Matrix Podcast: Interview with Mariane Ferme

Mariane Ferme


In this episode, Michael Watts talks with Mariane C. Ferme, Professor of Anthropology at UC Berkeley and the author of Out of War: Violence, Trauma, and the Political Imagination in Sierra Leone and The Underneath of Things: Violence, History, and the Everyday in Sierra Leone.

Ferme is a sociocultural anthropologist whose current research focuses on the political imagination, violence and conflict, and access to justice in West Africa, particularly Sierra Leone. Her research encompasses gendered approaches to everyday practices and materiality in agrarian West African societies, and work on the political imagination in times of violence, particularly in relation to the 1991-2002 civil war in Sierra Leone. Her most recent fieldwork in Sierra Leone—carried out in 2015-16—was an interdisciplinary research project on changing agrarian institutions and access to land in the country. Ferme’s latest book, Out of War: Violence, Trauma, and the Political Imagination in Sierra Leone, draws on her three decades of ethnographic engagements to examine the physical and psychological aftereffects of the harms of Sierra Leone’s civil war.

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Podcast Transcript

Woman’s Voice: The Matrix Podcast is a production of Social Science Matrix, an interdisciplinary research center at the University of California, Berkeley. Your host is Professor Michael Watts.

Michael Watts: Hello, and welcome to Matrix Podcast. This is Michael Watts, and my guest today is Professor Mariane Ferme, a very distinguished sociocultural anthropologist, a scholar of Africa. And so we’re excited to talk to her today about her new book and about her work more generally. Mariane was educated at Wellesley and the University of Milan, University of Chicago, has held various visiting appointments at Cambridge, Ecole des Hautes Etudes in Paris, Leuven, and so on.

And for over three decades has been working in West Africa, Sierra Leone in particular, exploring a variety of hugely important issues around conflict and the trauma of conflict, humanitarianism and its legacies, various sorts of jurisprudence associated with victimhood and criminality in times of war.

She’s published two books. Her first book, The Underneath of Things– Violence, History, and Everyday in Sierra Leone, and more recently, her new book, Out of War– Violence, Trauma, and the Political Imagination in Sierra Leone. Mariane, welcome.

Mariane Ferme: Thank you.

Michael Watts: So let me start with a sort of general question. You’ve spent a large part of your professional life living, working in Sierra Leone. And perhaps most listeners might associate Sierra Leone with the long, decade long civil war in that country, in the 1990s in particular.

And that, as you point out in your books and in your work, was often seen as an exemplar of a certain type of post-cold war, sometimes referred to as new forms of war or new barbarism.

A famous article written referred to the coming anarchy. You’ve been quite critical of this. I wondered if you could just talk a little bit about how now with some distance, you reflect upon Sierra Leone as part of that larger landscape of conflict in post-cold war Africa.

Mariane Ferme: So the civil war in Sierra Leone lasted between 1991 and 2002. So it falls squarely within the period following the end, the official end, shall we say, to the cold war, with the fall of the Berlin wall, in which the large blocks of alliances that had been in place before started fragmenting.

And in particular, the availability of many cheap, small light weapons on the world weapon market in Africa, in particular mostly being sold by former East Bloc countries to raise capital, all of a sudden flooded the markets.

And that decade saw a really many different parts of the continent becoming embroiled in what’s been called low-intensity conflicts, mostly because they mostly used conventional weapons but were still often quite long-lasting and quite bloody.

That was a decade of the Rwandan genocide, and it was also the decade of the falling apart of the former Yugoslavia. So it wasn’t just Africa that was affected by these conflicts.

Sierra Leone is a small country, roughly the size of Illinois, just to give you a comparison. And so in many ways, kind of a small-scale theater in which to look at these larger forces in play.

One of the things that clearly happened from very early on, and it was quite obvious in the aftermath especially, was that this conflict needs to be understood in a regional setting.

So another publication that I worked on was the editing of a special issue of a Francophone Africanist Journal, which looked precisely at the regionalization of conflict in the ways in which Liberia, Sierra Leone at various points in time and certain locations, even Guinea, which by and large stayed out of the conflict, but other regional actors and all the way into Cote d’Ivoire where there was an exacerbation of north-south tensions and the breaking out of conflicts that eventually involved even Liberian and Sierra Leonean mercenaries who came out of those local conflicts took off.

