''All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing'' - Edmund Burke


S I E R R A  H E R A L D

Vol XI No 2

The tendency sometimes to protect perpetrators for the sake of peace...doesn't help society. Impunity should not be allowed to stand. - Kofi Annan on Waki report

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Rape and Sexual Assault

Throughout the January offensive RUF forces perpetrated systematic, organized, and widespread sexual violence against girls and women including individual and gang-rape, sexual assault with objects such as sticks and firewood, and sexual slavery. These sexual crimes were most often characterized by extraordinary brutality and frequently preceded or followed by violent acts against other family members.

Human Rights Watch took testimonies from over fifty girls and women who were sexually abused by the rebels during the January incursion. And, while it is impossible to determine the precise number of victims, doctors and counselors report having treated several hundred girls and women for the physical and psychological effects of sexual abuse perpetrated by the rebels during this time. One Sierra Leonean human rights group registered 255 cases of rape, but believes this number to be a serious underestimation given cultural factors which lead to underreporting.64 A doctor working within a camp for those displaced by the January fighting said he treated at least twenty-five women for vaginal bleeding resulting from rape, most of whom were girls between the ages of twelve and fifteen, and scores of other rape victims.65

While some of the victims interviewed were raped within their homes, most report having been rounded together up with other girls at gunpoint and taken to houses and buildings which, during the occupation, served as rebel bases and command centers. The girls and women were rounded up from their homes, as they were fleeing, and from centers of refuge such as mosques, churches, and camps for displaced people. Once with the rebels in these bases, nearly all victims described witnessing the sexual abuse of other girls and young women also being held there. Following the abuse, some victims were allowed to go home, but ordered to report back to the rebel base the following day or be murdered.

Once captive the victims were frequently shared and divided among the combatants who would rape them on a daily basis for anywhere from one day to several weeks. Of the victims interviewed by Human Rights Watch, over half reported being raped by more than one combatant. The victims often reported being kept locked up in a room with many other girls and taken out only to cook, do laundry, and fetch water. The rebels frequently told the victims they would be taken to the bush and made into a rebel wife and indeed young girls and women made up the majority of the hundreds of civilians witnessed to have been later abducted as the rebels retreated out of Freetown.

It is difficult to know what percentage of girls and women abducted by the rebels are sexually abused while being held behind rebel lines. However, several girls who've managed to escape say the percentage is very high. Those who remain within the rebel ranks most often become attached to one rebel who then refers to her as his rebel wife. Many become pregnant, have children and remain with the rebels for years. Several girls and women abducted during January described pairing up and attaching themselves to one rebel so as to avoid gang-rape, be given a degree of protection, and be subjected to less hardship.66

The organized way in which victims frequently described being rounded up and taken, and the number of rebels participating in these abductions, suggests an element of premeditation and planning on the part of the RUF command. Victims frequently described being taken by rebel patrols of from two to seven combatants who clearly stated their intent to sexually abuse them. That some of these patrols were being led by rebels referring to themselves as commanders, that victims often described being sexually abused by or in the presence of men referred to as commanders, and that some victims were told they had been selected specifically to be given to a commander, suggests some of the sexual abuse was indeed perpetrated under the direction of and with the consent of members of the RUF hierarchy. Human Rights Watch was able to document only one instance of a rebel commander stopping a rape, which occurred within a hospital when a combatant attempted to rape a female nurse.67

Marie, sixteen, was fleeing the fighting in central Freetown with three other girls on January 7 when she ran into a patrol of five heavily armed rebels. She and her companions were then abducted and taken to a rebel house where they were gang-raped for three days. She said:

The rebels put us in a room and told us to wait. A few minutes later they took out my friend and then four of them came back in the room. They were all big men, at least twenty-five or thirty. They told me to undress. I refused and told them I was a virgin, that it was not right in the eyes of God to rape a virgin and that it would effect me for the rest of my life. One of them slapped me hard on the face while the others hit me with their guns. One said, shut up. We don't care if you're a virgin. We've already done so many, why should you be an exception. Then another one said, Aif she refuses let's just bring her out naked and put her under a firing squad. I started crying and crying; I was so frightened.

