In an historic ruling today, an international court convicted former Liberian president Charles Taylor of aiding and abetting war crimes. The crimes in question—which include the mass murder and slaughter of civilians, mass rape, and the use of child soldiers—were committed during the civil war of Liberia’s neighbor, Sierra Leone, throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. (Taylor aided rebels in that war; he is the first head of state convicted by an international court since the Nuremberg trials.) Understandably, all of the news today is focused on Taylor. But what do we know about the fighters in Sierra Leone’s civil war?
One of the best resources is a 2004 study based on interviews with over 1,000 former combatants in that war. It found, above all, a series of striking similarities. “Contrary to common perception,” the authors wrote, “there were no large differences across factions along ethnic, regional, or religious lines, or in terms of political party affiliation.” Moreover, the vast majority of fighters were “uneducated and poor,” regardless of faction. The main differences, according to the study, were in the factions’ reasons for fighting. The pro-government forces (or CDF) had high rates of volunteer recruitment and “originated from tight networks of families, friends, and communities.” But the RUF (Revolutionary United Front), the group aided by Taylor, “was a group of mutual strangers, largely recruited by force.” Since the conflict has ended, the latter group has had more difficulty reintegrating into society. RUF fighters, the study notes, “have tended to build social networks composed of people they met during and after the war. Many are isolated from the communities and networks in which they were embedded before the war began.”