So the regional aspect is important to understand some of the inflammatory, some of the precipitating events. The fact that the leader– one of the key warlords involved in the Liberian civil war next door, which started in ’89, so a couple of years before the actual conflict in Sierra Leone broke out, his connections with Libyan counter insurgency movement and Gaddafi at the time.

Burkina Faso at one point intervened with its own fighters. And eventually, the civil war kind of moved over the border into Sierra Leone, where very soon afterwards there was a military coup and it had been at that point under single party rule for some 25 years.

So there was a lot of pent up discontent, which with the addition of some good training and a lot of weapons, sort of brought about the expansion of this conflict.

Now, from the beginning, in my own work, I mean, I was in a region– I had been working in Sierra Leone for the better part of the previous decade. So to me, what was very remarkable when I returned to the country during the civil war was how local pre-existing conflicts got folded into this larger conflict.

So when I went back during the civil war to the chiefdom, rural chiefdom where I’d spent a good number of years living previously–

Watts: And which part of the country was that, Mariane?

Ferme: This was the southeast. So it wasn’t very far from the Liberian border. And already in 1990, when I was there working on a documentary film, on an ethnographic film, we started seeing a lot of relatives who had been living in Liberia, where the economy had been in better shape than in Sierra Leone, coming back to the country and talking about conflict and insecurity right over the border.

The border between Liberia and Sierra Leone, a good chunk of it separates Mende speaking people. So there’s people who speak the same language and belong to the same ethnicity, and then part of it is Kissi speakers.

And I was in a Mende speaking region where there had been a lot of informal cross-border mobility, even in the pre-war decades, particularly depending on the economic situation in each country.

So the fact that the Liberian economy was supported by the American dollar to a certain extent made trade in that direction advantageous. Sometimes things turned around, et cetera.

So already we’d seen informally streams of people. But when you went back into the area during the civil war, it was amazing how even after there had been a rebel incursions in the chiefdom where I was mostly based, how selective destruction was. You could visit a particular village and see every other house burnt out and shot up, and then others perfectly intact.

And if you map that on the massive political conflict that there had been around the 1986 elections, which were the first elections after Siaka Stevens, who had controlled the country since independence, gave up voluntarily his office there for the first national major presidential elections, that created a lot of conflict in this region, in this particular chiefdom.

I’ve written about the reasons for this, but the destruction was mapped perfectly on those pre-war tensions between the two opposing sides in those elections.

Watts: Can I ask you– you mentioned this destruction, this mapping that you’ve just described. At the time, of course, the conflict was cast in very pronounced terms and hence this term of the new types of wars or a new barbarism, which emphasized the child combatants, which emphasized the horrific violence.

Now, with some distance from those events, was that a type of– not a fiction, of course, not, but was that a type of exaggeration in some way, in your view, now in keeping with the ways in which the continent had been historically viewed or what?

Watts: There was a lot of, if you like, very inflammatory language around that, to say nothing of Hollywood films and so on, Blood Diamonds and what have you. How do you now reflect upon that aspect of the violence that you just referred to?

Ferme: The horrific violence– so I assume you refer to the mutilation campaigns–

Watts: Precisely, precisely.

Ferme:–that captured the imagination–

Watts: Precisely.

Ferme:–of the media and of the international communities. And as one colleague pointed out, at the time, it was only in an era in which we had been lulled into the perception that you could carry out precision warfare from a distance without casualties on your side.

For instance, exemplified by the Iraq war, with all this precision distance drone mediated or whatever hits that actually cause tremendous destruction and maiming on the ground, but not necessarily where it could be represented visually by outside media.

It’s only in that context that you can talk about a face-to-face combat and what mutilations and other kind of bloody forms of killing are happening as particularly horrendous, even among other things.

Because in terms of total casualties, there really is no comparison between the fatalities and casualties in some of those wars versus these kind of African wars, as they’re called, these new kinds of African conflicts.

So in a sense, it’s a continuation of earlier forms of warfare. But it is true that there were these quite explicit mutilation campaigns that were targeting aspects of the complaints of the Revolutionary United Front, who were the main so-called rebel force combating in this conflict. It was targeting their opposition from 1996, which was the first multi-party election held in the middle of the civil war.

