Public hearings began on Monday at Sierra Leone's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). About 700 people, including victims, perpetrators and witnesses of the country's 10-year civil war are expected to appear before the Commission, which will hold sessions in the capital, Freetown, and district headquarters.
Officially opening the hearings, Sierra Leonean President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah said the Commission would be of tremendous help in the country's collective effort to consolidate peace through healing and national reconciliation.
He underscored the importance of people knowing the circumstances that related to the events that caused them so much suffering. "The most important accomplishment of the Commission, it is hoped, will be the reconciling of our population and ensuring that Sierra Leone shall never again experience the evils of the past 11 years," he said.
TRC has therapeutic aim
"We must not forget, however, that the work of this Commission is more than just finding out and hearing the story told, truthfully, of what happened during the civil war," Kabbah said. The most important purpose of the Commission was its therapeutic contribution to the entire peace process and to the search for lasting national reconciliation, he noted.
Noting that it was difficult and expensive to repair the material damage done during the rebel war, he said it was even harder to heal the physical wounds inflicted on thousands of victims who survived the conflict. "Even more difficult still is the healing of the trauma and removal of the emotional scars of that unnecessary armed conflict," he added.
He, however, expressed confidence that both the Commission and the Special Court would operate under internationally accepted standards of probity, transparency and fairness. The Court issued its first indictments in March. "I know that the people of Sierra Leone, as well as the international community will take both institutions to task if for a single moment they should err in that respect," he stated.
AFP quoted TRC Chairman Bishop Joseph Humper as saying at the ceremony on Monday that the Commission's aim was to "assess what went wrong in Sierra Leone, why the rebel war assumed such magnitude and how victims and perpetrators would have the opportunity to come together, air their views and ultimately receive genuine forgiveness."
He said that amputees, who had complained that they had been marginalized in Sierra Leone's reconciliation process and threatened to boycott the TRC, were now cooperating with it.
Some 6,000 statements on abuses
The Commission through its workers across the country has collected about 6,000 written statements of human rights abuses committed since the start of the war in 1991. The conflict was officially declared ended in January 2002.
Monday's hearing opened with Tamba Finnoh, a farmer, telling the audience how a child fighter mutilated him during the war, the Associated Press (AP) reported. Finnoh, the first victim to publicly address the Commission, described how he was abducted in 1998 as he searched for food in the countryside then found himself in a hospital days later, with his right hand and two fingers on his left missing.
According to the Commission's schedule, the hearings will continue until July. They are organised in four categories: individual witness hearings; thematic hearings; event-specific hearings; and institutional hearings.
The TRC is an independent organization that was created by the Lome Peace Agreement of 7th July 1999. It was established by an Act of Parliament on 10th February 2000. Its mandate is to create an impartial historical record of violations and abuses of human rights and international humanitarian law related to the armed conflict in Sierra Leone; to address impunity; to respond to the needs of victims; to promote healing and reconciliation and to prevent a repetition of the violations and abuses suffered.
The general function of the TRC is to investigate and report on the causes, nature and extent of the human rights violations and abuses, the context in which they occurred, and whether or not they were the result of a deliberate policy, authorisation or planning by any government, group or individual.
The TRC will investigate and report on the role played by both internal and external factors in the Sierra Leone conflict. In this regard, it will investigate the role that foreign individuals, groups or governments might have played in the conflict.
Four of its seven commissioners are Sierra Leoneans while three are non-nationals.
More information about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission can be accessed at: www.sierra-leone.org