The Revolutionary United Front (RUF), with support from Liberian special forces, began attacks in March, 1991 in an attempt to overthrow the government. The country was thrown into a brutal 11-year civil war. Child soldiers were common, some recruited by force but others participating willingly because of fear, a desire to belong or a desperate need for basic food and shelter.
Some 50,000 thousand people were killed and 100,000 wounded before the war was declared officially over in January 2002. Countless more suffered greatly from the extreme poverty and rampant abuse, including amputations, torture, rape and sexual slavery.
The Sierra Leone government, in partnership with the UN, set up a special court later in 2002. It was tasked with trying those who bore "the greatest responsibility for the commission of crimes against humanity, war crimes and serious violations of international humanitarian law, as well as crimes under relevant Sierra Leonean law."
It was the first international court to be funded by voluntary contributions. Prosecutors issued the first of 13 indictments in March 2003 against leaders of the RUF, Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), Civil Defence Forces (CDF) and then-Liberian President Charles Taylor.
By 2013 nine people had been convicted and sentenced to prison terms of between 15 to 52 years. Taylor was accused of aiding the rebels and masterminding many of the fierce attacks and heinous acts of terror in return for blood diamonds. He was sentenced to 50 years in prison and is serving his term in Great Britain.
"The accused has been found responsible for aiding and abetting, as well as planning, some of the most heinous and brutal crimes recorded in human history," said presiding judge Richard Lussick in his sentencing statement. He described one RUF military operation as the "indiscriminate killing of anything that moved."
Sgt. Robert Hotston
The overwhelming heat and humidity hit Hotston hard when he stepped off the plane in Sierra Leone; then the smell hit.
"It's the odour of a developing nation that is hard to describe," says Hotston. "It's like an intense odour of diesel, rot and garbage all mixed together. It's unique. If you've ever been on a cell block, you get to recognize that familiar cell block odour no matter where it is. It's the same thing for this. I can recognize that developing nation smell anywhere."
Hotston recalls his wife awakening him on his first night back in Ontario to ask about the awful smell. Then it dawned on him – it was coming from him.
"She kicked me back to the shower but I'm not sure it really helped," says a laughing Hotston. "That odour permeated everything."
Sierra Leone ranks 183 out of 187 countries on the UN Human Development Index. The average life expectancy is less than 46 years – and this well over a decade after the civil war ended. It was even lower on the index when Hotston was there.
Hotston saw an email from the RCMP's International Peacekeeping Branch looking for investigators. Having spent a third of his career in major crime, and another third in training, he thought it would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. His wife agreed so he applied and was eventually selected.
The opportunity was almost lost when Hotston tore an ankle ligament during a PARE fitness test but it was rescheduled to give him time to heal. He used the time to undergo intensive rehabilitation therapy and passed the second test six weeks later.
A day later, Hotston was on his way to Africa as the first non-RCMP officer seconded to the mission.
The real learning curve, and a steep one at that, came when his boots hit the ground. During the year-long mission, Hotston was one of six Canadian police officers tasked with investigating war crimes and Taylor.
Developing sources and interviewing witnesses was a very unique challenge. Hotston says the border between Liberia and Sierra Leone is very porous, which is challenging in itself, but the culture in each country is also very different.
"Even when it comes to communicating, the Liberians speak Liberian Street English, the Sierra Leoneans speak Krio, which is a mix of English and Tribal language, and neither of them are anything like the other," explains Hotston. "So, even with the translators we travelled with, there were sometimes language barriers between us and the people involved."
Many documents were destroyed, meaning a lot of information had to be recovered and verified through interviews, often in remote areas of Sierra Leone, Liberia and other countries. The investigators never paid for testimony, so they had to develop their skills of persuasion – through translators – to build a level of trust and gain the information they needed.
"Basically, we asked people to explain their role and what they knew," says Hotston. "Some people were obviously more motivated to talk than others, and most were very interested in finding out what the investigators already knew. In trying to solicit information from us, they gave up more information in return."
Hotston says that over time, investigators developed important relationships that proved extremely valuable to the investigation. "It was like a big dance."
Another big challenge was compartmentalizing personal feelings, since many of the people interviewed were unsavoury characters.
"These weren't the nicest people, but we had to treat them the way they wanted to be treated and not necessarily how we wanted to treat them," Hotston explains. "The trick was finding out how they wanted to be treated. We had 12-year-old kids that were kidnapped off of a bus, recruited to fight and forced to do horrible things, but if that kid wanted to be treated as a person of authority and respect, well, that's how we treated him."
A ride like no other
The highlight was leading the team that arrested Taylor. Hotston says the actual turnover was a very complex and, at times, confusing undertaking that eventually saw the Nigerian government turn Taylor over to the Liberian Government, which handed him over to the UN and finally to the special court.
Hotston says even with all of the anticipation and preparation, the turn-over took some people by surprise.
"We were told that it was on, then it was off, then it was on again," explains Hotston. "To paraphrase a quotation from someone else, 'there were a lot of known unknowns.'"
Surprisingly, says Hotston, the first confirmation that it was a go came from a Liberian street source – and was received well ahead of information from the UN Mission, US government or anyone else involved. That was a testament to the hard work of investigators and their incredible ability to develop sources.
"Everyone was surprised that we were so far ahead in the information loop because the court wasn't actually involved in the logistics of the undertaking," says Hotston.
The team sat through high level planning meetings the day before Taylor's arrest. He says it was interesting that the UN was prepared to bump his Sierra Leone police partner off the helicopter flight from Monrovia to Freetown.
