Sentencing of a warlord who scarred a nation

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Charles Taylor listens to his sentencing
Charles Taylor listens to his sentencing Photo: REUTERS/United Photos

Which of the many atrocious acts committed with his support will come to define Charles Taylor’s years of tyranny?

Will it be the slicing open of pregnant women to settle bets about the sex of their children? Perhaps the enduring pain lived every moment, every day by those who had their limbs hacked away? Or will it be the generation of child soldiers, robbed of innocence, forced to terrorise, rape, mutilate and murder.

As the former Liberian president was sentenced to fifty years in jail today - probably a British jail - many of those gruesome crimes were described. For those horrified to hear the length and content of this list, consider that it is nowhere near as exhaustive as the list of those charges that were never pursued due to the constraints of the court and the clamour for justice.

A young man has the initials of the Revolutionary United Front marked in his chest and his ear cut off Credit: Reuters

Taylor was sentenced after being found guilty of arming and funding a rebel army and of trading diamonds for guns in neighbouring Sierra Leone. That made him responsible for “aiding and abetting” war crimes – what the presiding judge described as “some of the most heinous crimes recorded in human history”.

Hearing those details did not move Taylor, not one bit. After all, he thrived on his status as an unstoppable warlord. This is a man who ran for office with the unofficial slogan “He killed my ma, he killed my pa, but I’ll vote for him” - a message that was chilling but perfect.

Today, once again, he proved himself to be a man without mercy, without fear and without remorse. His defence lawyers scrambled to find mitigating factors. There were few. He will almost certainly now die in jail.

However, there was delight in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, a country which Taylor never entered but which he tormented by remote control. For many people there, the end of Taylor’s trial means the end of his long age of impunity.

Over the past few days some have told reporters that despite their cheer, they wanted to see more of Taylor's side-kicks being brought to justice.

Others said that it is time to move on, a moment for the nation to enter its adulthood.

A Sierra Leonean girl who had her hand amputated by RUF rebels in January 1999 sleeps in a refugee camp in Freetown Credit: Reuters

Regardless, Sierra Leone is changing. Oil workers rather than aid workers stream in to a place where the healing of the horrors of war has been helped by the impact of a massive economic boom.

It is a country that is moving up, but moving on will be more difficult. Can those who wept in court as they described the crimes they were subjected to more than a decade ago simply discard their past? Of course, they cannot.