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A court in the Netherlands is set to deliver a verdict Thursday in a case involving a former head of state charged with international war crimes.
Charles Taylor, former president of Liberia, is on trial at the Special Court for Sierra Leone in The Hague, Netherlands. He is charged with 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity — including murder, rape, sexual slavery and the use of child soldiers — in neighboring Sierra Leone.
Tens of thousands died during Sierra Leone's vicious civil war, one that was infamous for the brutal hacking off of limbs.
Today, survivors of these atrocities make up the members of a soccer team in Makeni, a city in central Sierra Leone. On a recent day, the team gathered before practice, singing songs of peace.
These men, like thousands of others, lost legs and arms during Sierra Leone's brutal 11-year conflict.
It began in 1991, as the Revolutionary United Front, the RUF, crossed the western border from Liberia in an attempt to topple Sierra Leone's government. They came with promises of a new era, one in which everyone would share the country's diamond riches. Instead, they became a ruthless and terrifying band of thugs, killing some 50,000 people before the war officially ended in 2002.
Death Or Amputation
Santos Kallon, the goalkeeper on the soccer team, is among those who survived. He was 18 when gangs of armed men broke into the family home. His parents and sisters managed to escape out the back, but Santos and his younger cousin were trapped. The attackers gave them the choice of death or an amputation — the macabre signature of the RUF rebels. They both chose to live.
"Right inside my bedroom, they amputated me," Santos says. Using his own knife, they cut off Santos' right hand.
"I think like it was the death for me. How can I live again? That is my question I asked God," he says.
But Santos did live.
The 32-year-old learned how to become a woodcarver. He sells elaborately carved chairs and ornaments, making just enough money to support his wife, Asiatta, and their three children.
As for responsibility for the war in Sierra Leone, many blame one man: Charles Taylor, president of neighboring Liberia from 1997 to 2003.
"He has destroyed so many people in the world," says Asiatta. "That is what I decide in my own heart. They should detain him and jail him."
Links To Sierra Leone's Civil War
While Liberia was going through its own long and bloody civil war, Taylor is accused of fueling the war in neighboring Sierra Leone. Prosecutors say he armed rebel factions with guns and ammunition in return for "blood diamonds." These rebel factions were notorious for using drugged-up child soldiers, sex slaves and brutal torture techniques like amputation.
Foday Sankoh, former head of the RUF rebel group, is now dead. But his friendship with Taylor was well-known. However, the case in The Hague hinges on whether it can be proved Taylor, while never entering Sierra Leone, orchestrated the war from afar.
In Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, there are many like Santos and Assiata who want to see Taylor locked up for life. But there are some who feel the former Liberian president is being used as a scapegoat.
Sidie Koroma was Foday Sankoh's former bodyguard.
"I don't see any element of truth in what they're accusing him of, for supporting the RUF," Koroma says. "If RUF was receiving arms and ammunition from outside, we should have won the war militarily."
The Special Court for Sierra Leone in The Hague charged 13 people with crimes during the war. Eight were found guilty. Two have since died, including Sankoh, the RUF leader. Another is still missing. That leaves just one man, Taylor, awaiting his verdict.
In Liberia, Supporters Still
In neighboring Liberia, Taylor still has his supporters. This past weekend, a concert in support of Taylor was held in the capital, Monrovia.
During Liberia's civil war, up to one-quarter of a million people were killed and there are many in the country who suffered. Nonetheless, the charismatic leader still has huge backing. As president, Taylor was given to moments of largesse, handing out bags of money. He also made sure rice — the staple food of Liberia — was cheap.
On a recent day, Mamie Sombai sat on her father's porch in Monrovia. Her meager business — selling a small array of soaps, sweets and toothpaste — was spread out on the table in front of her.
She will not be happy if Taylor is found guilty.
"I will feel bad because I love Charles Taylor," she said. "I will not lie to no one. I love him."
Correction: April 26, 2012 12:00 am — The original online version of this story incorrectly stated that the case was being handled by the International Criminal Court. The case was tried in the Special Court for Sierra Leone.