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(New York) - The widespread and systematic use of rape and other sexual violence during the ten-year civil war in Sierra Leone is documented in a new Human Rights Watch report released today.

The 75-page report, "‘We'll Kill You If You Cry:' Sexual Violence in the Sierra Leone Conflict," presents evidence of horrific abuses against women and girls in every region of the country by the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF), as well as other rebel, government and international peacekeeping forces.

"In this report, we have documented unimaginable atrocities against women in Sierra Leone," said Peter Takirambudde, executive director of the Africa division at Human Rights Watch. "The people responsible for these crimes must be held accountable." Takirambudde also said the victims of sexual violence urgently need help to regain their health and reintegrate into their communities.

The Human Rights Watch report, which is based on hundreds of interviews with victims, witnesses and officials, details crimes of sexual violence committed primarily by soldiers of various rebel forces - the RUF, the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), and the West Side Boys. The report also examines sexual violence by government forces and militias, as well as international peacekeepers.

Throughout the armed conflict in Sierra Leone from 1991 to 2001, thousands of women and girls of all ages, ethnic groups, and socioeconomic classes were subjected to widespread and systematic sexual violence, including individual and gang rape, and rape with objects such as weapons, firewood, umbrellas and pestles. These crimes of sexual violence were generally characterized by extraordinary brutality and frequently preceded or followed by other egregious human rights abuses against the victim, her family and her community. The rebels abducted many women and girls, who were subjected to sexual violence as well as being forced to perform housework, farm work and serve as military porters.

The rebels sought to dominate women and their communities by deliberately undermining cultural values and community relationships, destroying the ties that hold society together. Child combatants raped women who were old enough to be their grandmothers, rebels raped pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, and fathers were forced to watch their daughters being raped.

To date there has been no accountability for the thousands of crimes of sexual violence or other appalling human rights abuses committed during the war in Sierra Leone.

"The war in Sierra Leone became infamous for the amputation of hands and arms," said Takirambudde. "Rape may not be visible in the same way, but it is every bit as devastating."

The United Nations has established a Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to investigate human rights violations committed by all parties during the war. Human Rights Watch has urged both the SCSL and TRC to make sexual violence and sexual slavery a top priority, and investigate and prosecute gender-related crimes as crimes against humanity or war crimes.

Human Rights Watch also urged that the domestic legal system be revised to ensure that crimes of sexual violence are prosecuted in a sensitive manner.

The lack of attention to conflict-related sexual violence means that few assistance programs have been established for women and girls who were subjected to sexual violence, including sexual slavery. Survivors not only live with the severe physical and mental health consequences of the abuses suffered, but also fear ongoing non-conflict-related sexual violence, largely perpetrated with impunity. International donors and nongovernmental organizations should work together with the government of Sierra Leone to establish programs (health care, education, adult literacy, skills training, trauma counseling and income-generating schemes) that will help to rehabilitate the survivors of sexual violence.

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