Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Charles Taylor: Punishment vs. Justice

The International Criminal Court (ICC) handed down Charles Taylor's sentence today, 50 years in prison. Mr. Taylor was convicted of multiple charges of aiding and abetting fighters in Sierra Leone during the war there. While the prosecution was unable to prove that Charles Taylor gave direct orders for the atrocities committed, nor did he personally commit violent crimes in Sierra Leone, his funding and participation in the leadership structure did contribute to the violence and atrocities committed.

So now Charles Taylor is going to spend the rest of his life in prison in the UK, barring an appeal (said to be forthcoming) and the overturning of his conviction. So imagine it, Charles Taylor suffering through beans and toast for breakfast and bangers and mash for dinner. Okay fine maybe that's not what they give you in prison in the UK. But it just doesn't seem fair. Mind you this is entirely speculative, but I imagine that the prisons in the UK are quite nice compared to those in Sierra Leone. Charles Taylor will probably get more square meals per day while imprisoned than the average citizen of either country. He will have electricity, occasional access to telephone and television, and I imagine he might even be segregated from the general population, sparing him some of the worst things that can happen to a person in prison.

So why, despite the fact that this is a landmark conviction, it is the first time a former head of state has been convicted by the ICC while still living, do I feel so dissatisfied? Charles Taylor has been imprisoned, his physical freedom has been taken away, but where does that leave us? True, it avoids the possibility that he will return to West Africa, run for president of Liberia (as was predicted) and return the nation and region to turmoil. But what else? Charles Taylor sitting in jail munching  on marmite sandwiches doesn't help the people in Sierra Leone who lost limbs or parents or children or homes. It doesn't help the children forcibly associated with fighting forces, some of whom have recovered, many of whom continue to struggle, with few skills other than waging war and using drugs, they are a generation who were most powerful and successful during the war, which is dangerous. Unemployed, angry, psychologically scarred young men with access to former leaders of fighting forces, and potentially to arms, are one of the most volatile groups, with the capacity to return country to conflict when they get tired of driving moto-taxis and being looked down upon. Or how does Charles Taylor in jail help the people who were physically disabled during the war, who lost limbs or were blinded? How does it help the girls and women raped by fighting forced? What about those who got pregnant and now are young mothers with no one to support them and children who are products of war and terror.

Punishment is not the same thing as justice. Charles Taylor has been punished, but other than possibly sparing the people of Sierra Leone and Liberia the consequences of his return, there has been no justice. It is common knowledge in Liberia that all those responsible for crimes during the wars cannot face the judicial system, because there would be no one left in government to run the country. Sierra Leone has felt the satisfaction of the acknowledgement of Charles Taylor's role in the conflict, but this was accompanied by the fact that he wasn't in the country. The people who committed crimes against civilians on a day to day basis were not on trial at the ICC.

To quote a friend of mine, there needs to be restitution, not just punishment. How about we take some of Charles Taylor's millions and create scholarships for those affected by the war? What if he funds prostheses for victims of amputation? Money, even to good causes, doesn't fix what happened, but in addition to condoning and perpetuating violence, Charles Taylor stole millions. Since we're punishing him already, and what's he going to do with all that money while in prison anyway, let's redistribute it to some of the people he hurt. Personally, I'd rather he spent his days doing the work to help those people himself, but since that's not possible, I'll settle for his money.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

De anochecer a la alba

It was our last night in the town, where we had been for five days now, getting to know people and collecting data. I came across a boy on the porch of the house where I was staying, he was about 14. During the focus group discussion he had participated in, he emphasized that children living with adults other than their biological parents often are treated unfairly. I sat down on the porch next to him to relax and enjoy the dusk, as the temperature finally started to cool. I asked him what he was doing this evening, and didn't he have any homework? (Encouraging kids to study is pretty much my go-to casual chat.) It was Thursday evening and he said he needed to be back in his hometown by Friday morning. He was walking there with two of his friends.

Me: Is it far? Will it be a long way?
Him: Yes it is about five hours all through the bush.
Me: Ah, for this you have a cutlass? But how will you reach by tomorrow?
Him: We will leave soon when my friends come.
Me: You will walk in the dark? All night?
Him: Yes. I must dig and burn (farming) in the morning, so we walk tonight.
Me: Do you have any food or water to bring with you?
Him: No. 

I go to the room I am sharing with a colleague and find a used plastic water bottle. I fill it with water we have drawn from the hand pump in town. The house I'm staying in drinks water from a nearby creek. I give him the bottle. He smiles and nods. He then asks if I still want to learn some of the local language. He starts naming words, which I struggle to jot down phonetically, along with their definitions. He teaches me the words for animals, body parts, and foods. More children join and help him, laughing at my pronunciation, but encouraging me to continue. 