The beginning of these mutilation campaigns can actually be linked to some of the canvassing slogans that were being spread by international donors and partners who were pressuring the country to actually transition out of the military coup that had happened in ’92 towards a multi-party election that might assuage the rebels and convince them to come to the negotiating tables.

So the most common slogan was one hand, one vote, which was also a reference to the widespread corruption that had characterized earlier elections in which the same people would register to vote under multiple identities in different locales and vote more than once, or so went the rumor.

The first mutilation campaign was actually an explicit response to that. And they started by cutting hands, to say, go back to the government and tell them that until all foreign actors are out of here– in particular, they were against the presence of the South African mercenary firm Executive Outcomes and of Nigerian-led regional peacekeeping forces of the Economic Community of West Africa and–

Watts: Yes, ECOWAS.

Ferme: –Monitoring Group, or ECOMOG. Until these people are out of the country, we will not accede to elections, which they had wanted, but not under those circumstances.

So after that, it kind of became a blueprint. And some fighters even said to scholars who interviewed them later in the conflict, this garnered international attention.

So whenever we feel that we needed to get people to come to the table and pay attention to our complaints, we knew that this was the only way to make people respond. So it became kind of a blueprint for later actions. But it wasn’t this kind of irrational explosion.

Watts: That’s right. That’s what I was suggesting. It was pictured in that way in the popular press, of course, back in the 1990s as this sort of irrational types of violence.

Ferme: And of course, I don’t want to make too much of that kind of rationalization because if that’s really the logic of the violence you’re perpetrating, you don’t chop arms off babies and children and so on who are too young to vote and too–

Watts: Of course.

Ferme: You’re clearly wanting to leave lasting marks on people’s bodies of this conflict, while still leaving them alive to tell the story in a sense.

Watts: Of course, of course. Let me just follow up on that before we get to–

Ferme: To the child soldiers.

Watts: –to your book. But also, I mean, you were there during this period in the 1990s. And I take it both working there and having friends there of long-standing and the post-war period does exact both an emotional toll on people like yourself and to say nothing of presumably all manner of ethical conundra that emerge.

Talking to people about trauma, yet alone, as you were saying, traveling admittedly in a landscape that was unevenly affected by the war, I wonder if you could talk a little bit about just your personal experiences with respect to those sorts of issues working in war-torn, deeply conflicted, and in this case, quite violent types of environments.

Ferme: Yeah. So you ask about the ethical questions. I mean, I think as someone who had already been engaged in research in the country before this conflict broke out, I felt that I had– I mean, I wanted to know what was going on and how this conflict was affecting the communities in which I had established relationships.

So there was never a question of mine not going back at all. And also, I could tell from reports I was hearing back from Sierra Leoneans I knew in different parts of the country how episodic and sometimes contained these episode was. And I felt that I did have enough on the ground knowledge to be able to navigate that situation.

Having said that, I did find myself during a return trip in 1993, a situation in which rebels who had heard that there was a white person in a fairly remote area in which most other, I mean, NGOs, missionaries even had been evacuated.

We faced a situation in which– I mean, I had to be hidden by villagers who fortunately– bush radio is very, very efficient. And we would hear about rebel incursions before they happened when they were three villages over and then move ahead of them, basically.

And they often announced their arrival because of the politics of fear and how that works. So it wasn’t that hard often to know that they were on their way.

So in one case where clearly word had gotten out that there was a white person and someone actually came looking for me and I had to hide on a farm with some people, I felt that I might put other people in danger.

So I decided not to come back until– or not to come back to that area until the conflict had moved to other parts of the country, or just stay in the capital city, which turned out wasn’t such a safe place because the worst single attack during the civil war happened in Freetown, the capital city, in January 1999.

So I think it’s important to give voice to what’s happening, even if this contradicts the narratives that sometimes humanitarian actors want to spread in order to maintain sympathy.

In situations of danger, I’m always guided by a phrase in one of Hannah Arendt’s essays in which she said the real casualty, the first casualty in war is truth, not opinion. That, in fact, the first thing people are going to try to do is undermine a kind of version of truth and transform it into opinion.

So when there were exaggerate– that meant that when there were reports of exaggerated violence that did not correspond to my knowledge of the facts, I would actually say this.

