Three former rebel leaders awaiting judgment on war crimes charges could become the first convicted of an offence that is new to international law and can now be applied in future tribunals of forced marriage.
During Sierra Leone’s civil war, thousands of women are said to have been abducted and forced to become “bush wives” to rebel commanders. This year, the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone ruled that their experiences constituted a crime distinct from those – such as rape and sexual slavery – that are already recognised as war crimes.
“You couldn’t describe it as only a sex crime,” said Stephen Raap, the lead prosecutor, explaining that women were also forced to perform such duties as cooking, cleaning and maintaining the camp.
“They were referred to as wives,” he said. “It was being [seen] as a husband and wife, as a conjugal relationship. Conjugal is more than a sexual relationship.”
Many women bore children to the commanders who forced them into marriage, and they continue to bear the stigma of being so closely associated with the rebels, Mr Raap said.
Judges are deciding whether Issa Sesay, Morris Kallon and Augustine Gbao, all former leaders of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), are guilty of an array of war crimes, including forced marriage.
“There is the possibility that come November or December we will have the first convictions,” Mr Raap said.
Marion Kargbo agreed that forced marriage should be prosecuted as a separate crime, but a conviction would provide her little comfort.
She said she and other women who were abducted and forced to become bush wives were given little, if any, assistance when the war ended in 2002. And when they returned home, they were rejected by family and friends who accused them of being rebels.
Ms Kargbo said she still suffers emotional trauma from her experience, which began the day she was abducted by rebel soldiers.
On Jan 6 1999, members of the RUF joined an invasion of Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, led by the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council, another rebel group. Soldiers came to her house and demanded her mother give them one of the children. Her mother consented and took Ms Kargbo, then 18, to their commander.
“On the way I started to cry, and I asked mother why,” Ms Kargbo said. “She said, ‘Well, they asked for a child, and if I don’t they will kill us’.”
Later that day, during a forced march to another town, seven rebel soldiers attacked her.
“At that time I was a virgin. They raped me, and I started to bleed,” she said.
A rebel commander called C O Papa then claimed Ms Kargbo as his wife. “We stayed together like husband and wife,” she said. “C O Papa didn’t allow any other men to touch me again – only him.”
Soon after Ms Kargbo became pregnant she managed to escape. But her troubles were far from over.
She had been sent to the town of Makeni to buy supplies when she ran into a government soldier she knew before the war. She begged him to rescue her, and he took her to a house where he and some other soldiers were living, along with a few women. But the soldiers treated the women badly, she said, withholding food and beating them.
She convinced her friend to leave with her, and they walked to a neighbouring town. She wanted to return to her family in Freetown, but he refused to accompany her, so she set out on her own.
By the time Ms Kargbo made it to Freetown, months later, she was seriously ill from drinking tainted water. But her homecoming was anything but sympathetic.
“My family rejected me,” she said. “They said I am a rebel. Even my mother denied me and told me to leave this place.”
Destitute, with nowhere to turn, a friend told her about Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE), which was helping female victims of the war. The group provided her with medical treatment, counselling and job training, as well as mediating the conflict with her mother.
Ms Kargbo and her daughter now live with her mother. But she said other members of her family still refuse to speak to her.
Eileen Hanciles, FAWE’s national co-ordinator, said the fate of bush wives is one of the most shameful legacies of the postwar relief effort. While former fighters received financial and training packages in exchange for turning in their weapons, Ms Kargbo and other bush wives were excluded from the UN’s disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration process.
“These are the girls who were left to fend for themselves,” Ms Hanciles said. “We betrayed them. We left them behind.”
A 2003 study by Physicians for Human Rights estimated that 250,000 women and girls (33 per cent of the female population) were subjected to sexual violence during Sierra Leone’s decade-long civil war.
After the war, their rebel “husbands” also abandoned them, she said. “They just took their money and went. The kind of package we had at the end of the war meant these people took no responsibility.”
The special court is trying only the leaders of armed groups, including those who fought on the government side. Field commanders and other fighters are exempt from international justice.
Ms Hanciles said she hoped making forced marriage a war crime could serve as a deterrent in future conflicts. But even if the court decides to convict the RUF leaders, it will be a hollow victory for those who have lived through forced marriages.
Ms Kargbo said the man who made her his bush wife was killed during the war. But there are plenty of other commanders who should be charged with the same crime, she said.
“Some of these men, they should not go free like that because they know what they have done in this war,” she said. “They should face [justice] in this court.”
By Jared Ferrie
Source: The National – 19 August 2008