Sierra Leone's war is over, but the battle for justice continues

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The Independent Online

The war in Sierra Leone is over, at least for now. But after a decade of unimaginable horrors, the battle for justice is just beginning.

Tony Blair will laud the role of British troops in bringing stability during a flying visit on Saturday. The praise is deserved – the rebel factions have been disarmed, paving the way for elections this May.

But one weapon has proved impossible to decommission and thousands of sexually brutalised women are on the frontline. Savage and systematic gang rape was the calling card of the RUF rebels during the war. Women were abducted to be used as sex slaves, or "rebel wives", sometimes for years. Other militia were also guilty, but on a lesser scale.

Now, as thousands of survivors start to confront their traumas, aid workers are reporting disturbingly high levels of rape and abuse. The perpetrators are mainly ex-combatants, they say, and the victims are as young as two. In the capital, Freetown, hundreds of women line the streets every night, offering their bodies for sex. Their clients are international soldiers, aid workers and British soldiers. Many are rape survivors. It is the side of the Sierra Leone success story that Mr Blair, who is scheduled to spend two hours at Freetown airport, is unlikely to see.

Baindu, 35, wept softly as she told her story in the eastern town of Kenema. The RUF stripped her naked and gang raped her in front of her husband in 1995, she said. They made him laugh or else he would be killed. Then they shot him and their three children.

One of the rapists took Baindu hostage as his "wife". His name was "Me Dirty Rebel" and he was barely 20 years. If he wasn't taking cocaine or massacring villagers, he used her for sex. "If I refused he hit me with the butt of a gun. It took my tooth out," she said, pointing to a gap in her mouth.

It took her four years to escape. Since recovering from gonorrhoea, she has been counselled by workers with the International Rescue Committee, which has treated almost 500 survivors so far in just two towns. The programme director, Heidi Lehmann, said: "I don't know how organised it was, but it was certainly systematic. There was an intent to really rip apart the communities, and it worked." Like the amputees and relatives of murder victims, rape survivors want justice. But under current proposals for Sierra Leone, they are unlikely to get it. A United Nations-sponsored war crimes tribunal, known as the Special Court, is being set up. It will prosecute the 30 "most responsible" figures for crimes against humanity in the war, with the imprisoned RUF leader Foday Sankoh expected to top the list. A separate Truth and Reconciliation Commission is also being planned, intended to establish a record of the war and help with national reconciliation. Witnesses will benefit from an amnesty. It is unlikely that any of the rank-and-file rapists, murderers or diamond smugglers will be punished. Instead, all combatants received 300,000 leones (£100) to encourage them to hand in their arms.

According to President Tejan Kabbah, whom Mr Blair will meet on Saturday, this is the price of peace. The international community agrees. Diplomats say that bringing the RUF, which recently reformed as a political party, out of the bush and into politics is crucial for lasting stability.

Instead, the "rebel wives" are turning to each other to rebuild their lives. A group of women use counselling and sharing of experience to ease the pain in Blama camp, near Kenema. But some things are beyond rationalisation. "We are still wondering why the men behaved that way," said Batu, who was raped with a gun. "We don't have an answer."

For others the exploitation continues. The 17,400-strong UN force has turned Freetown's beaches, bars and nightclubs into sex supermarkets. Many of the prostitutes are war victims who are rejected as unclean by their families, according to the aid agency, Goal.

Vivien, 18, was a schoolgirl before the war. Then she was abducted and brought to the bush by the RUF; now she works the Freetown bars. "So many problems with the British," she said. "Royal Marine, British Navy – I know them all." Her friends Rita, Rosaline and Elizabeth, sitting nearby, agreed. They had witnessed soldiers using underage girls, they said. "In the toilets and on the sand," said Rita.

The names of victims have been changed.