And when I would say this in the overestimation of casualties, particularly of amputees in the civil war, when I would say this, I would often be pilloried by people in academic audiences or activists who said, you’re just trying to diminish the gravity of the war. And I mean, I don’t think that’s the case.

Watts: Of course. Just returning briefly to child combatants, which was another dimension that received a lot of press in addition to the amputations, for example. And I know you’ve worked a lot on that.

I wonder if you could just say a few words about, again, something that wasn’t unique to Sierra Leone. Of course, it was as much the case in Angola and Mozambique in roughly earlier periods.

Ferme: And Uganda, the recruitment.

Watts: Of course.

Ferme: I mean, it’s important, again, to understand the context. And it’s only since the widespread availability of very light weapons that children could carry and handle did it become fairly easy to conceive of, of recruiting young combatants. All militaries have liked to recruit people young when they could shape them according to particular ideologies and disciplines.

But in Sierra Leone, like in other conflicts around the war of that decade, there was a sustained recruitment of young children, and it incited a whole range of debates about questions of agency consent intentionality.

Because often, these children were drugged and reduced to conditions where it was very hard for them to object to the atrocities that they were then forced to perpetrate. But in some cases, they weren’t.

And it’s interesting that in the debates that were unleashed in the international jurisprudence that ramped up to address war crimes in the decade, the people who actually wanted to find a middle ground between saying these are just unwilling innocent victims and saying, as we say in many states in this country now, that for certain kinds of crimes, we should treat even teenagers as adults–

Watts: As adults.

Ferme: –were African international actors like Graca Machel, First Lady of South Africa, Kofi Annan, the Secretary General of the United nations, who said, well, maybe after the age of 15 without sort of pinning down particular numbers and ages, we should treat on an individual case basis.

The agency and degree of responsibility of combatants who may have been recruited under conditions of duress, but then went on to prove in situations in which they could have pulled back or in which they could have– that they were actually active perpetrators of these kinds of atrocities.

But the way it was done was obviously designed to isolate these young people and make it impossible for them to go back to the communities that might offer them alternatives by forcing them to commit atrocities against family members in public in front of the rest of the community, by tattooing the RUF, the Revolutionary United Front initials on their bodies so that if they were captured, they’d be tortured and killed by the other factions or the army in the war and so on.

Watts: Absolutely, absolutely. Let me jump forward a little bit because I want to spend some time on your Out of War book. I mean, this is obviously– what we’ve been describing are the dynamics of the conflict itself, which dragged on for over a decade, which involved, among other things, large-scale peacekeeping forces present in the country. It involved a massive, as you point out, a humanitarian support and intervention.

In your book, you begin to look at the legacies of the post-war period, psychological among others. I wonder if you could talk– and particularly the types of traumas and how they endure over time.

And two of the major themes that you address in that book and your new book is, on the one hand, trauma and how it’s experienced and reproduced, and on the other hand, the different senses of time that carry those traumatic and other types of effects.

I wonder if you could just sort of walk us through those relationships a little bit and how you think it was important to understanding what type of mark that long war left in the country.

Ferme: Times of war are also times of great creativity. And I mean, disruption can be, as all crises, can also generate something, right? So one of the things that I was surprised not having lived through a conflict before then was the booming war economy.

So an economy that had been stagnant, devastated, slowed down by structural adjustments and program impoverishment during the decade leading up to the war, all of a sudden things were moving, roads were being improved because armies need to have decent roads to carry themselves.

Watts: And people can make money from that, presumably.

Ferme: And yes, absolutely. There was fuel everywhere. That was the constant mantra of fuel scarcity sort of hitting randomly, and so on. So there was that thing. And in some areas, people were actually better fed during the civil war and its immediate aftermath.

Then, for instance, in 2008, when I went back after the world financial crisis and I’d seen people so gaunt and really hungry from the sharp increase in the cost of transportation, a bad harvest, and so on. So the unevenness and the different ways in which war can change livelihoods in a particular place.

After the first post-conflict decade went by, shall we say, I felt that pretty much all the immediate traumas, the people who would wander around constantly talking about their wounding, their experiences, and so on, was pretty much addressed more or less.