My female colleague, with whom I am sharing a room, asks if I want dinner. Dinner is leftover lunch, which was dry rice: white rice, oil, onion, chilies, and canned sardines. As we eat, the three teenage boys who will spend the night walking through thick jungle sit and chat, actively not watching us spoon the rice out of one pot into our mouths. It starts to rain. My colleague tells me that she has told the boys (in local language) not to leave until the rain has stopped. The snakes come out when it rains and if one bites them they could die. This is a very real and legitimate fear from what I have heard. During the FGD these boys also told us about men in the bush who can prey on young people or people walking alone, hurting them or killing them to steal body parts for ritual sacrifice. She teases them, asking if they aren't afraid? I ask too, hoping we can scare them into waiting until morning. I stop eating, knowing that these boys will get whatever we don't eat. They take the pot and our used spoons and dig in hungrily, their spoons making loud scraping sounds as they make sure to get every grain of rice and drop of oil.

Two of the boys want to ask me questions, but are shy, worried I won't understand their English, as they often don't understand mine. The boy I was chatting with earlier asks "Why you so light and I so dark?", I don't understand at first, but my colleague repeats in formal English, I shake my head not sure how to answer. "Why you so fine (this just means nice in Liberia) and I so ugly?" I shake my head again, contradicting his assumption. This boy has never left this small region of Liberia. It is likely that I am among the first white people he has ever spoken to; he doesn't have television or access to visual media. So where did he get the idea that being white is good and attractive and black is bad and ugly?

Then this same boy starts to study. I ask him what he is reading and he shows me the book, he is learning about the war here, World Wars 1, 2 and 3 in local speak. I ask him if he will read it to me, so I can learn too. I have forgotten to ask what grade he is in (at 14). He is in third grade, shaking his head, saying he doesn't want to read. Then he asks my colleague to ask me if I will read it. I start, reading slowly and enunciating, there are still many words he doesn't understand. "She must be white! Girl can read!" I read, showing him the book, pausing at words I suspect he may not know (like faction or dissolve), asking if he knows, explaining what they mean. We finish the chapter and start the review questions, he knows none of the answers. I suggest we go back through the chapter, with him reading so he can find them. Rather than skim for key words as I might do, he flips to the beginning of the chapter and begins to read again. He stumbles over words regularly. The vocabulary is far beyond his reading skills, and is not appropriate for his grade, causing him frustration. When he hits a word he doesn't know, he says the letters aloud: fierce - F-I-E-R-C-E. Sometimes he recognizes the sound of the letters in order and identifies the word, but when he doesn't he stops, looking at me. I try to go slowly, covering up parts of words and asking him what sounds the letters make. He and the boys watching are amazed, no one has ever taught them how to sound out words before. I can't imagine learning to read, and only ever being able to read the words someone has taught you, not being able to learn new ones on your own by sounding them out and identifying parts of words you know, can you?

Eventually I go to bed, leaving the boys on their own, laughing among themselves at my reading skills and teasing each other for being dumb. In the morning I hear from my colleagues that the boys left for home late in the night, when the rain let up, but still in the pitch dark. They are all living with relatives in order to attend school, because there is no school where they are from. But, there is no one to plant their fields at home, so they must go home and burn and plant before the season passes. This food goes to feed the family members still in their original villages, and along with their daily labor, pays the families they stay with for their rooms and school supplies.

I wasn't sure what to conclude from this. Is it a lesson in the potentially negative aspects of sending children away from home to live with alternative caregivers? Is it the burden placed on the shoulders of children when a parent has died? Is it the consequences of a lack of access to education? Is it that this boy has been taught, and internalized, that he is inferior to others? Is the lack of transportation? Lack of access to clean water or even a bottle to hold dirty water during a walk that will take hours? Is it that this boy, still a child, is fluent in his own language, but is only taught in a language he doesn't understand, so he is teased? Is it that there is a 14 year-old in 3rd grade, or that a third grader can't read? Or that, at 14 and in 3rd grade, the likelihood he will study for more than another year or two is unlikely? Or is it that he is surely more educated than his parents, which is an accomplishment? 

I'm not sure. But what I can say is that there are people who argue that development doesn't work, that we're getting no where and that it's a waste of money. But I think that (among other things) what those people miss is the impact on individual lives. Every step is an accomplishment, from this boy's desire to study, to his insistence on maintaining his family farm, to his being able to safely move about a county that was once the heart of the war. You can look at the story and feel sad, or you can look at it and see potential and progress. Progress towards education (there is a school where there wasn't one ten years ago), clean water (there is a hand pump in the community, although too far to walk to), he is functionally literate, he has access to land and income, and he wants to learn. 