It was pointed out that the UN had no jurisdiction in Sierra Leone, and that this lowly detective constable was the only person with any legal authority over Taylor.
The high-level people were also concerned about how it would look if a former head of state was handcuffed for the flight to Freetown. After listening to the discussions for a while, Hotston's partner spoke up. "Taylor is an indicted criminal in my country. He'll be handcuffed."
That ended the discussion; even on such a momentous day, the devil is always in the details.
Hotston retired in 2006 after 30 years with Peterborough police, shortly after returning from the mission, but he didn't slow down. He went back to Sierra Leone as a senior criminal investigator/investigations commander for the special court from 2007-2009 and worked as a chief UN resident investigator in Haiti from 2011 to 2013.
Stephen Streeter was always interested in international affairs and so jumped at the opportunity to participate in the UN mission.
"I was the staff sergeant in charge of CID and I enjoy investigative work, so I saw the Sierra Leone investigator secondment as a sort of comfort zone," he explains.
Streeter deployed in September 2007 for a year, working as both an investigator and commander of the Canadian contingent for the special court's prosecutor's office. He also acted as liaison between the RCMP Peacekeeping Operations Branch and the six Canadian investigators assigned to the mission.
The civil war was "brutal... we're talking about unbelievable acts of terror," he says, "Child soldiers, rape, sexual slavery, mass slaughters – they were terrible, horrendous crimes."
Witnesses generally fell into three distinct groups, each with their own sets of challenges and nuances:
The insider core of the conflict – mid-to-upper level leaders who played an active role in the civil war. They were the most challenging to deal with, he says, because they were savvy yet very unsavoury characters, with little remorse, yet investigators had to gain their cooperation and develop trust to gather important information.
Linkage witnesses, who played an active role in the civil war and likely had valuable information that could implicate high-level targets. As an example, Streeter notes that Taylor never set foot in Sierra Leone between 1996 and 2001 but had plenty of people working for him. A classic scenario would see rebels go into a village, recruit the smartest children and teach them to operate radios using a special code.
Crime-based witnesses, who witnessed or experienced mass slaughter, amputation of limbs, sexual slavery and other terrors of the 11-year conflict.
A resilient people
Despite the trauma and horrible conditions people endured and were exposed to, they held up well under the first-world expectations placed on them as official witnesses to the special court.
He tells of travelling several days in a Land Rover over mud and jungle roads to visit one witness, only to find the path blocked. A local man with a motorcycle was recruited to retrieve the witness.
"So, here's this mountain guy who's brought down the pass to come face-to-face with a bunch of white guys who want to ask him questions," laughs Streeter. "We're tasked with finding out what he knows, so we transport him back to Freetown...
"He's interviewed and deemed to be important to the case. So, what do we do next? We throw him on a plane, which is likely his first time on one, and march him in to The Hague. I mean, he's totally out of his element, right?...
"It was amazing to see how well this witness did – how many of them did – and how accurate they were in the details they remembered."
Streeter thinks witnesses did so well because of their oral tradition. Many are illiterate and a calendar means nothing. They measure extended periods of time using different indicators, like whether it was the rainy or dry season or which soccer team won or lost. "I think it's safe to say it was a culture shock on both ends," Streeter laughs.
Unless you've experienced it personally, Streeter says it's hard to imagine – or be ready for – the amount of congestion, pollution and smell in a third-world country.
"You go in expecting differences, and the initial orientation does a decent job of preparing you for the mission, but nothing beats the real-world experience of being there," he explains. "It's a pretty steep learning curve."
There was one part of the experience that Streeter would have been glad to miss – contracting Malaria.
In lucid moments, between fevers of up to 107 degrees Fahrenheit, Streeter vaguely remembers refusing to go to the Freetown hospital. He says he lost a day or so in between the fever, extreme nausea and body aches, until his team, knowing they had to do something, took him to the special court's holding facility.
The prison physician tended to him and gave him medication. Days later he was much better, albeit 20 pounds lighter. Streeter figures he contracted malaria from a mosquito bite while excavating grave sites in Liberia during the rainy season. Despite the experience, he considers himself fortunate.
"There are kids across the African continent who are sometimes dying by the hundreds each day," Streeter says. "It's a huge culture shock and it's still a difficult thing for me to accept. Kids are dying because of a lack of available vaccines – stuff we just take for granted in our society."
Streeter pauses, then says the culture shock of returning home was much more difficult to deal with. He remembers leaving the airport in Freetown and seeing the wrecked planes along the side of the runway. Hours later, he landed at Heathrow Airport in London, with its numerous stores selling high end luxury goods and foods.
"I remember seeing this and, at the time, was just sickened by the obscenity of it all," says Streeter. "The sheer excess bothered me for a long time. People in Sierra Leone are dying because of a lack of a simple vaccine. When I went food shopping in Sierra Leone, I was hoping there'd be a loaf of bread. A loaf of bread – that was my luxury. Go to a store here and they have, what, maybe 60 varieties? It was a hard thing for me to wrap my head around."
Streeter says his time in Sierra Leone was probably the most challenging year of his life but also the most rewarding. He considers local police officers he met to be great friends and mentors, noting he learned much more from them than they learned from him.
He describes the Sierra Leoneans as resilient people, but still, he worries.
"We talk about PTSD as a topical issue here but there's a whole generation over there that's traumatized," says Streeter. "In Freetown, there's an estimated 60,000 former child soldiers alone. You look into some of their eyes and there's not much there. These kids were indoctrinated in the worst possible way. They saw the slaughter of their friends and whole families."
Streeter retired as deputy chief in June 2013.