Kailahun, Sierra Leone — Greetings from a war zone that’s not Iraq. And not Afghanistan either.
I’m checking in from West Africa, where I’ve been working with women in three neighboring countries, all recently torn apart by civil wars: Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Côte d’Ivoire. The Iraq debacle has monopolized attention and obscured these "lesser" wars — now officially "over" — but millions of West African women are struggling to recover. For them, the war isn’t really over at all, not by a long shot. This is the war story that’s never truly told. Let me explain.
Surely you remember these conflicts. Liberia’s war came in three successive waves lasting 14 years altogether, from 1989 to 2003. Sierra Leone’s war started in 1991 when guerillas of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) of Sierra Leone, trained in Liberia, invaded their own country. The war drew many players and lasted until January 2002, a decade in all. In Côte d’Ivoire, a civil war started in 2002 when northern rebels attempted a coup to oust President Laurent Gbagbo, but by that time the international community had decided to act to prevent any further destabilization of the region. French, African, and later UN peacekeepers stepped in and a treaty was signed in 2003.
So, officially, these countries are no longer "war zones." Accords have been signed. Peacekeeping forces are on duty or close at hand. The UN and international aid agencies are assisting "recovery." Some arms have been surrendered; some refugees have returned from exile. Some men are making mud bricks and building huts to replace the spacious houses of embossed concrete and tile that once graced towns and villages throughout the region. Officially, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Côte d’Ivoire are now designated "post-conflict zones," but they are so fractured, so traumatized, and — especially in the cases of Liberia and Sierra Leone — so devastated and impoverished that they cannot be said to be securely at peace either. Sierra Leone has replaced Afghanistan as the poorest country on the planet and, like Afghanistan, it is a nation of widows.
Visit one of these countries and you’ll see for yourself that, at best, real peace will take a long, slow time to come. The destruction in Sierra Leone’s Kailahun District, for instance, is as shocking as anything I ever saw in the devastated Afghan capital, Kabul. UN officials and an array of international aid organizations like to use the term "post-conflict" for such places in such moments. It sounds vaguely hopeful, even if it designates a desperate place embarked on a difficult period of "recovery" that may or may not be recognizable after a decade or two, or even a generation or two, as peace.
That’s what our leaders don’t bother to mention (possibly don’t even grasp) when they talk blithely about war and peace as if they were simply opposite sides of the same coin, attained with equal ease with a heads-or-tails flip. Any fool can start a war swiftly with a shock and awe assault — as George Bush did from the air in Iraq or the RUF did on the ground in Sierra Leone — but peace is no sudden acquisition.
Just last month, the Special Court for Sierra Leone in The Hague resumed proceedings begun last June against Charles Taylor, the charming American-educated sociopath and former president of Liberia. Taylor faces 11 charges for war crimes related to matters including terrorizing civilians, murder, rape, sexual slavery, amputations, and enslavement. These atrocities were committed not against his own country but against his neighbor. It was Taylor who backed RUF rebels as they terrorized the populace and augmented their numbers by abducting civilians.
Both Taylor and RUF leader Foday Sankoh reportedly received tactical training in Libya from Muammar Gaddafi, who aimed to disrupt the West African region. Yet these wars were largely not about ideology or even politics. They were about greed, about the power to control and exploit the natural resources of the region — Liberia’s primal rain forests and especially Sierra Leone’s "blood diamonds." Political scientists and military historians may eventually advance other theories to explain these wars — though they’ll be hard pressed to find any redeeming features, any "just cause" — but West Africans will tell you that they took place simply because a few "bad, bad men" craved power and wealth. When Foday Sankoh’s RUF forces invaded Sierra Leone, they numbered no more than 150 men, but what they started laid waste to a promising country.
Here’s what I want to remind you of, though: When you think about these men who start wars, remember what they’ve done not to soldiers on either side, but to civilian populations — especially to women. Today, it is civilians who are by far the most numerous casualties of war. Each successive conflict of recent times has recorded a greater proportion of civilians displaced, exiled, assaulted, tortured, wounded, maimed, killed, or disappeared. In every modern war, most of the suffering civilians are women and children.
