Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Local Sierra Leoneans celebrate

Cheer conviction, independence

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Manitoba's 1,000-member Sierra Leone community has much to celebrate today -- independence day for the African country and the conviction of a war criminal who threw it into chaos.

On Thursday, Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia and a once-powerful warlord, was convicted of arming, supporting and guiding a brutal rebel movement that committed mass atrocities in Sierra Leone during its civil war.

"I don't think there is a household in Sierra Leone where it wouldn't have an impact," said Allieu Sesay, president of the Sierra Leone Nationals Association of Manitoba.

"I lost a couple of my younger brothers in this war, who were captured and recruited and ended up dying," said Sesay, who fled Sierra Leone in 1999 for a refugee camp in Guinea. "Our house was completely burned down."

Taylor is guilty of crimes against humanity and war crimes, including murder, rape, slavery and the use of child soldiers. The international tribunal in The Hague said he helped plan the capture of diamond mines and the invasion of Freetown, Sierra Leone's capital.

"I'm pleased that justice has been served," said Sesay, an accountant in Winnipeg. "That's all that we want."

Tonight, he expects 300 people will celebrate Sierra Leone's Independence Day at a hall downtown. There are close to 1,000 Manitobans with roots in Sierra Leone, and the community is growing, Sesay said.

"We're very youthful, with a lot of young families," he said. "It's a very busy community with baby showers, baptisms and weddings."

Rather than dwell on Taylor and the suffering he caused, Sesay said today he'll focus on the heroes who helped the victims -- especially his Winnipeg sponsors, Abass and Connie Kamara. Abass immigrated to Canada long before there was trouble in Sierra Leone, married a Canadian woman and had a comfortable life, Sesay said. When Taylor's hell broke loose in Sierra Leone, he didn't forget where he came from. He and his wife sponsored Sesay, a stranger to them.

"We never knew each other," Sesay said. "He heard about me. I was helping other refugees."

In 2001, he and his wife, Zainab, and two children left the refugee camp in Guinea. They came to Winnipeg, where their third child, Abass, was born.

The family visited Sierra Leone last year. Sesay said he wants his kids to know where they came from; when they were old enough, he asked them to watch a movie about it.

"It was very horrifying for them to see Blood Diamond and to know what we went through," Sesay said.

The 2006 movie is set during the Sierra Leone civil war of 1992-2002. It's about diamonds mined in war zones and sold to finance conflicts and profit warlords like Taylor and diamond companies. It shows Sierra Leone torn apart by the struggle between government soldiers and rebel forces.

Sesay said he wants his children to know how good they have it here.

" 'At least you're here with opportunities, freedom and peace. You must be thankful,' " he tells them, and they are. "They appreciate that Canada is a place for praising."

But they know people are capable of terrible things.

Taylor was the first head of state to be convicted by an international court since the Nuremberg trials after the Second World War. Sesay hopes it sends a message to others.

"I believe this can be a warning to a present leader, a former leader and a leader-to-be that justice will be served, if not today, if not tomorrow, then one day."


-- with files from the New York Times

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 28, 2012 B2

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