokoh's radio, which he tuned to the BBC's "Focus on Africa."
What they don't talk about is the past. Each woman's privacy is strictly respected. "We don't ask each other about why we are here," said John, 55, who has a youthful face framed by long braided hair.
But in private, outside the room, she recalled the war in detail.
The day was Jan. 8, 1999, and John was at home in the town of Kissy with her four children, ages 7 to 25, and other relatives. About 10 soldiers stormed her house and held them for two days, raping the women and threatening to chop off the children's arms. "They took us as their slaves and forced us to be their wives," she said.