Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

African Refugee Heads Up Victims Unit

Gloria Atiba-Davies seeks to ensure victims do not suffer further trauma when relating their suffering to investigators and judges.
It is perhaps apt and reassuring that the person dealing with traumatised women and children at the International Criminal Court has herself lived as an asylum seeker and refugee for a decade - separated from her children and unable to return to her country for fear of being killed.

Gloria Atiba-Davies from Sierra Leone is the victims expert for the ICC’s Office of the Prosecutor, heading the Gender and Children Unit set up specially to address issues relating to women and children who will tell the court about their experiences.

At present, the ICC - which started work in 2002 - is dealing with situations of continuing violence in Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Darfur region of Sudan. One of the key areas of investigation is the conscription of child soldiers.

Atiba-Davies, 52, told IWPR how she sometimes feels “close to breaking point” when interviewing women and children who have been victims of these crimes, imagining how she would feel if her own children had been conscripted as fighters when she was unable to protect them.

She was brought up in Freetown, the Sierra Leone capital, where she attended a Christian missionary school, by a single mother who managed to scrape enough money together to send her daughter to England to study at the University of London. She graduated with a law degree and then qualified as a barrister. However, she disliked the dismal London weather and food and missed relaxing on the warm beaches of her beloved Sierra Leone. Within two weeks of completing her final studies in 1981, she returned to Sierra Leone and joined the government law officers department, assigned to the division of public prosecution.

She worked her way up the ladder, interviewing victims and witnesses, drafting legal documents, summons and indictments, appearing increasingly in the High Court for trials and the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court for appeals. She excelled as a criminal prosecutor and in 1994 became the most senior prosecutor in the whole of Sierra Leone, supervising prosecutions, arguing criminal cases and preparing indictments.

As Principal State Counsel she began prosecuting in 1996 an army officer, Major Johnny Paul Koroma, and eight other military officers on charges of treason relating to a failed coup attempt. The case, however, was never completed.

In May 1997, as the trial continued, Atiba-Davies flew to Sweden to attend a short course on international law. On May 25, four days after her departure, a group of twenty soldiers stormed Freetown's Pademba Road Prison, where Koroma was detained, and released him, his co-accused and 600 prisoners. In subsequent heavy fighting, President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah was toppled and Koroma took power at the head of a military junta comprising dissident soldiers and a rebel guerrilla group, the Revolutionary United Front, RUF.

As effective head of state, Koroma now made Atiba-Davies, his prosecutor, his number one target.

He went looking for her. He sent forces to her Freetown offices in the hope of detaining her. Only after his third futile attempt did he finally realise she was abroad.

Atiba-Davies, stuck in Sweden with just the one suitcase she had travelled with, quickly realised she would be unable to return to her country because her life would be endangered. Unfortunately her two young sons, Darren and Edwin, aged just twelve and nine, were still in Freetown and were now cut off from their mother.

After completing her course in Sweden, she felt she felt her best bet was to go to England and apply for asylum in the hope that she might bring her children safely to her. While living in London this time, the former national chief prosecutor of Sierra Leone worked as a waitress

Fortunately her sons had been taken under the wing of a good friend in Freetown. The friend managed to smuggle Darren and Edwin out of Sierra Leone to Gambia, via Guinea, three weeks after the coup.

They were handed into the care of a Sierra Leonean woman judge who was working in the Gambian court system.

“I managed to keep in touch with them, and thank God for telephones,” said Atiba-Davies, who told IWPR how important her family was during this time. “I have a sister in France who went to the Gambia to visit them, and another sister was a refugee in Gambia and she kept an eye on them.”

After an abortive eighteen months of attempting to seek asylum in London, Atiba-Davies gave up and decided to return to Africa, distraught from hearing her Freetown home had been burned to the ground and from watching from afar as her country crumbled amid terrible violence. “My children were in their formative years, and I wanted to be there to mould them," she said.

She travelled in 1999 to Gambia, where her sons were still living with the judge along with 40 other people from Sierra Leone who had fled the military coup. “During this time the judge put my boys in school, and she and her mother really took care of them. I will never be able to pay them back,” said Atiba-Davies.

She managed to get work as Gambia's deputy director of public prosecutions, and the Gambian government gave her an apartment to live in with her sons. Nonetheless, she registered with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, UNHCR, and filled in an application for resettlement elsewhere, because Gambia was getting crowded with Sierra Leoneans – a worry, considering the large number of prisoners who had been let loose during the coup and who might be infiltrated into the diaspora in Gambia. “God knows, a good number of them knew me and I did not want to find myself in the dark with one of them,” she said.

Atiba-Davies was relocated to join her sister and mother - who had got out of Sierra Leone - in New York in 2000, after having been interviewed by the UNHCR and the United States immigration authorities and classified as a refugee. When she entered the US with her boys, Atiba-Davies did so as a resident, entitled to a green card a year after arrival.

She struggled to support her family. She considered taking the New York bar examination, but proof of her law degree had been burned with her house in Freetown and London University had destroyed her records when it began transferring documents to computers. Repeating her law degree was out of the question. “So I decided to put my career on hold to support my boys," she said. "I worked for three private law firms as a paralegal support staffer.”