But what struck me is the belatedness, which is a concept that I use quite a bit, and in fact, it’s the title of one of my book chapters, with which certain kinds of trauma can hit.

And in particular, I was struck by the loss of intergenerational transmission of farming knowledge, which was a kind of livelihood that I was especially interested in as a result of the fact that a whole generation of young children basically had grown up in refugee camps or in the peri-urban areas where they could have access to wartime food rations and kind of humanitarian aid, and the fatalities that this caused as late as this past decade, the teens since well after the end of the war.

So one of the cases that I look at is at a time of increasing environmental problems and especially long dry seasons, which I’ve been witnessing more and more in Sierra Leone in recent years, there were more and more bush fires which were lit to clear fields that were going out of control and causing serious injuries and fatalities even.

So there was one in the village where I was working that had happened just a few days before my return, in which a young man from the community had been killed because he’d come back to help his mother lay her rice farm for the year.

Having basically grown up in urban areas and in camps and had really made a fairly silly mistake in the lighting of this field of dry cut brush and ended up being surrounded by flames and not being able to get out of it. So that accidents of men who fell off palm trees because they just hadn’t acquired the skills.

Watts: Had lost their expertise.

Ferme: So the kind of belatedness of the way in which certain kinds of physical and even psychological traumas can hit was an aspect that I wanted to write about. And that often after the major humanitarian intervention and the major wartime scholarly intervention is often not visible, not seen as much–

Watts: Not visible, right?

Ferme: By the same token, to speak about temporality in a different vein, it was quite striking how events that happened during the first half of the civil war when there was relatively little international media attention and humanitarian intervention versus the second half of the war when basically the international community decided that it was going to–

Especially after the intervention of governments like the UK’s former colonial power, in which Tony Blair’s government decided they were going to really try and put an end to this conflict that was kept on reigniting after various peace attempts in 1996, ’99 and every time conflict started again.

So 1999-2000, when the British and the international community decided to step in there and deploy what at that time was the largest peacekeeping operation ever deployed anywhere on the grounds that if it doesn’t work in a small country like Sierra Leone, it won’t work anywhere. So we better make it work here.

At that point, when there was all this international scrutiny and media attention, a lot of events that had happened during the first half of the war that actually were critical to understanding what was unfolding then had already been forgotten.

So the intermittent ways in which events are remembered, forgotten, sometimes even discussed at the national level and in the local national media quite extensively, and then they completely disappear from the collective consciousness.

And one of the ways I track these events that had I not been there, I probably wouldn’t have known about during the early part of the conflict is through neologisms, is to names that were given to places and circulated in the popular discourse where a particular rebel attack had happened, where there had been casualties.

Or times of really intensely experienced hunger in particular places, and all the words, the proverbs and popular expressions that it generated to describe that time, how that kind of marked certain moments and places in the conflict.

And the fact that these neologisms had completely disappeared by the end of the war also meant that some of the memories associated with them had sort of become more emergent.

But every time I would bring these out– because had I not had my notes to say, but don’t you remember when everyone was talking about this particular expression? And they’d all say, oh, my gosh, you’re right. And I haven’t heard it in so long. I’d forgotten,

Watts: Right, right, right. One of the other things that you talk about in your book at the level of aftermath is that during the war itself, institutions of what are sometimes called customary rule or chieftainship, which are, of course, endemic across the continent, were themselves disrupted because people fled, because of displacements. And many of the chieftainship positions at the end of the war were not even occupied.

I wonder if you could talk a little bit about what that consequence and what happened in the wake of the war in terms of the type of role that these hugely important institutions of local governance, if you like, have historically played in Sierra Leone and elsewhere.

Ferme: So yeah, one of my special interests over the years has been the institution of the chieftaincy or chiefship in Sierra Leone, and particularly the paramount chieftaincy.

The country is divided in about 148 chiefdoms that are grouped into districts and each chiefdom has a paramount chief and speaker, and then their subchiefs below them.

But the paramount chief is basically the main interlocutor of the national government, the main link between the national government and local politics. It’s not a democratic institution. This is basically royalty, right? Once you’re elected, it’s a very hybrid institution in interesting ways,

Watts: But competitive, though. But competitive?