Then while a few of them started ripping my clothes off, another one went behind me and bit me leaving a huge wound on my back. I was then pushed down to the ground. I was still crying so the one who'd slapped me took a rag and tied my mouth. I could hardly breath. Then the first one forced open my legs and raped me. The four of them spent two hours with me and each raped me at least twice. I was so ashamed. I was bleeding so much and when they finally undid my mouth I begged them to leave me but they told me to shut up and that they would use me until they were satisfied. I spent three days in that house.68

Rebels rounded up seven girls from their street in the evening of January 13 and brought them to a command center in Kissy. All of the girls reported being raped. One of them, Saramba, thirteen, described what happened :

We were hiding under the bed when they came but they eventually found us. They ordered me, my sister Sarah and friend Sia to follow them to a truck. A few minutes later we picked up four more girls being held by another group of rebels. They took us to a big house a few miles away.

When we arrived we saw over one hundred rebels gathered there and as we were led into the house they started cheering and I heard a few of them say well done, you've brought us more women. When we were in the bush it was only ECOMOG enjoying you. Now it is our turn. 69

Beatrice, twenty-five, went out briefly on January 21 to look for a few cups of rice from a little store half a block from her house in Wellington. On the way back she and another woman were confronted by a group of ten rebels who sexually assaulted them with burning firewood. She recounted:

They asked us for money but we said we didn't have any so they ordered us to take off our clothes, putting a gun to our throats to make sure we did. We begged them to leave us but they ordered us to lie down on the dirt ground, face up, and open our legs. At least four of them had their guns to our throats and stomachs to make sure we obeyed. The rest of them surrounded us and then a big rebel went to the kitchen of a near-by house and took a piece of burning firewood from the fire. He then squatted down and with his two hands forced it in and out of my vagina one or two times. Then he returned to the fire and got another piece and then a third. I felt as if I was being stabbed inside and nearly fainted from the pain. Then they did the same thing to the woman laying next to me.

While doing this to both of us I heard them say, This is the way we're going to fuck you. You hypocrites; as soon as you see ECOMOG you start pointing fingers at us. And then they left and I dragged myself home, blood flowing from my vagina.70

Sophie, twenty-four, was in her house in Kissy when on January 21, a group of three rebels burst in demanding money and killed her husband. She was then abducted and gang-raped. She said:

They kept asking for money and my husband kept begging them for forgiveness for not having any. We are poor and the other groups of rebels had already taken all we had. They started waving their guns and then the one named Abdul killed him. Right in front of my children. I burst into tears and tried to run to my husband but they pulled me back and put a gun to me saying that if I didn't go with them they'd kill me as well. He was bleeding, my children were crying and then they forced me at gunpoint to walk out that door and follow them.

We walked all the way to the Sierra Leone Brewery in Wellington which seemed like an HQ for them. By this time we were three women and ten rebels. When we arrived they put us in a dirty room and then used the three of us at the same time for the entire night. They were so rough; they slapped me and tore my clothes. Four of them used me it was twelve times altogether it went on the entire night. And that Abdul, the same rebel who killed my man and stole everything from my family, raped me all night long.71

Sahr, twenty, was rounded up on January 8 with some ninety other civilians from Central Freetown and taken at gunpoint by a group of eighteen rebels to State House which was at that time functioning as the RUF command center for the operation to take Freetown. He described seeing scores of young women raped:

As we approached State House I saw hundreds of other civilians, most of them women, being kept under guard on the lawn and as we entered I saw even more inside. There were rebels armed with machine guns and RPGs everywhere. They then divided us into smaller groups and put us into different rooms and offices. There were twenty people in my cell, fifteen of which were young women.

Every night most of the women in my cell were brought out by armed rebels at around l0:00 p.m. and brought back again at around 3:00 a.m. When they returned they were crying and many of them were bleeding down below. They told me they'd been raped, some of them by two or three men. I had a good view from my window and every night could see at least fifteen girls being raped on the grounds, under trees and on the walkways of State House.72

Particularly vulnerable were young women between fourteen and eighteen who were sought after and targeted for being virgins. The rebels often entered houses and compounds asking specifically for virgin girls and would reject all women who had children, were over a certain age, or who they believed to have already had sex. There are documented cases of girls as young as eight being sexually abused.

