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Testimony about cruel war echoes in Sierra Leone court

Children fought in 1991-02 conflict

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone -- Witness TF-1196 told her story: Rebels used machetes to hack all movement and life out of her husband. Then a rebel young enough to be her child raped her.

The middle-aged woman raised the rounded tips of her arms to show why she had not signed her statement, delivered before a UN-backed war crimes court for the diamond-rich west African nation of Sierra Leone.

"After they had killed my husband, a rebel . . . chopped off my right and left hands with a cutlass, into four bits," TF-1196 told the court.

Survivors this week and last have begun telling their accounts of one of Africa's most heartless wars: a 1991-2002 campaign by rebels who killed, raped, kidnapped, and hacked to pieces hundreds of thousands of civilians in hopes of terrorizing Sierra Leone into ceding control of its government and diamond fields.

Rebels, many of them children as young as 5, followed Foday Sankoh, whom they called Pappy. Sankoh gave his fighters AK-47s, marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines, and encouragement to kill in the most brutal way their immature minds could devise.

The rebels' campaign played out in Sierra Leone's countryside, for the most part, leaving the death toll uncertain. Their victims' accounts are attracting little world notice, in contrast to war crimes trials for Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

But the stories -- told in a sterile, specially built courtroom in a country that is officially the world's least-developed -- reflect the extent of human cruelty.

Another woman, witness TF-064 testified this week about the day rebels came to her village. The court assigned the number to protect her identity.

TF-064, the prosecution's fifth witness, told the court how rebels raped her, even though she was pregnant.

She described how fighters took off her sister's panties, then forced a knife into her.

Her tears came only when she spoke of gunmen separating the adults and children of the village into two groups: adults inside a building; eight children, including her 1- and 3-year-old sons, under an orange tree.

"We heard the children screaming," she said. "After a while, the screaming stopped. . . . When we came outside, we saw the corpses of the children lying on the ground."

Then, witness TF-064 cried for 10 minutes, uninterrupted.

"Please, hold your heart and speak," Presiding Judge Benjamin Itoe finally told the woman, and she continued.

Rebels killed most of the villagers and then forced survivors to leave with them, she said. They spared one boy to carry a sack dripping with blood.

The rebels eventually called her over to show what was inside the bag -- the heads of the village's children, including her sons'.

"Before we left, I turned round and looked at the bodies on the ground. The rebels asked me to laugh as a gun was pointed at my head," she said. "I pretended to be laughing."

Sierra Leone's people are following the testimony via nightly summaries on radio. Most foreign media left after the trials' first days, in June.

Some witnesses now appearing said they were the only person left alive to tell about an attack.

"They came to me directly and asked whether I was the one leading the prayers. I said, 'Yes,' and they replied, 'Your life is finished,' " said a Muslim man, 67, testifying about the day in January 1999 when rebels overran the capital, Freetown.

He lived -- to later count 71 dead at the mosque, he said.

The horrors as rebels repeatedly overran Freetown ultimately helped prompt military intervention by colonial ruler Britain, neighboring Guinea, and UN and West African forces, crushing the rebels by 2002.

Sankoh died, of natural causes, in UN custody last year.

Prosecutors accuse foreign leaders of giving Sankoh arms, training, and cash to help fight the insurrection. Charles Taylor, the ousted Liberian president, is a fugitive from an indictment against him.

Thirteen people have been indicted, nine of whom are in custody. Three former rebel battlefield commanders are standing trial.

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