Ferme: It’s competitively contested, and it starts with an election. Although, the candidates can only come from enumerated ruling houses that were institutionalized. A list was drawn up by the British colonial administration before– towards the end, actually, of British rule and left in place in independence in 1961.

And it’s this classic, hybrid, colonial thing in which post-colonial Sierra Leoneans run to these colonial documents to establish their own legitimacy in challenging, in running for the next chiefship.

So it is contested and there is an election, but only among limited individuals, a very small group of individuals. And then once you’re in place, it’s a lifelong institution, unless you really get basically replaced by the state having committed some sort of crime.

So it was a feeling of many institution, governments, and scholars, including myself at the end of the war, that the country should take advantage of the fact that over 40% of these positions were vacant for a number of reasons.

In some cases, chiefs were targeted by rebels, again, within the rubric of settling scores at a time in which there was local discontent against them. In other cases, they simply left the country or left their chiefdoms and never came back. And in other cases, it was just natural mortality during a 10-year period can take them away.

So there was a feeling that this was a good moment to replace them with more democratic and accountable institutions, like the district councils that had been in place until the 1970s, but had been very ineffectual in part because the paramount chiefs were so powerful that nothing the district councils needed to do could be done without the cooperation, and therefore the involvement of paramount chiefs.

Watts: But was the idea to abolish the notion of that paramountcy or was the idea to retool it or repurpose it in some way that would, quote, “make it more democratic?”

Ferme: So, I mean, many Sierra Leoneans were on both sides of that debate. But the British government, which had a lot of capital, of social and capital by the end of the civil war because it had really made the decisive intervention that put an end to the conflict and it had committed resources to this felt that under the rubric of chiefdom governance reform program, that it was best to actually reform and strengthen the institution, make it more accountable, give proper salaries to paramount chiefs to diminish the incentive for corrupt practices, which they had been engaged in and which made them very unpopular to raise revenue.

That really the best solution was to reform the institution. And that was because they felt that this was a possible way of finding a culturally acceptable alternative to the overcentralization of power and of economic means in the hands of the central government, which, in their view, was one of the key factors in having such a corrupt government as the Sierra Leonean government had been leading into the civil war.

So it was basically decentralization in a culturally acceptable way in their view. And they didn’t really, I think, think through very carefully the question of the lack of accountability of paramount chiefs.

So they did some things like helping– along with the international community and NGOs, and so on, helping the renaissance of district councils in which paramount chiefs were also represented. But they never actually addressed the structural limitations of district councils in their earlier iterations. So they turned out to be fairly weak.

And I guess the jury is still out now. The last time I was in Sierra Leone, they were still kind of hamstrung by the fact that they didn’t have robust budgets from the central government. So they still relied on paramount chiefs to raise taxes and revenues so they could implement any programs they wanted to implement.

Watts: But I take it these reforms were also happening simultaneously with the liberalization of the economy in the 2000. So did that class of individuals– those reforms and that existing class of chiefs, did they become, as your newer work on agricultural change in the country seems to be pointing toward, they became the sort of local brokers or they became the intermediaries for new forms of investment or new types of liberalization strategies that were being pursued in that period?

Ferme: Yes, so the idea was in these neoliberal reforms, there were all kinds of new agencies. And so there was this narrative of trying to streamline and facilitate foreign investment by bypassing central government agencies.

There was a robust presence still until my most recent trip in Sierra Leone, which was ending in 2016, still a robust legacy of legislation that human rights, lawyers, and members of NGOs that wanted to be vigilant about the exploitation of resources and post-conflict situations.

They had actually set up some fairly robust guidelines for carrying out environmental impact assessments and reports and all this. But the implementation of all of these regulations was very weak, and it was very hit or miss.

So I worked with a couple of NGOs, legal empowerment and legal rights NGOs who actually made it their business to monitor all the pipelines of contracts that were making their way.

Eventually, these things do have to be overseen by government agencies, ministry of agriculture, and so on before they can be finalized. They would monitor these contracts and these reports, environmental impact reports, and so on.

And in some cases, actually sued or got involved in a pre-lawsuit phase, shall we say, with some of these actors to ensure that local people weren’t being exploited, that the government wasn’t losing revenue over them, and so on. So it was largely in the hands of the NGO sector to have some kind of supervision and inform the government of these things.

