YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections
(Page 2 of 2)


In Sierra Leone, a 'women's project, for women'

The Austrian judge presiding over war crimes trials tries to help some of the many women abused in the long civil war by arranging for sewing classes, so they can earn a living, and some pride.

September 01, 2009|Scott Kraft

Over the next six months, she tried to escape but was recaptured, beaten and stabbed. She was fortunate that she didn't become pregnant, she says. "If I had, I would have committed suicide."

Finally, she managed to escape and hid in the countryside for a week before hitching a ride to Freetown. Asked what happened to her husband, she laughs ruefully. "I heard he died in battle," she said.

Only a few of her closest friends in Freetown know about her past, and she has never returned to her hometown. "If most people knew, they would not have anything to do with me," she said. But she has another reason too: "I'm ashamed of myself."

John sees the class as a way to break away from that past, "to stop thinking about my status" and to have a career -- to open a tailor shop, perhaps with some of her classmates. "I've been starving for too long," she said. "And this is food for my life."

The civil war began in 1991, when young men expelled by the military regime returned to battle for control of the nation and its diamond riches. Tens of thousands died, and the Revolutionary United Front rebels were known for their brutality, which included amputating limbs and forcing children to kill their parents.

One of John's younger classmates is Zainab Bangura, 27. She was 14 when the rebels arrived in her village, in the diamond-mining region of Kono. Her mother was taken away; she hasn't heard from her since.

"And they killed my father in front of me," she said. "They shot him and he fell. Then they took a knife and cut him."

As Bangura spoke, tears streamed down her face. "After that, I had no one." She was forced into marriage but managed to escape a year later. She won't return to the village because the memories are too painful. Now she lives with her uncle in Freetown. "He's the only family I have," she said.

Winter and her legal administrator, Josephine Buck, a Sierra Leone native from Jacksonville, Fla., who returned in 2007, select the program's participants with help from the Special Court's victim and witness office. Though the court has no authority to compensate victims, judges say that sometimes being acknowledged as a victim is an important first step in the reconciliation. process.

"If a victim can come and say, 'This is my story,' that is very important, especially for the women, who are always blamed for everything that has happened to them," Winter said. "This court has given them a voice. And we tell them that what has happened to them is not their fault."

A new group of war victims will begin learning to make garments in September. But that will be the last class because the Special Court is scheduled to end its Freetown work in a few months, when the final appeals are decided, and both Winter and Buck will be leaving the country. (The trial of former Liberian strongman Charles Taylor will continue for several more years in The Hague.)

For that last class, Winter and Buck plan to select six people. Three of them will be men, a recognition that many were maimed or traumatized by the marauding fighters.

"Justice Winter was a bit apprehensive to include men at first," Buck said. "But believe me, this will work. Many men in Sierra Leone are tailors. And until the war came, men and women were used to working together. They will be fine."


Los Angeles Times Articles