Samretta, fifteen, was inside a mosque with hundreds of other people seeking refuge when, on January 20, two rebels entered and abducted four young girls, including Samretta and her eighteen year old sister, who has yet to be released. She explained:

It was at night and dark in the mosque. My mother tried to hide me under her skirt but they walked around with a flashlight shining their lights on everyone. They said, we've come for your young girls; for your virgins. Even if they tie their heads like grandmothers we'll find them. They said that if our parents didn't give us up they would kill everyone.

They shone their light on my mother and asked her what she was hiding. That's how they found me and my sister Fatmata. They took four of us that night. They held me for two days in a house in Calaba town where one of them raped me four times. He said my mother had taken good care of me. I escaped two days later when an ECOMOG jet flew over, but my sister was taken with them to the bush.73

Fatmata, thirty-eight, witnessed young girls being given an examination to determine if they were virgins or not. She recounted:

There was a lot of gunfire and I was trying to escape with my family when we were stopped by a rebel checkpoint. Inside the compound of the house next to where we were being searched, I saw five young girls between thirteen and sixteen, lying completely naked on the ground with one or two rebels holding each one by the arms, another two holding the legs apart and a female commander named Rose putting her fingers inside the vagina of each one to determine if she was a virgin or not.

The girls were crying and struggling and I saw a few of the rebels slap them and rough them up. After finishing with each girl, Commander Rose would announce to the others whether she was or was not a virgin. She was very crude and after checking one small girl said, this one is a sweet popo [papaya]; she'll do well for the commander. After the girls had been checked, they put the virgins to one side and the nonvirgins to the other. As the rebels let us pass through I heard them saying to each other we don't want this lot, let them go, they're too old. 74

After being abducted with six other girls in Wellington on January 13, Zainab, twenty, described how those the rebels deemed to be virgins and nonvirgins were separated. The women designated virgins were then given to the younger fighters. She explained:

When we arrived they lined us up and the commander, Ibrahim, asked each of us if we were or were not a virgin. There were four nonvirgins and three virgins, including myself. He then told a group of five older rebels to take the nonvirgins and told the three younger ones to take us into a bedroom next to the parlor.

A few minutes later Ibrahim entered that room and ordered us at gunpoint to take off our shirts and then began to fondle and pinch our breasts and examine our feet. I don't know what he expected to tell from our feet. The other two rebels just stood and watched. After ten minutes he announced that we were indeed virgins and then proceeded to assign each of us to a rebel. I resisted and Ibrahim slapped me, put a gun to my throat and said, Aif you don't allow that man to satisfy himself I'll kill you. 75

Girls as young as eight were raped. Hawa, twenty-two, described seeing a twelve-year-old bleed to death after being gang-raped by six men:

I was abducted from my home with several other neighbor women on January 8 and made to carry looted goods all the way to Waterloo. I spent over a month with the rebels and during that time was raped countless times. In our rebel camp there were scores of other abductees from Freetown including a young girl named Mariatu. She was just beginning to get breasts and I estimated her to be no more than twelve.

One afternoon in later January as we were both being raped in the bush, I saw six men use her; one after the other. She was screaming and crying in pain and I could see she was bleeding. After the second or third man she went silent and I thought she had passed out. After they'd finished with both of us I brought her water and said, Mariatu, you must drink but she wouldn't wake up. I think she was dying. There was too much blood. After a few hours they came, picked up her little body and carried it into the bush. I never saw her again.76

Rapes committed in the home were often in the presence of family members and neighbors who were forced at gunpoint to watch. Family members frequently reported attempting to pay for their daughters not to be raped or having to choose between having their daughters taken or the entire family executed.

Osman, thirty-eight, and several other fathers were forced at gunpoint to watch the rape of their daughters on January 8. He recounted:

At round 4:00 p.m. five juntas [RUF rebels] stormed into my house where my family and neighbors were gathered. They picked out my fifteen-year-old Aminata and four other young women and then locked us [the parents] into another room. They told us they wanted all our money or they would kill our daughters. As we were collecting what little money we had, I heard the girls start to scream. I peeked through the crack in the door and could see them slapping my daughter and pushing her onto the bed.