In many wars, maimed and dead civilians are counted (if at all) merely as "collateral damage" — like the estimated 3,000 innocent citizens who died in the initial American bombing of Afghanistan in 2001. In the West African wars, civilians became the designated targets. Foday Sankoh intended to conquer Sierra Leone, but having only 150 fighters, he resorted to forcible recruitment. Like Charles Taylor’s forces in Liberia, Sankoh’s destroyed whole villages, murdering most of the residents and taking away only those who might serve them as soldiers, porters, cooks, or "wives." Again, many of the dead and most of the abducted were women and children.
And here’s a little-known reality: When any conflict of this sort officially ends, violence against women continues and often actually grows worse. Not surprisingly, murderous aggression cannot be turned off overnight. When men stop attacking one another, women continue to be convenient targets. Here in West Africa, as in so many other places where rape was used as a weapon of war, it has become a habit carried seamlessly into the "post-conflict" era. Where normal structures of law enforcement and justice have been disabled by war, male soldiers and civilians alike can prey upon women and children with impunity. And they do.
So I’m writing to you, here in "post-conflict" West Africa, from an active war zone. I’m writing from the heart of the war against women and children.
Listen to this report from Amnesty International. It describes the least of the West African wars, the relatively short civil war in Côte d’Ivoire:
"The scale of rape and sexual violence in Côte d’Ivoire in the course of the armed conflict has been largely underestimated. Many women have been gang-raped or have been abducted and reduced to sexual slavery by fighters. Rape has often been accompanied by the beating or torture (including torture of a sexual nature) of the victim… All armed factions have perpetrated and continue to perpetrate sexual violence with impunity."
Human Rights Watch points out that "cases of sexual abuse may be significantly underreported," because women fear "the possibility of reprisals by perpetrators… ostracism by families and communities, and cultural taboos."
The Amnesty report documents case after case of girls and women, aged "under 12" to 63, assaulted by armed men. The more recent and thoroughgoing report by Human Rights Watch records the rape of children as young as three years-old. During the civil war, women and girls were seized in their village homes or at military roadblocks, or were discovered hiding in the bush. Some were raped in public. Some were raped in front of their husbands and children. Some were forced to witness the murder of husbands or parents. Then they were taken away to soldiers’ camps to be held along with many other women. They were forced to cook for the soldiers during the day and every night they were gang-raped, in some cases by 30 to 40 men. They were also beaten and tortured. They saw women who resisted being beaten or killed by a simple slicing of the throat.
Many women were raped so incessantly and so brutally — with sticks, knives, gun barrels, burning coals — that they died. Many others were left with injuries and pain that still linger long after the war. Many who had been scarred as girls by "excision" or FMG (female genital mutilation) were literally ripped apart.
The Amnesty report coolly says: "The brutality of rape frequently causes serious physical injuries that require long-term and complex treatment including uterine prolapses (the descent of the uterus into the vagina or beyond)" — one has to wonder what lies "beyond" the vagina — "vesico-vaginal or recto-vaginal fistulas and other injuries to the reproductive system or rectum, often accompanied by internal and external bleeding or discharge." It notes that such women usually can’t "access the medical care they need." Some still find it hard to sit down, or stand up, or walk. Some still spit up blood. Some have lost their eyesight or their memories. Some miscarried. Many contracted sexually transmitted diseases and HIV. No one knows how many of them died, or are dying, as a result.
And many are still missing, perhaps dragged across borders when rogue militias from a neighboring country went home. Perhaps slaughtered along the way.
War and Its Sequel
Historically, women have long been counted among "the spoils of war," free for the taking; but, in our own time, women in large numbers have also been pawns in deliberate military and political strategies intended to humiliate the men to whom they "belong" and to exterminate their ethnic groups. (Think of Bosnia.) The Amnesty report traces the wholesale violence against women in Côte d’Ivoire to December 2000 when a number of women were arrested, raped, and tortured at the government’s Police Training School in Dioula — because their presumed ethnicity and political affiliation allied them with the opposition. According to Human Rights Watch, this was but one of many such cases incited by government-sponsored propaganda before the civil war even began.