The other thing that was happening from the ground up where I was, was there were all kinds of ways in which local authorities and farmers, farming communities could engage in foot-dragging practices that made it very difficult to actually implement contracts that were being agreed to in the abstract.

So these contracts existed on paper and gave certain foreign investors rights to exploit certain tracts of land. But you’d see nothing happening on the ground–

Watts: On the ground.

Ferme: –for years in some cases.

Watts: Exactly.

Ferme: So it was very much a situation in flux.

Watts: Let me ask you one last question, Mariane, and that comes up in also in your book. And that is that in many of these post-war sorts of situations or even post-genocidal situations, the question of what constitutes justice, redistributive or transitional justice, as it’s sometimes called.

The sorts of things that we saw in Rwanda post-genocide, trying to put divided communities back together, or Ditto in Colombia and the civil war, even truth commissions, as we saw in South Africa.

Wonder if you could just talk a little bit about the Sierra Leonean experience in that regard, trying to come to terms again with this legacy question of the terrible civil war.

Ferme: Yeah, I do believe that these conversations, which often happen in the abstract and based on universal principles, should always also be tailored to the individual circumstances of particular conflicts.

We have seen that, for instance, in this conflict, it had its own modalities of violence, it had its own modality– the other signal crime that was added to the international humanitarian jurisprudence based on war crimes committed in Sierra Leone and Yugoslavia and Rwanda to some extent.

But was the crime of forced marriage and sexual enslavement, which had been identified and prosecuted in Yugoslavia and Rwanda as well. But the first successful convictions happened in the special court for Sierra Leone. So there was a question of gender crimes and how you make amends for those as well.

In the Sierra Leonean case, the international community had an outcry because there was a sentiment in the country that in order to get peace, people were willing to consider amnesty.

And in fact, in the very first post-conflict arrangement, the Revolutionary United Front was granted ministries and cabinet positions, including paradoxically the control of the ministry of mines and precious resources.

So a war that was fueled by diamonds, after this conflict fueled by diamonds, you’re putting the Ministry for exploiting diamonds in the hands of the rebel leadership, basically.

And there was an outcry about this. But there was a very strong sense in Sierra Leone that until peace was achieved and the cessation of hostilities, they weren’t ready to consider anything. And basically, accountability was a later sort of secondary concern.

So I think that was something that needed to be paid attention to, and it was to some extent. There were amnesty provisions included in the first two peace accords.

But after Lomé failed in 1999, international actors actually insisted to put a timeline on amnesty. And if those accord failed, then all bets were off, which is essentially what happened, because after hostilities started again in 2000, then this mechanism could start up in which a special court for a crime was established, and so on. Otherwise, there would have been even greater amnesty and immunities for crimes.

Having said that, there was a sense in Sierra Leone, as in other places, that reparations had not really been commensurate with the harms suffered to the extent that there were any.

That it was very difficult to convey the notion that because the UN process wants to establish a blueprint for rule of law behavior, which includes the humanitarian treatment of the accused and of prisoners in decent prisons and so on.

I mean, the people in the street were commenting on the fact that these people in their air conditioned jails with three meals a day were actually better off than some of their victims and those kinds of perceptions.

But I think Sierra Leone was an important step in the advancement of international jurisprudence. And one thing that is remarkable is the extent to which legacy involvement of the special court has remained over time in the country.

Even though with the trial, the last trial of Charles Taylor, former president of Liberia, basically the whole court and its archives had moved its proceedings to the Hague,

Watts: The Hague.

Ferme: They left in place a small group of personnel and a budget for legacy projects, including the continued support of victims and witnesses. And I was actually– there and did some research on– and even during the Ebola crisis outbreak in 2014, ’16 when I was there, the first people–

This legacy office of the court reached out to all the surviving witnesses and victims that they had dealt with during the trials at the special court to make sure they had information about health to meet– in one case in which one contracted Ebola and eventually died, they made sure they got them to a treatment unit. They sent out their personnel.

So that was something that I was quite struck by and that is quite different from earlier involvements of the international community and these international crime tribunals.

Watts: Thank you, Mariane, for a fascinating discussion. This podcast will be posted on our website, matrix.berkeley.edu. There are other podcasts there too. So please check them out whenever you have a moment. Thank you.

Ferme: My pleasure.

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