Sierra Leone victims cheer Charles Taylor verdict

April 26, 2012 - 5:18 PM
Sierra Leone Taylor

In this Wednesday, April 25, 2012 photo, Samuel Komba, whose right hand was damaged in 1998 when attacking rebel soldiers tried to amputate it after catching him fleeing, poses for a picture in the village of Tombodu, Kono district, Sierra Leone. The 58-year-old, one of only two survivors of the 1998 attack, said he took solace Thursday from ex-Liberian President Charles Taylor's conviction for his role in Sierra Leone's brutal war. "The whole world will know today what Charles Taylor did, and we are happy," he said from Tombodu, where many who survived the fighting were enslaved as diamond miners. (AP Photo/Jessica McDiarmid)

TOMBODU, Sierra Leone (AP) — Rebels captured Samuel Komba, tied him up with more than a dozen other villagers and set them on fire. Badly burned, he broke free, only to be caught by fighters who tried to chop off his right hand.

The 58-year-old farmer, one of only two survivors of that attack more than a decade ago, says he takes solace from ex-Liberian President Charles Taylor's conviction by an international court Thursday for his role in Sierra Leone's brutal war.

"The whole world will know today what Charles Taylor did, and we are happy," Komba said from this rural village, where many who survived the fighting were enslaved as diamond miners.

On Thursday, officials set up an area for several hundred residents of Tombodu to listen to the verdict live from the Netherlands, but they couldn't get a radio signal. Some villagers carrying transistor radios wandered hillsides trying to pick up a signal from the capital, Freetown.

There was some subdued clapping and a few smiles as news of Taylor's conviction spread. One woman called out, asking why those who committed atrocities locally for years during the war were not charged. But the crowd quickly dispersed and people went back to their daily lives.

Wounds are still raw in this community. A tiled pit full of human bones and skulls marks the spot where rebels once burned 55 people alive.

"Let them chop off Charles Taylor's hand. He should go to jail forever," Komba said, his own maimed hand hanging limp and unusable, his back scarred from the burns he suffered.

"They brought diamonds to Charles Taylor. He gave them guns that they brought here and gave to small children," said Komba, who testified for the prosecution in 2006 at Taylor's trial in Leidschendam, Netherlands.

In Freetown, the capital, crowds who had gathered to watch the verdict on television sighed with relief when the conviction was announced. Simmering anger was evident on placards carried by some, including one that read: "Give us your diamonds before going to prison."

Among those closely following the court proceedings from afar was Alhaji Jusu Jarka, whose arms were hacked off by rebels in 1999 and who is the current chairman of the Amputees Association.

"I am happy that the truth has come out ... that Charles Taylor is fully and solely responsible for the crimes committed against the people of Sierra Leone," he said.

Sierra Leone's government said it "salutes the dignity, patience and resilience showed by particularly the victims of the war throughout the process of the administration of international justice until today's historic verdict."

Taylor, though, still garners strong support from his followers in Liberia. On Thursday, youths in the capital, Monrovia, carried signs, including one that read: "We love you Taylor, God willing you will come back." ''Leave Taylor; let him come back home, he's not guilty," declared another.

One man, Jura Sanoe, appeared with a tiny anti-Taylor flier that read: "Taylor is guilty." He was booed and jeered, and had to be escorted away by police amid shouted threats.

"The Sierra Leonean Embassy will be burnt down for the second time," screamed a young man in a crowd gathered to listen to the verdict on the radio.

In a statement, the Liberian government urged calm. "The government calls on all Liberians, irrespective of our social and political differences, to respect the verdict of the Special Court and continue to pray for enduring peace and unity in the nation," it said.

Newspaper publisher Tom Kamara, who was forced into exile during Taylor's regime, only returned to Liberia after he was pushed out of power in 2003. On Thursday, he hailed the verdict as "an end to impunity" before becoming overwhelmed by emotion — weeping as he cut short a radio appearance.

Taylor, 64, insists he is an innocent victim of neocolonialism and a political process aimed at preventing him from returning to power in Liberia. In seven months of testimony in his own defense, he cast himself as a peacemaker and statesman in West Africa.

While judges convicted Taylor of aiding and abetting atrocities by rebels, they cleared him of direct command responsibility, saying he had no direct control over the rebels he supported.

Residents of Tombodu believe otherwise. Out of 500 homes, only seven were spared from arson during the war.

Bondu Koiko, 87, who didn't join her neighbors in hearing Thursday's verdict, says she can't bear to even hear Taylor's name.

"I don't want to see the picture of Charles Taylor. I don't want to hear that name, because he directed people to burn down houses and kill people. He tied people and threw them in the pit," she said, of the rebels' practice of tying up victims and throwing them to their deaths to save bullets.

Koiko fled the village in 1998 and later made her way to neighboring Guinea with a single bag containing her belongings. Her home was looted and burned, and most of her relatives killed.

These days she makes her living from a garden that she tends on the burned out foundations of a house.

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Roy-Macaulay reported from Freetown. Associated Press writer Jonathan Paye-Layleh in Monrovia, Liberia, contributed to this report.