No man responsible for any of these crimes has ever been brought to justice.
Next door in Liberia, by the time fighting ended in 2002, 1.4 million Liberians had been displaced within the country. Almost a million others had fled. In a country of three million people, that’s one in three citizens gone. At least 270,000 people died. That’s nearly 10% of the population. And here again the easy targets were women. A World Health Organization study in 2005 estimated that a staggering 90% of Liberian women had suffered physical or sexual violence; three out of four had been raped.
Typically, ending the war did not end the violence against women. A study in preparation by the International Rescue Committee — the organization for which I currently work as a volunteer — and Columbia University’s School of Public Health concludes, "While the war officially ended in 2003, the war on women continued."
Well over half the women interviewed in two Liberian counties, including the capital city, Monrovia, had survived at least one violent physical attack during an 18- month period in 2006-2007, years after the conflict had officially ended. Well over half the women reported at least one violent sexual assault in the same period. Seventy-two percent said their husbands had forced them to have sex against their will. A 2003 IRC study among Liberian refugees in Sierra Leone found that 75% of the women had been sexually violated before they fled their country; after they fled, 55% were sexually assaulted again.
For women, war is not over when it’s over.
Women Like Me
Countless women will never recover from the assaults they suffered during the war. I met many such women in Liberia.
On a visit I made to Kolahun, in Lofa County, where fighting had been heavy, one showed me her scars: a series of parallel horizontal ridges starting just below one ear and moving toward the throat. Some guerilla in Charles Taylor’s army had locked this whisper of a woman against his chest and slowly, inch by inch, laid open the flesh of her neck in ribbons of blood. But that wasn’t all. Taylor’s men had broken all the fingers of her left hand so that they now point backwards at seemingly impossible angles. They slammed her back so forcefully with rifle butts that one leg and one arm (the one with the useless hand) are now paralyzed. She can still walk, leaning on a homemade wooden crutch; but that leaves her without a good arm, and she can’t carry anything on her head, having lost the ability to balance. She has five children, some of them fathered by rape. The soldiers held her a long time. How many raped her she cannot say.
In the tiny village of Dougoumai I met a woman people refer to only as "the sick lady." She lay on a bed in a one-room mud-brick house. As I came in, she managed to sit up with great difficulty, using her twisted hands to move her swollen, useless legs. Her sister says she was captured by a militia fighting against Charles Taylor and gang-raped repeatedly by ten men. Nobody can say how long they kept her. They rammed their gun butts into her back — evidently a common technique — paralyzing her legs. She cannot walk. They smashed her hands. She cannot hold anything or feed herself or comb her hair. Her mother and two sisters, who luckily survived the war, feed her by hand, their lives too now dominated by the consequences of the violence done to this woman.
Recently the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the UN Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) surveyed surviving women in Lofa County, the center of Charles Taylor’s operations. More than 98% said that, during his war (1999-2003), they lost their homes; more than 90%, their livelihoods; more than 72%, at least one family member. Nearly 90% of them survived at least one violent physical assault; more than half, at least one violent sexual assault. No one inquired about the number of women now caring for the permanently disabled.
In Sierra Leone, where terrorizing the civilian population was the main tactic of war, the violence against women and children was, as Human Rights Watch has reported, even more brutal. All parties to the conflict committed countless atrocities. Official reports document appalling crimes: fathers forced to rape their own daughters; brothers forced to rape their sisters; boy soldiers gang-raping old women, then chopping off their arms; pregnant women eviscerated alive and the living fetus snatched from the womb to satisfy soldiers betting on its sex. A brother is hacked to death and eviscerated; his heart and liver are placed in the hands of his 18-year-old sister who is commanded to eat them. She refuses. She is taken to a place where other women are being held. Among them is her sister. She sees her sister and other women murdered. Their heads are placed in her lap. These crimes, which violate primal taboos, aim to destroy not just individual victims but a whole culture as well; yet the individual victims are important in their own right, and in most cases they are women and children.