A few minutes later one of them opened the door and asked, Who are the fathers of these girls? . As we walked out of the room I could see a rebel named Blood raping my daughter and Sneak using her friend Marie. They lined us up in front of the bed and said, Don't you want to see what we're doing with your daughters? There was a rebel with a gun pointed at us the entire time and two more by the door. Aminata was crying so Blood covered her mouth with her shirt. When those two finished, two more took their place. We begged them but the Blood said, Shut up or we'll burn this house and kill every one of you. I was shaking. I was scared. I was angry but what could I do? After twenty minutes Blood ordered the girls to get dressed and then abducted them all plus my eight-year-old daughter.77

The rapes were usually accompanied by other physical abuse and death threats to the victim and often her family. Numerous witnesses and victims described seeing girls who had resisted rape being executed. Medical staff from one hospital reported treating two women who received gunshots to their vaginas. Both women, an eighteen-year-old and a twenty-five-year-old woman who was five months pregnant, died of their injuries.78

Sahr, twenty, the man who was abducted and kept in a cell with fifteen young women in State House, described how two of his friends were executed after resisting sexual assault:

On January 9, around midnight a group of rebels came to our cell and ordered two girls from my neighborhood, Hana, fifteen, and Majah, twenty, to come out. They had been raped the right before; Hana by one rebel and Majah by four.

They started screaming but were eventually dragged out by three rebels. Some minutes later I heard them both yelling and arguing with the rebels and refusing to lie down. The rebels were screaming obscenities and I heard the sound of struggle and slapping. A few minutes later I heard several shots. Hana and Maja didn't return that night and I cried for those girls because I knew the rebels had shot them. When I was able to escape two days later I saw the corpses of both girls lying on the State House lawn.79

On January 7, Joy, seventeen, witnessed five girls who attempted to escape a rebel base in which they had all been raped, being killed. She said:

I was captured in the morning with five other girls about my age and taken to a house full of rebels in Kissy. They took me into a room, pointed a pistol at my head, and told me it I didn't submit to them I would be shot. They were all high on drugs and drinking beer. Five of them used me that day.

At around 6:00 p.m. the one who'd captured me took me out on the verandah and there I found the five others who were crying and I could see at least two of them were bleeding. They said it had happened to them as well but we couldn't really talk because there was a rebel with a gun next to us. Some minutes later our guard left to get something and the girls got up and ran but the rebels saw them and opened up on them. There was gunfire all around and I crouched in the corner crying. I was so afraid they would kill me as well. I ran to the rebel who had captured me, told him I'd not run away and begged him to protect me. They fell just a few meters from the house. I saw their bodies. I don't know why they ran that day.80

The health repercussions of the sexual abuse are many. Most victims under twenty reported considerable bleeding during and after the rape, something gynecologists treating them attribute in part to complications produced by the practice of female genital cutting which is widespread in Sierra Leone.81 One gynecologist reported treating every victim aged between eight to twelve for some degree of vaginal tearing.82 According to medical personnel and testimonies taken by Human Rights Watch, at least fourteen girls and young women, including one thirteen-year-old, became pregnant from the sexual assault. Health practitioners treating the victims also report a high percentage of them diagnosed with sexually transmitted diseases and infections. Yet another medical implication involves the spread of HIV-AIDS. One twenty-two-year-old woman who was abducted in early January and gang-raped and sodomized repeatedly over a period of two months, was during her captivity already suffering from full blown AIDS, and has since died of AIDS-related illness.83

Victims of sexual abuse frequently reported female rebels having taken part in rounding up operations and often singling out girls and women for their commanders. Once in captivity, girls frequently reported appealing to female rebels for help. However their pleas were ignored and often met with threats of violence. One sixteen-year-old victim described how a female commander entered the room in which she was being raped and said, why are you hollering. These are my boys and you will not refuse them. 84

Human Rights Watch took testimony from one sixteen-year-old girl who described sexual abuse by a female rebel, who forced her and another sixteen-year-old girl to undress, and then tied them up and proceeded to insert her fingers into their vaginas.85

The motive of the attackers, according to what they told the victims, was both to be rewarded for having endured hardship in the bush and to punish their victims for supporting the current government or having sexually accommodated ECOMOG soldiers. The abuses are consistent with a long-standing pattern of RUF use of rape as one of many weapons to intimidate, terrorize, and ultimately control the civilian population.

