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Seeing Charles Taylor from Sierra Leone

On a warm summer day in 2005, I took a tour through the former home of my host family in a small village in Sierra Leone. Their abode at the time, a concrete structure with several small rooms, made them among the luckiest in the village; most lived in mud huts, only sometimes with metal roofs. Their former home, however—well, I certainly needed a tour guide to find it. Because it was a small tree, hidden in a pit amid a crowded rainforest. During the months of horror when rebel forces razed the villages around Taiama, this family of a dozen ate leaves and cassava plants and tried to stay as quiet as they could. When they emerged, all the children were years behind in school and the family's wealth—a piece of land they cultivated—was decimated by neglect. They got away with their lives, but they had lost everything.

For stories like this—which abound across Sierra Leone—many blame one man: Charles Taylor, a Liberian warlord-turned-president who helped fund and fuel the Revolution Patriotic Front a decade ago in their frenzied push to the capital, Freetown. Taylor's patrimony over the diamond and timber resources of Sierra Leone and Liberia respectively made him one of the most powerful men in that part of Africa at the time. And oh, did he use that power—to horrific effect.

On Thursday, Taylor was convicted of 11 counts of war crimes at the Special Court for Sierra Leone in the Hague. His was the only trial that the court conducted outside of Sierra Leone, for security reasons. It dragged on for half a decade and cost millions of dollars. Taylor will finally be sentenced in the coming days.

Charles Taylor is an easy man to hate, as many in Sierra Leone do. So imagine my surprise a year after I saw that hostage home in Sierra Leone when I visited Liberia for the first time, and realized something that still seems astounding at first glance: Taylor is revered among a solid half of the population. To many, his reign as a rebel commander and later as president signifies a time when they had a job (usually as a soldier), when Liberia had a direction, and the message of change and hope—no matter how twisted it seems now—was intoxicating.

The difference in perceptions of Taylor is telling about the reason that a war that retrospectively seems too violent to have been human continued to grind on so furiously for years. As Taylor's forces in Liberia and the RUF in Sierra Leone conquered territory, they burned villages, raped women, and in Sierra Leone, chopped off the limbs of the conquered in a symbolic gesture of complete disempowerment of the victim.

It was, however, an economy. And many, many people lived off of it. I'm not talking about the kind of people who, like Taylor, could afford to give diamonds to celebrities and purchase vast sweeps of real estate in neighboring Nigeria (both of which Taylor did). I'm talking about people who otherwise might not eat, and certainly not more than once a day. They say often in Sierra Leone that a hungry man will do anything. Whether you believe that or not, it does come down to that equation sometimes.

There is nothing scientific I can say about the latter appeal of Taylor in Liberia, based on the intoxicating message of hope he carried. But go to the most dense slums of Monrovia, as I did most recently about a year ago, and you can see the lack of hope in many eyes. Liberia is, objectively, improving enormously: World Bank funds have fueled a construction boom, the government is more transparent and effective than ever, aid has poured in to improve services and living conditions. It's a slow road, however, and if there were quick fixes, perhaps they would be appealing again.

Yet neither Sierra Leone nor Liberia seems tempted to move back toward war anytime soon—a testament not just to the millions of aid, thousands of peacekeepers, and innumerable international pressure that has poured in, but to the people of these countries themselves, who saw hell and came back. Perhaps what that means is that a hungry man won't do anything; but Charles Taylor would.

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