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VIII. Conclusion

The regional warriors interviewed for this report described a universe as full of brutality as it was devoid of hope. They spoke of suffering at the hands of armed groups who devastated their villages, left their loved ones dead, robbed them of their childhoods and initiated them into a world of violence and impunity. As combatants at home and abroad they described acting as if they had license, to pillage, rape and take human life. Once the guns fell silent they found themselves suspended in a grim world of deprivation, boredom and poverty. Opportunity presented itself in the form of an offer to fight in ‘another man’s war.’ Defeated by the socio-economic conditions back home – conditions created in part by their own violent behavior – they slipped, optimistic, across borders and into their next war. 

The regional warriors unanimously identified crippling poverty and hopelessness as the key factors which motivated them to risk dying in subsequent armed conflicts. This socio-economic reality is tragically mirrored by millions of others in West Africa and beyond, who, as aptly noted in the report of Sierra Leone’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission “languish in a twilight zone of unemployment and despair.”154

That thousands of youth have grown to see war as the most promising economic opportunity on offer attests to serious failings within their own governments.  To rise above this dangerous status-quo, these governments must wage war against the deep-rooted issues that gave rise to and triggered conflict in the first place – a culture of impunity, endemic corruption, weak rule of law, ethnic favoritism, crushing poverty, and the inequitable distribution of natural resources.  Government institutions designed to represent and protect their people – the parliament, the judiciary, the police and army – must act responsibly and fulfill their constitutional and legal obligations instead of betraying them, and in some cases, preying upon the very populations they are entrusted to serve.

Key international actors working to resolve the crises in the region – the United Nations, the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) – must  help governments stay the course towards transparency, development and the establishment of the rule of law. They must investigate and be willing to expose information about arms shipments, the recruitment of child combatants and governments that allow their territory to be used by proxy armies aimed at destabilizing one another. They must also be committed to bringing to justice those state and non-state actors who bear the greatest responsibility for the most serious human rights crimes committed during the regions’ armed conflicts. The pursuit of justice for victims must play a central role in all future efforts to end the region’s conflicts and rebuild these devastated societies. Symbolic gestures that allow the organizers of widespread and systematic human rights crimes to go unpunished and political processes that allow war criminals to contest political office make a mockery of the suffering of countless victims who lives have been torn apart by the violence.

Governments and the international community alike must listen to the voices of victims and perpetrators, like those interviewed for this report, who expressed a strong desire for the West African sub-region to rise above the devastating sub-regional cycle of violence that has blighted their dreams, destroyed their communities and engulfed the region.   

The only thing I want is to learn. I want to work – that way you don’t have time to think about doing bad things like going to war. A few months ago a commander came to Bo Waterside and told us to ready ourselves to fight again. I knew some people who were on standby, but I told him not to count on me. I don’t even know where the new fight was. I’m not angry at him for taking me to Liberia the last time; poverty is to blame. When I don’t have any money, I didn’t have any other choice but go. But not again, with the chance for the new money and learning a skill in Liberia, development is what’s in my head. I’m finished with war. I’ve got a woman now – and although we don’t have children yet – we want to one day.  I will be able to stand for my family, one day. I pray to God one day I still stand for my family....155

[154] Reuters, “Causes of Sierra Leone war still present – report”, October 6, 2004.

[155] Human Rights Watch interview, Bo, Sierra Leone, July 28, 2004.

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