Taking the verdict home
Sierra Leonean journalist Amara Bangura on reporting the Charles Taylor trial.
I was 19 and in a high school exam when the civil war broke out. There had been rumours that the rebels were approaching Makeni, my hometown in the north of Sierra Leone. My uncle begged me not to go to school, but I refused; my education is important to me and I wanted to sit the exam.
When the gun shots began, the students ran out of the exam hall, fled the town and ran into the bush. We spent two or three days in the bush – we could hear the gunshots but we didn't know what was happening in the town. We didn't know if our families were safe. I persuaded two friends to sneak back into town with me. It is very frightening to go where guns are speaking, but I wanted find out what was going on.
We entered the town through the back roads – running then pausing, checking we hadn't been seen and then running again. We saw buildings ablaze and dead bodies in the street. It burns your heart to see people you know, lying dead in the street. We took the news back to the bush. It was on our second trip into town that I found my family – my uncle nearly cried when he saw me and said "I told you, I warned you not to go to school that day!"
A month after entering Makeni, the rebels chased the civilians living in the bush into the town. It is difficult to live like that, taking orders from the rebels and living as if there is a gun to your back. I decided to escape to Guinea. At Gbendembu, 22 miles outside of Makeni, the truck I was on was stopped at a checkpoint. I was caught and arrested by area fighters. They took me to a nearby camp, where I found many of my school friends. Most were naked but I was lucky – my family are middle class and I had clean clothes and new jeans. But one commander demanded I gave him my jeans and in return I had to wear his old dirty shorts that he'd been wearing since god knows when!
I asked my friends at the camp what it was like there and learned that it was a training camp – we were to be trained and then forced to fight alongside the rebels. A day later they gathered us in a village hall and lectured us on their philosophy. They were shouting and animated. It was very noisy. I didn't want to listen because I love my country and I know that fighting is not the solution. Instead, whilst many were moving forward to listen, I moved backwards. I reached the back of the hall and managed to climb through an opening in the roof and jump out the other side. When I landed, I sat there for two minutes. I was so frightened that someone had seen me, but luckily it was very dark and no one had. And then I ran. You should have seen my speed leaving the hall that day!
I have always wanted to be a journalist. When the civil war ended, I began reporting. There were many mixed-up stories – people distorted information or did not want to share their story, but I was determined to find the truth. I began working with BBC Media Action, reporting on the 2007 elections in Sierra Leone, and received much training and mentoring. When the opportunity came to report on the Charles Taylor trial I was daunted – reporting from a court and on legal procedure is challenging. But I realised that this was my journey, reporting on the war and then reporting on the trial, and I could do it with the support of my colleagues.
When I first entered the International Criminal Court and saw Charles Taylor in person, I could not stop staring at him for almost an hour. He was sitting there in a big traditional white gown. He looked like a nice, decent man and I thought "This is the guy?" I heard testimony in the court about people killed in my hometown, but I tried not to get caught up – as a journalist I have to think "Do I tell the story as I know it, or as the witnesses are telling it?" It is a fine line.
The verdict on April 26 was a big day for me, it was a turning point for my long journey. I wasn't nervous – I thought he would be found guilty on some charges and not guilty on others. It took almost two hours for the judge to read the verdict. Finally, at the end, he asked Charles Taylor to rise for the verdict. The judge paused, looked him in the eye and said slowly and deliberately "You are guilty of aiding and abetting". Wow, that was an important moment for me.
To some extent, the verdict was the end of my journey, but now it is the beginning of a new chapter. What happens next? Justice has been done, but will jailing Charles Taylor bring back the lives of so many killed and can my country be rebuilt?
There are still many stories to tell.