Concord Times (Freetown)

Sierra Leone: Naomi Campbell Delivers a Dirty Message

opinion

Freetown — I must admit that I have not been following news from the Special Court for Sierra Leone in The Hague, Netherlands. As a Sierra Leonean now living in London, I got sick of the dithering that marred the trial: the Prosecution versus Charles Taylor. Taylor himself did not treat the charges with seriousness. On the day of his first appearance, he boycotted the proceedings and later dismissed his legal team.

However, the trial was long overdue. Yet for some reason the world, including even me, had almost lost interest in it. That was until Naomi Campbell came along.

Campbell's testimony has created the type of media buzz for the Court that some of the worst crimes against humanity never achieved. One of Campbell's publicists has this week shamelessly noted that the former British supermodel's appearance has been responsible for more media coverage of the trial than anything else in the past three years.

But Campbell has also been pilloried for her testimony, in which she called the trial an "inconvenience." A former child soldier has asked her to apologise. This week also saw the release of an online Campbell-themed video game in which players can throw "diamonds" at the glamour girl.

Campbell's testimony was meant to confirm the prosecution's allegations that Taylor dealt in blood diamonds from Sierra Leone to fuel war in that country. Little did I or most other Sierra Leoneans know that in 1997, when we were hiding under our beds and running from machete-wielding murderers and rapists, Nelson Mandela, Africa's hero, was dining with one of the men responsible for this bloodshed. And Campbell, a heroine to young black girls everywhere, was audaciously rubbing shoulders with a man responsible for the rape and murder of just such girls.

In her testimony, Campbell, who was also supping at this now-legendary function, told the Court how, in the middle of the night following the dinner, some men came to her hotel room and presented her with several "dirty-looking stones."

I wonder whether the British supermodel realised that what she was describing as dirty pebbles were being used to fuel one of the world's most atrocious conflicts. Suddenly the Taylor trial was interesting to the world. But for some of us who lived through (and survived) those bloody years, the Special Court proceedings have been too little too late.

The United Nations-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone was created to bring to book those who bore the greatest responsibility during the country's 11-year conflict. The trials have swallowed millions of dollars doled out by the international community, but until now, done little for the millions of Sierra Leoneans who still fight to move up from the very bottom of the United Nations Human Development Index.

It was a typically hot and sunny afternoon on 29 March 2006 when news reached Freetown that the former Liberian leader had been arrested in exile in Nigeria and would be brought to the Special Court to answer to crimes committed against the people of Sierra Leone. The details are well known, diamonds, death, child soldiers, and violence: for several years my region was infamous, even more so after the 2006 Hollywood blockbuster Blood Diamond, starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

On the ground, Taylor's arrest was the start of a long and torturous drama still unfolding. The news spread like wildfire during the harmattan and many like me heaved a sigh of relief: just the mention of Taylor's name still enough to bring back the most traumatic of memories. But Sierra Leoneans had become good at blocking such memories out, and for several years that's what I'd done.

But one morning recently I turned on the television and the top story was Campbell's testimony about allegedly receiving diamonds from Taylor after Mandela's charity dinner in South Africa. The news instantly took me back to that time in my life. While Taylor, Campbell and Mandela were enjoying a fancy dinner and Taylor was passing out Sierra Leone's diamonds, thousands of women and children were suffering and dying in the country from which these dirty stones came.

As a young girl growing up during the gruesome civil war, the fear of being raped by a group of armed men was far greater than the fear of death. Had Campbell, a black supermodel who is apparently a role model for many women thought of this, I wonder if she would have minded the people she had dealings with.

Growing up in the 1990s in Sierra Leone was a childhood experience unlike most. As children we witnessed amputations, saw women raped or murdered in front of their families, and many of us lost loved ones. While others were enjoying uninterrupted academic years, ours were put on hold several times. While others enjoyed summer holidays on the beach, many of us were forced to leave the country and become refugees in another.

The Revolutionary United Front (RUF), allegedly sponsored by Taylor, was responsible for some of the worst crimes against women like me, including abduction and sexual slavery. Indeed, two of the Court's earlier convictions for the conscription of child soldiers and forced marriage were both landmarks creating a new precedent in international law. However, the western media quickly lost interest in these stories -- Naomi Campbell wasn't there.

This trial is very important for many reasons. Although the Special Court has swallowed more than US$100 million, it is providing some form of justice to the thousands of innocent victims.

Yet, while media coverage outside Sierra Leone has been unprecedented since Campbell took the stand, it was reported that only nine diehards turned up at the massive Special Court in Freetown to watch Campbell's testimony in The Hague. And the BBC's Umaru Fofana noted on his Facebook page that just one in seven Sierra Leoneans interviewed in the streets of Freetown this week actually knew who Campbell was or that she was testifying.

It seems the victimisation of the Sierra Leonean poor has still continued. How could their knowledge about a trial apparently being conducted for their benefit be so poor? While all this money is poured into these proceedings for a handful of accused, the original victims are unaware and still trapped in poverty.

Even worse, the only knowledge many will have of this trial will be of Campbell and her references to dirty stones. If only she'd been aware of the problems those stones caused in the lives of many young girls, her role in this spectacle might have helped draw the right kind of attention. In the future Campbell should be more careful before accepting midnight gifts.

Editor's Note: Mariama Kandeh is a Sierra Leonean journalist currently living in the United Kingdom. She was former News Editor of Concord Times Newspaper. This article is part of the GL Opinion and Commentary Service.

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