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Bitter Sweet Salone

Ben Sutherland Ben Sutherland | 01:27 UK time, Monday, 29 November 2010

Children at Lakka Beach, Sierra Leone

This entry was written by Fiona in Freetown and posted by me.

I've been in Sierra Leone for 2 months out of the last 6 and in a few days will welcome Ros, Ben A and Alex of the WHYS team to the country that the locals affectionately call Sweet Salone.

Sweet it certainly is - it has beautiful sandy beaches (if you believe the guide book, it's where the Bounty commercial was filmed), lush green forest, and a people engaged with the world and driving for progress.

It has religious tolerance to such an extent some families go to the mosque on Friday and church on Sunday. The poda podas (public taxis) have mottos on, and my best spot has been "Jesus loves Islam".

But it is hard to ignore the bitter realities. More than 70 percent live below the international povery line of less than two dollars a day, and a 10-year brutal, senseless war has paraylsed communities and destroyed generations.

The images of the 1991-2002 civil war the beamed across the world included the sadistic amputation of arms or legs of civilians.

Those captured were often asked "short sleeves or long sleeves?" the answer decided if the attacker hacked away above or below the elbow. Around 1,600 amputees survive today.

And women's charities estimate that around half the women in Sierra Leone had been raped by the end of the war.

I have not meet anyone here who did not lose family and witness atrocities against innocent civilians. This is Mariama's story:

The perpetrators of these crimes were often young men (and women), many forcibly recruited as children, who were high on a mixture of cocaine and gunpowder.

The last few weeks I have been trying to talk to some former rebels. It has not been easy, as Sierra Leoneans don't want to talk about the dark days of mindless violence and much is still secret, mired in shame.

On Tuesday, we hope to bring together some war wounded and some ex-combatants, to look at reconciliation and living together. As Victor explains in his story, victims and perpetrators often live in the same community and share food:

It is Sierra Leone, and not his native Liberia, that fought for the extradition of former President Charles Taylor which led to his appearence at the United-Nations backed Special Court for Sierra Leone in the Hague.

It was created so that victims could see the workings of justice at the trial which, early next year, will deliver it's verdict on the 11 allegegations including crimes against humanity, sexual slavery and use of child soldiers. Is it serving justice for Sierra Leones?

My work here has been for the BBC World Service Trust, helping to support community radio stations in the rural parts of the country where local voices can be marginalised. In the programmes we have made together, the word "accountabiltiy" keeps coming up.

These young emerging journalists take very seriously the responsibilities to be the voice of their communites and to hold decision-makers to account

Despite the fact that Sierra Leone shuffles at the bottom few places on the UNDP index, things here really do seem to be improving, the free health care for nursing mothers, preganant women and children under-5 and initiatives in some areas for government to pay for girl's school fees will allow them to continue studying.

It is a facinating and compelling country, full of contradictions and challenges and the spirit and courage of the people will always stay with me.

The 20 WHYS Tshirts I brought with me vanished in a flash, the programme is incrediably popular here as the World Service is heard all day, every day on FM 94.8.. So it's little surprise I'm not the only one waiting for the rest of the team to arrive and get stuck in.

Expect three programmes from us next week, the final one on Thursday 2nd December with a big Salone audience and no topic as yet, Freetown are ready to host the global conversation... where shall we begin?

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