Perhaps the worst crime of the bad, bad men has been turning children — mostly boys — into armed guerillas as bad as themselves. In his bestselling autobiography A Long Way Gone, Ishmael Beah vividly describes his life as a boy soldier. Separated from his family by the war, he was captured by soldiers in the army of Sierra Leone, trained to fight, kept high on drugs (as all soldiers were), and forced to kill. When boy soldiers begin to rape and murder girls and women willingly at the instigation of men, civilization has collapsed.
Crimes Against Women
In recent years, every kind of horror has been inflicted on girls and women in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Côte d’Ivoire because they are female. If females were a particular ethnic group — Albanians, let’s say, or Tutsis — or if they espoused a particular religion, as did Bosnian Muslims, we could recognize what goes on as a kind of "gender cleansing" or mass femicide. But we don’t speak of crimes against women in that way. When did you last hear someone speak of "crimes against women" at all?
Interviewed for a TV documentary on mass rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a smiling guerrilla says he’s "made love" to many women. The interviewer asks if all the women were willing, and he laughs. He admits that many fight him, and he says — still grinning — "If they are strong, I call my friends to help me." Despite his use of euphemisms, he knows just what he’s doing. When the interviewer labels his love-making "rape," he typically insists that rape happens in wartime and that when the war is over, he won’t do it anymore. The state of war excuses men’s crimes against women because rape — so the claim goes — is something that just naturally occurs in war.
The war against women in West Africa and elsewhere is different from other wars — whether driven by ideology, politics, greed, or personal ambition — in that every faction, every side, makes war on women. They all abduct and rape and force women to labor. They all murder women. In West Africa, only the Civil Defense Forces (CDF) in Sierra Leone refrained for a considerable time from rape. They were traditional hunters, recruited by the government to defend their own areas from the rebels. Their customs kept them from sexual intercourse, believed to deplete a warrior’s power, and they operated close to home, where they were known; but, as the war went on, they, too, began to act like all the other fighters. Their initial restraint was important, however, offering evidence that rape does not have to be something that "just happens" in war, but is instead an elective, wildly popular choice.
After war, in the "post-conflict" era, even some international peacekeepers have joined the war against women. Human Rights Watch and others have documented cases of rape by peacekeeping soldiers in West Africa, but none have been prosecuted. Perpetrators are simply repatriated or moved to a new post. Human Rights Watch also reports on the widespread practice among peacekeepers of using children who have turned to prostitution to survive. (There are few other options for girls who have been orphaned or rejected by their families, and many of these child prostitutes had already been used as sex slaves during wartime.) But apparently the peacekeepers recruit many girls themselves.
Here in Kailahun District, the place where the Sierra Leone war started and ended, women are upset and angry about the sexual exploitation of their adolescent daughters. Parents in this part of the country — many of them war widows — take seriously the advice to send their daughters to school, which costs more than most can easily afford. If a girl student becomes pregnant, she is required by law to drop out. (Consider the impact on a small village struggling to recover from war of the loss of even a few prospective teachers, nurses, or social workers.) If the father of the expected child is a fellow student, he can continue his studies, denying all responsibility. Often, however, it’s not the boys who are to blame. Many still-virginal girls drop out of school early to escape predatory teachers, and women report that the incidence of teen pregnancy drops when peacekeeping forces leave town.
Even then, however, rape and child rape continue, largely unabated. It’s hard to tell with certainty just how high this is, because raped women and girls are normally too shamed by the crime to report it. In war time, it was somewhat easier because they had so clearly been forced by armed men; with the war "over," rape once again becomes a woman’s own fault. Nonetheless, angry parents in this region of Sierra Leone, increasingly report child rape to authorities. Here in Kailahun District, women mobilized to force the local magistrate to hear the case of a 7-year-old rape victim. The magistrate, apparently related to the admitted perpetrator, had prevented prosecution by postponing his trial, again and again.
Domestic violence — wife-beating, marital rape, emotional abuse, torture, economic deprivation, and the like — is common. Impoverished women with many children to feed have no choice but to endure "normal" levels of violence. But as in wartime, habitual violence invites the thrill of excess. Just the other day, a man in Moyamba District killed his wife and cut off her head.
