- Rebels in a Rotten State: Understanding Atrocity in Sierra Leone by Kieran Mitton
In the introduction to Rebels in a Rotten State: Understanding Atrocity in Sierra Leone, Kieran Mitton makes it abundantly clear that he “aims to shed much needed light on the causes and shaping forces of extreme violence, focusing specifically on the civil war that took place in Sierra Leone between 1991 and 2000” and adds that he gives “dedicated attention to the phenomenon of atrocity in its own right, avoiding the common and misleading tendency to conflate causes of war with causes of violence” (p. 1). He fulfills both assignments, and the users of his publication should be delighted.
In seven well-documented chapters, Mitton discusses aspects of atrocities in the Sierra Leonean conflict. His intention is not to rehash stories of suffering, as he feels that they belong to the past: instead, “the purpose, and it is hoped the value, of this book is that by better understanding them, we might find more effective ways to prevent, respond to, and address the consequences of atrocities” (p. 3).
To bring his readers closer to the issues he is addressing, he provides explanations for the atrocities in Sierra Leone, including throwing light on the aftermath of the civil war. He usefully cites other authorities, including those who regard “the Sierra Leonean conflict as the archetype of what some described as ‘new wars’’’ (p. 7). Readers will benefit from his discussion of the problem of irrational violence, as he goes to the extent of using his publication to highlight “the problem of moving to exclusive extremes of both irrationality and rationality when discussing atrocities” (p. 11).
For almost four years, from September 2008 to April 2012, Mitton conducted fieldwork in various places in the country, including the capital of Freetown, with visits to such districts as Bo, Kenema, and Kailahun. For accuracy and reliable information, he “conducted interviews with a range of individuals across the country, including chiefs, politicians, civil-society representatives, UN staff, and military officers” (p. 20). He made sure that warring factions were interviewed: “Another group I spent time with and interviewed were former combatants and war-wounded based in Grafton, to the east of Freetown” (p. 21).
Readers will learn that the Special Court for Sierra Leone was an important tool in gauging facts from combatants, “another factor shaping the willingness of ex-combatants to talk about their involvement in acts [End Page 104] classified as war crimes” (p. 25). Readers with legal minds, who wish to see some clear-cut legal facts, will benefit from Mitton’s disclosure that thirteen indictments were issued in 2003, “and by the end of my fieldwork in 2010, the trials of three former AFRC leaders and two CDF members had been completed, the trials of three former senior RUF commanders were in the appeal phase, and the trial of former Liberian President Charles Taylor at The Hague was in the defense phase” (p. 25). Apart from a useful conclusion (pp. 253–285), discussing issues from anarchy to order, the book provides information on Mitton’s recorded interviews (pp. 287–91), a list of sources in detailed notes (pp. 293–303), an impressive bibliographic section, and a subject index. Mitton shows that he has done extensive fieldwork on the Sierra Leonean civil war and its attendant atrocities. His work is very much commendable.