Additionally, when this research went through an ethics review board, I was asked what the benefit for those participating was, weren't we just taking from them and giving nothing in return? I explained that there are people that no one ever asks for their opinion, and no one ever listens to; child protection concerns (abuse, exploitation, violence, and neglect) aren't the issue of the day, and when children experience them, they often bear them in silence, believing it is their lot in life. Sitting together and discussing the things that make them feel unsafe or insecure and hearing that other children face them too, is beneficial, even if it only lasts for an hour or two. This boy was heard, and then later someone encouraged him to change his actions in order to keep himself safe, because he is important, and he did change, even if only a little, even if only for that day.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Why This Matters

Don't you hate when you get scooped by NPR?


Granted I suppose I could have been live tweeting throughout the reading of the Charles Taylor verdict on Thursday, letting you all know exactly what the reactions were around me in Liberia. Maybe next time I'm in a country where the former president is on trial for crimes against humanity.


Charles Taylor was on trial for five years, at the Special Court for Sierra Leone. The trial was held at the Hague rather than in Sierra Leone because there was a fear that the trial and verdict could cause instability, among other reasons. After hearing the verdict, a friend and I were discussing the case over lunch, imagining what it would be like if the trial had been held in Freetown, Sierra Leone. And we both decided it would have been chaos. Even with the trial a continent away, people in Monrovia were decorating the road from the airport and getting ready for Taylor's return. Someone I work with told me that that morning, before the verdict, someone was wearing a shirt proclaiming Taylor's guilt, and a crowd chases him until the police had to escort him away for his own safety.


I have been doing my own casual research here to get a sense of how people here felt about the coming verdict, before it was handed down. One person told me that there were lots of supporters still, which after being in Nimba county, which didn't surprise me. I asked him why, and he explained that some of the people are too young to really remember what happened during the war. They remember leaving their homes, they remember how chaotic things were, and they remember Taylor coming out victorious. They don't know or remember what he actually did, and still see him as a powerful leader who represents the best of Liberia. Another person told me that he hoped Taylor would come back, because there is no strong authority in Liberia today. He said that if Charles Taylor came back he could say "Everyone stop robbing cars on highways, and if you don't I will find you" and everyone would obey him. There is no one today who can control and lead the Liberian people.


From my personal perspective, I think that part of it also has to do with the pace of development, and what people expected versus what has materialized. Democracy is often promoted and pursued as though it is a solution, rather than a path. With democracy people have a voice, if they choose to use it, and are allowed to do so freely. However participatory government doesn't actually speed up the development process from what I can see. People in Monrovia may see roads being built, or Ma Ellen (Sirleaf Johnson) passing down Tubman Blvd on her way home from work, but tangible differences in the lives of most Liberians are small. The war is over, but food is more expensive, most people still don't have access to power, pump their water from wells if they're lucky, use hand dug latrines, and if they send their children to school, it's a gamble as to whether there will be enough books and their teachers will be present. So when looking back on the war, things were unstable, but someone was obviously in charge who was promising to make it better. Now someone says Liberians should work together, pay their taxes to contribute to growing Mama Liberia. No one is promising quick fixes, and if you believe that those exist, maybe Charles Taylor, who was apparently extraordinary charismatic, sounded like he promised a better future. When your leader only promises what the country can actually do or slightly more, the future does not seem quite so bright perhaps, and leaves you longing for the days of big hopes and grand gestures, when the government was changing and drastic improvements seemed like a possibility. Maybe when you've grown up in constant instability, calm seems too boring, and change seems too slow. Or maybe Charles Taylor (papay – what older men are called in Liberia), who won an election with the slogan "I killed your ma, I killed you pa, but you still love me," (or something to that effect), is simply a hero to many Liberians, and a kind of hero whose star doesn't dim simply because another country is try to use his as a scapegoat for the violence they perpetrated against themselves. Or so I've heard.

But I think most important is that Charles Taylor would have come back to Liberia if he hadn't been convicted. His ex-wife is a senator, and I highly doubt he would have been able to stay away from politics; he would have been elected. And from there who can say what would happen, whether he would have reached the presidency (whether the UN Mission In Liberia would have allowed him to). Whether the growing economy would have taken a hit, for fear that conflict would begin again; whether some NGOs would have left for the same reason. Whether old resentments would have felt more fresh with him in the country. It's impossible to know the potentially destabilizing effect his return could have cause. But this verdict matters because it means that even with money and power and the love of your people, another country can hold you accountable for your crimes. This verdict matters because it allows Liberia to stay the course, however slow it may appear to some, towards development. No one has ever been punished for the crimes committed during the war in Liberia, referred to locally as World War 1, World War 2, and World War 3. No one has been punished, because those in charge of punishment are also the ones who would be punished. But this verdict matters because, while the risk of future conflict has not disappeared, at least it will not occur at the hands of Charles Taylor, at least not any time soon.

P.S. I'm home! But have no phone because my luggage got lost.