The rebels sought not only to control and degrade their victims but also to undermine and degrade the authority of the family and community. The victims described feeling terror, humiliation, and shame, and their parents, husbands, and community elders described feeling powerless at their inability to protect them.

Josephine, sixteen, described the terror she felt when she was brought in to witness the rape in progress of the friend with whom she had been abducted and brought to a command post:

They kept me in a room but I could hear Susan crying and crying. Five minutes later one of them ordered me to go into the room where I saw she was being held down by one rebel and raped by another. This rebel then told me, look at this this is what we're going to do to you once we're finished with that one it will be your turn. I could only weep.86

Fabian, twenty-one, and eight other women were brought into a room on January 21 and forced to strip naked in front of eleven rebels after a picture of President Tejan Kabbah was found in the parlor. She described how they were terrorized and humiliated for over two hours:

As soon as the commander summoned us to the room he said, Aso you are Kabbah's children; the ones calling in the jets to bomb us. He then ordered us to strip naked and stand in a line in front of him with our legs spread two feet apart. I begged him to leave me as I had my three-month-old infant in my arms but he tore the baby from my arms and threw him against a wall. The other rebels formed a circle around us and got out their pistols and machetes. He then ordered another rebel to sprinkle kerosene on us and threatened to burn us. That rebel then gathered up our clothes and set them on fire in the corner of the room. The one with the machete circled around us, threatening to cut off our hands.

The commander then took out a flashlight and inspected our private parts slowly, one after the other making crude comments about how ugly, dirty, and disgusting we were. They fondled and pinched our breasts and ordered us to turn around and bend down, laughing and insulting us the whole time. And the whole time my baby was crying in the corner.

Every time I think about that day I cry bitterly. I cry for how my baby was treated. I cry when I think of how they treated my sisters. I cry for my husband who was later abducted. And I keep asking myself, what did we ever do to them?87

Kadi, forty-two, described the horror she felt at having to listen to her sixteen-year-old daughter Binti being raped on January 11.

Three of them came to our house at midnight and ordered us to line up outside. They demanded money and one of them put a knife to Binti's throat. Just then the rebels' attention was diverted by a civilian they saw running around the corner and I ordered my family to scatter. There was shooting and confusion and in the end all but Binti were able to escape.

I ran with my one-year-old grandson on my back and hid in an abandoned house. Some minutes later I started hearing the screams and sobs of my Binti. It went on for over an hour and I knew what was happening. She was only 200 yards away but I couldn't do anything. Towards the end I even got up to go to her but I forced myself back to my hiding place until the early morning hours when I found her weeping in an abandoned shop.88

Jenneh, fourteen, was beaten, raped, and left near unconscious in the street. Several months after the incident, her right eye was still swollen and teeth marks on her back were visible. She recounted:

When my mother saw him coming towards our house she yelled at me to get inside and hide. From under the bed I could hear him threatening to kill us both so I came outside. As he dragged me away my mother ran after us, pleading with him to release me but he turned around, pointed his gun at her and said he'd open up if she took one more step.

He tore the clothes from my body. He bit me. He punched me in the face. He knocked my kneecaps with his gun and forced himself upon me. I knew nothing about this thing. I'm only fourteen. After the first time he forced me, sobbing, to say thank you, and by the fourth time I could barely move.

When he was finished he picked me up, putting his fingers inside my vagina and threw me in a gutter. Then he walked off. I was almost unconscious and couldn't remember everything, but that much I remember; he threw me in a gutter. The next morning my little sister found me there. She cried when she saw me and ran to get my mother.89

These crimes, and other forms of sexual violence, are explicitly condemned under international humanitarian law. The Geneva Conventions of August 12, l949 and the Protocols Additional to the Geneva Conventions prohibit rape in both international and internal conflicts.90 Likewise, rape, when committed on a mass scale, constitutes a crime against humanity. The Convention of the Child further protects children from Aall forms of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse. 91

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