Bad Men Make Good
For bad, bad men, terrorizing civilians holds advantages — beyond the immediate gratification of the rush of power. Such acts can land them important posts in government. When atrocities become sufficiently conspicuous and horrific — such as the notorious amputations of arms and legs in Sierra Leone — the international community steps in to initiate a peace process. Usually they bring to the negotiating table all the bad, bad men who have been causing so much trouble and buy them off with positions of power in a new "interim" or "transitional" government. Witness, in another part of the world where women are notoriously badly treated, all those well-known warlords the Afghan people wanted tried for war crimes who somehow wound up in President Hamid Karzai’s cabinet, or — after elections advertised as democratic — in parliament.
Foday Sankoh had been condemned to death for treason when he was summoned to just such peace negotiations. From them, he emerged as the head of the government commission in charge of managing Sierra Leone’s natural resources, including the diamonds that financed his war. Charles Taylor, while committing mayhem and rape in refugee camps for displaced persons, was elected president of Liberia. Voters seemed to figure, as battered women often do, that the best way to stop the man’s violence was to let him have his way, though this is a path to certain disaster.
Bad, bad men are quick to learn from the rapid advancement of their brothers elsewhere. Laurent Kunda in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), widely recognized as a prime candidate for trial before a war crimes tribunal, is now said to be jockeying for a high position in the government of the DRC in exchange for laying down his arms. The current rapid descent of Kenya into "tribal warfare" owes much to the same theory. Raila Odingo, having lost a clearly suspect presidential election, exploits genocidal violence with good reason to hope that international intervention will usher him into office by the back door.
Although UN Security Council Resolution 1325 calls for women to be included in all peace processes, they are rarely invited to the table. With men in charge of governments almost everywhere, the fearful fascination with bad, bad men continues and the perverse preference for predators trickles down. In Sierra Leone, ex-combatants were rewarded with motorcycles. The theory was that violent young men would be less dangerous if they could serve a useful purpose and make some money carrying passengers on brand new highly-chromed bikes in a country where most cars had been torched. The result? Every public square in the dodgiest districts of Sierra Leone is now dominated by a motorcycle gang consisting mainly of young men already surely skilled in the sexual exploitation of girls. Perhaps in the end, the transport scheme will work out; but in Sierra Leone most women and girls still walk.
Here in Kailahun District, women tell the story — possibly apocryphal — of an old woman who was huddled over her cook fire when RUF rebels entered her village. She was frying some tasty frogs. Rebels surrounded her, peering into the pot to see what she was cooking, and one of them said: "We are freedom fighters of the Revolutionary United Front. We have come to save you from the government." The old woman — unafraid — replied: "Then you must go to the capital. The government is not in my pot." Women in Kailahun District tell that story over and over, and they laugh every time. They are so proud of that lone, bold, old woman who told those rebel men off. That’s the spirit of survival, still alive in them, though they must know that the rebels probably shot the woman and ate her frogs.
[Note on sources: A number of the reports discussed in this piece, all PDF files, can be read on-line: Amnesty International, "Targeting Women"; Human Rights Watch, "'My Heart Is Cut': Sexual Violence by Rebels and Pro-Government Forces in Côte d'Ivoire; The World Health Organization; The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the UN Fund for Population Activities, "Women's Reproductive Health in Liberia, The Lofa County Reproductive Health Survey"; Human Rights Watch, "'We'll Kill You If You Cry': Sexual Violence in the Sierra Leone Conflict"; UN Resolution 1325.]
Writer/photographer Ann Jones is working as a volunteer with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) on a special project for their Gender-Based Violence (read: Violence Against Women) unit called "A Global Crescendo: Women’s Voices from Conflict Zones." Her blogs about the project can be found by clicking here. She is the author, most recently, of Kabul in Winter: Life Without Peace in Afghanistan (Metropolitan Books), a report from another war that’s not over.
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The End of Victory Culture (University of Massachusetts Press), which has just been thoroughly updated in a newly issued edition that deals with victory culture's crash-and-burn sequel in Iraq.]