People & Power


Insight into the remarkable attempt to bring peacekeepers who committed crimes against the most vulnerable to justice.

Editor’s note: Viewers are advised that some of the images and testimony of victims in this episode of People & Power are deeply disturbing.

Almost two decades ago, when Sierra Leone was in the grip of a brutal civil war, troops from Nigeria (operating under the auspices of the Economic Community of West African States ECOWAS and its Military Observer Group ECOMOG) were deployed to protect civilians from rebel forces in the capital Freetown.

But instead, some of the peacekeepers turned on those they were meant to safeguard, committing atrocities that were captured on camera by a journalist, Sorious Samura, and later included in Cry Freetown, a landmark documentary about the conflict that shocked the world.

At the end of hostilities in 2002, a special United Nations-funded tribunal was established to “prosecute persons who bear the greatest responsibility for serious violations of international humanitarian law and Sierra Leonean law,” but in reality it only focused on the actions of combatants during the war – the alarming brutality of the Nigerian soldiers was never addressed.

Now Samura’s harrowing footage has become central to a remarkable attempt by an international group of lawyers to finally get justice and redress for the victims.


By Clive Patterson 

I believe this is the most important film I’ve had the opportunity to make. I’ve been making documentaries for almost 10 years and have covered many stories for Al Jazeera and others, mostly in Africa. They are important films about issues ranging from corruption and terrorism to the Ebola outbreak. This one is different.

The level of injustice, criminality and impunity shown here is so egregious that it stands in stark relief against all other films I have made. It is my hope and wish that this episode of People & Power will help shed light on a travesty of justice that requires immediate redress.

This is also a film that has been long in the making.

I first started working with Sorious Samura when I joined the production company Insight TWI in 2008. Before joining, I watched Cry Freetown, the film for which he and they were best known. I was horrified by what I saw: Acts of despicable violence being perpetrated by peacekeepers against young children, old women, unarmed civilians. Watching the film, I could only assume the perpetrators had long since been brought to justice. The fact they hadn’t was almost more shocking than the violence itself.

For years, we tried to secure funding for a documentary that would seek out the perpetrators and hold them accountable, if only by way of a filmed confrontation, but the resources never materialised. We moved on to other projects, but there was always a lingering frustration about the lack of interest in this terrible injustice.

Last year, when lawyers Karim Khan and Shyamala Alagendra called Sorious to inform him they were filing a case, it was a moment of great relief and gratitude, not least for Sorious.

During our first meeting with Karim in September, he said something I will never forget. We were discussing the steep rise in cases of abuse by UN peacekeepers. Karim stated his belief that Cry Freetown, and the fact the perpetrators in the film were never punished, served to fuel the culture of impunity that now seems to pervade peacekeeping missions around the world.

It was a chilling thought – a film that contained evidence which should have jailed abusers, instead emboldened future abusers. That is the perverse and terrifying reality of a world in which impunity prevails.

During a visit to The Hague last year, I witnessed a gathering of lawyers and judges from the International Criminal Court (ICC). The issue that inflamed their passions was what they referred to as the “impunity gap” – the unfortunate fact that the law continues to be applied selectively. Individuals, organisations or nations with wealth and influence often have the power to escape punishment for crimes they commit. Closing the impunity gap is one of the most important issues the world must face.

This notion of selective justice is something that also drove the lawyer who initiated this new case, Shyamala Alagendra. She was part of the prosecuting office at The Special Court of Sierra Leone. The court prosecuted various military organisations that committed crimes during the Sierra Leone Civil War. By all accounts, it did exemplary work in delivering justice in those cases. But it turned a blind eye to the crimes perpetrated by Nigerian peacekeepers.

Shyamala was a relatively junior member of the team and was not part of that decision-making process. She was never given an adequate explanation as to why justice was not allowed to run its course. So, she and Karim Khan decided to act.

Ultimately, this is a film about the victims. Many people suffered unspeakable horrors at the hands of these so-called peacekeepers. Some of those horrors were captured on camera for the entire world to see. Yet, for 18 years, those victims and their families were ignored, their suffering never acknowledged, let alone addressed, until they fell into silent obscurity. It’s as if the crimes never happened, the brutality was never recorded, never seen by the world. A hushed silence fell across the international institutions that had the authority to do something.

In this day and age, that cannot be tolerated. The lawyers that brought the case have done so with their own money, fuelled by their own consciences. It is about time the world shared the responsibility for delivering justice for these victims.