FREETOWN, Sierra Leone – Amputees still struggling to lead normal lives years after being mutilated by rebels in Sierra Leone hailed the decision at The Hague on Wednesday to sentence the man who backed those rebels, ex-Liberian President Charles Taylor, to 50 years in prison.
In a landmark ruling by the Special Court on Sierra Leone last month, Taylor became the first former head of state since the aftermath of World War II to be convicted. The 64-year-old Taylor was found guilty on 11 counts of aiding and abetting the Revolutionary United Front rebels in Sierra Leone, who murdered and mutilated tens of thousands of people during this country's 11-year brutal civil war which ended in 2002.
People maimed in the war gathered in the Sierra Leonean capital Wednesday to watch the proceedings of the Taylor trial via a live feed from The Hague, and rejoiced when judges in The Netherlands announced the 50-year sentence.
"That makes me the happiest person on earth," said Alimami Kanu, whose right hand was hacked off by the RUF when he was 11 years old.
Siah Lebby, whose left leg was butchered by the rebels, said the tough sentence sends a strong signal. "After they have seen, they have seen what happened, all the people who want to do bad things again will be afraid."
But even the toughest sentence cannot take away the deformities that people are now forced to live with, or their suffering. Over the weekend in the town of Makeni, three women whose arms were amputated by the rebels called for Taylor to be given no leniency. The town located 140 kilometers (90 miles) northeast of Freetown was once the base of the RUF rebel forces operating under Taylor.
"He has done bad things to us," said 22-year-old amputee Sento Thoronka of Taylor, as she attempted to cut weeds this weekend using only her right arm. Her left arm was hacked off. "There is nothing someone can say to me that will ever make me forget what he did, because when I look at myself I look odd. I'll never feel fine about that," she said.
Taylor is an ex-warlord whose rebel forces invaded Liberia in 1989, marking the start of that country's vicious civil war. He eventually ran and was elected president, before being forced out by another rebel group. In Liberia, which shares a border with Sierra Leone, the irony has always been that Taylor is being tried for crimes he aided and abetted, rather than the ones that he is accused of directly carrying out in his own country.
In the Liberian capital of Monrovia, Suzanah Vaye watched the proceedings and hailed the sentence. Her husband was killed during the last days of Taylor's government in 2003. He was last seen in the hands of the ex-president's security force.
"Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that justice in one place is justice everywhere," said Vaye. "Had Taylor not been so cruel to his own people here, he would not have taken it elsewhere. Today, I join Sierra Leoneans in saying this should be a lesson to people that God has his own way of bringing judgment ... Let this be a lesson to leaders that no one is bigger than God."
Still, Taylor also remains popular in Liberia among his former supporters, and among his extended family.
"The sentence is outrageous," said Arthur Saye, Taylor's brother-in-law, in Monrovia. "How can you give a man fifty years for only aiding and abetting."
Associated Press writer Jonathan Paye-Layleh contributed to this report from Monrovia, Liberia.