|North Bombali district EU election observer team: Chris, Abdoulaye, Barbara, Issac|
As the third elections since the end of the war, many commentators considered peaceful elections would mark Sierra Leone’s transition from a post conflict to more normal developing country, albeit the eighth poorest in the world.
Elections have a raw emotional significance for Sierra Leonians: the RUF cut off people’s arms as punishment for voting. We met some of these amputees while investigating electoral access for vulnerable groups. There was something unbelievably shocking about it: That these people were missing arms not from injuries sustained in battle, but a deliberate act of torture from one human being to another. It is almost impossible to imagine the horror they went through, but I believe one should make the attempt so as to understand that people face this injustice and it must be stopped.
Conflict occurs so often in least developed countries because it is both one cause and a symptom of extreme poverty: 73% of least developed countries have recently experienced civil war or are currently in one.1 International law recognises our collective responsibility to intervene where a state is unable to protect its people from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing in the Responsibility to Protect, with military force as a last resort. While too often the international community has ignored this responsibility, in Sierra Leone UN peacekeepers, backed by the British Army, did intervene and stop the war.
|Barbara and Issac interviewing a voter|
Issac’s hip never healed correctly and he is unlikely to ever be able to afford the surgery to reset it. His mother died when he was much younger and as an only child it is easy to imagine him succumbing or becoming one more brutalised child soldier.
Instead, his father’s best friend took care of him and he went to secondary school. Issac’s father was a subsistence farmer and the family had no history of education but somehow Issac dreamt of becoming a human rights lawyer. He passed the exam to get into university and started cold calling senior members of his community, telling them his story, his dream and asking for donations for his fees. A year later he had enough money for his first year.
Today Issac is a 24 year old top student with a linguistics degree and is half way through law school. He still depends on his community for support and is currently fundraising the $4,000 he needs for the final two years. He told me he wants to be a human rights lawyer to ensure no one suffers as he did and stand up against injustice in Sierra Leone. Perhaps he seeks release from his own anger in healing the hurt of others.
But if there is one reason why I’m optimistic about least developed countries escaping poverty it’s because their communities have extraordinary people like Issac who do not accept their situation, expand their sense of the possible, and lead.