After two years, she started to miss her career in criminal prosecution. “Someone has to be there to do the dirty work and clean up society," she commented. "And one way of doing this is to take people who have offended others to court”.

So Atiba-Davies applied for a job at the brand new ICC, which has yet to host its first full trial within its courtrooms in The Hague. She was shortlisted for the post of deputy prosecutor. But when Fatou Bensouda, Gambia's former attorney-general, got the job Atiba-Davies was instead offered the position of victims expert to look after the new Gender and Children Unit in the Office of the Prosecutor.

“The international community and drafters of the Rome Statute [which provides the framework for the ICC] got to the stage where they needed to know the views of victims,” she told IWPR, explaining that “victims have been passive for too long”.

Before the establishment of the ICC, victims of war crimes were used only as witnesses in international ad hoc war crimes tribunals. Atiba-Davies said that “prosecutors never got to know about their particular situation, and what long term consequences the criminal activity had on their family, friends, and community”.

Now at the ICC, victims are able to participate as early on as the investigation stage, when the prosecutor first of all begins analysing a situation where war crimes and crimes against humanity are thought to have occurred. They are then represented in court by a legal representative and can benefit from reparations, including compensation, restitution and rehabilitation, from an ICC trust fund for the harm they and their communities suffered.

“Trials are being conducted in some western far away country," said Atiba-Davies. "So participation gives victims the chance of being involved from the beginning to the end, to make their views known, feel a sense of justice and have the harm done to them recognised.”

Atiba-Davies explained that when investigators first arrive on the scene this is often the first time most victims have had the opportunity to tell their story, “One cannot help but notice a difference in the look on their faces from the time they come in to what they look like after we have finished interviewing them.”

She said that before the actual interview, investigators first tell victims about the court, the length of the investigation, and the nature of the eventual trial and its potential outcomes, “We make it clear what our role is as prosecutors, and that the final decision [on the guilt of the individual] depends on the trial chamber judges.”

The duty of Atiba-Davies’ unit is to try to ensure that no further harm is done to victims by the investigations or by their participation in ICC. “We try to make sure victims are not re-traumatised because of our interaction with them during our investigation, or because of the fact that they have to recall the atrocities which were committed against them,” she said.

Given the incredible delicacy of this undertaking, the Gender and Children Unit has developed pre-interview assessment techniques for certain categories of witness, such as children, victims of sexual crimes, people with disabilities and the elderly. “Qualified psychiatrists and psychologists conduct pre-interview assessments in the field to ensure the victim is psychologically fit to go through the process," said Atiba-Davies. "And this expert opinion is binding on investigators. If the victim is not fit, the interview does not go ahead.”

But however much preparation is done ahead of the trial, Atiba-Davies cannot guarantee that victims and witnesses will get through their testimony in the courtroom without breaking down. She told IWPR that it is important to give witnesses an insight into the trial process and to explain what the charges against the accused individual actually mean.

Atiba-Davies also said that during actual trial preparation, her unit will always have available a psycho-social expert to intervene if necessary on behalf of victims. “We need to think about how that child or witness would be feeling at that particular time,” she explained.

Laughing and joking with colleagues in the corridors of the tall white ICC building in a suburb of the Dutch capital, Atiba-Davies is a woman who enjoys humour and healthy banter. From her tiny frame, you would never guess she is a mother of grown-up sons, or that she regularly travels to war-ravaged regions of Africa to interview those who have experienced the kind of violence and brutality that most of us only read about.

She told IWPR that when she goes on investigative missions, especially to Chad, where refugees from the conflict in Darfur are living in camps, the conditions are “below basic”.

“I was a refugee with a difference - I did not live in camps or wait for handouts from international organisations. But even so I know the reason why I was forced to leave my home and settle somewhere else, so I know what those people must be going through,” she continued.

“It gives me an extra interest and passion for my work. I want to hear everything, especially when talking to children and women. I ask myself 'What would have happened if my own children had been conscripted?’

“Whilst I am interviewing abducted children, or when I read their statements, I keep thinking of the picture of the soldiers taking my own boys away, and feel overcome by emotions and close to breaking point.”

The UN estimates there are 200,000 child soldiers fighting with different militias throughout Africa. Most have been kidnapped and many are forced to serve as sex slaves of the guerrilla commanders and their soldiers. Tens of thousands of children were abducted to serve as fighters during Sierra Leone's twelve-year civil war in the 1990s and the early years of this century. It is estimated that at one stage, half of all RUF combatants were aged eight to fourteen. The children were subjected to a period of indoctrination, provided with drugs and trained to kill. In some cases, they were required to kill their own parents and relatives.

Atiba-Davies said the childhoods of these children have been ruined completely. However much she is emotionally affected, she said she needs to keep uppermost in her mind the need to elicit as much information as possible while acting within humane guidelines: well drafted charges have to be laid in court against the suspected perpetrators of the crimes these victims have suffered.

She is deeply concerned to be candid with victims from the very beginning. “You have to balance the expectations and tell them what to expect out of the proceedings, but never say the ICC will fix everything. We cannot prosecute each and every crime, so we must be honest,” she said.

Atiba-Davies’ boys are studying political science and law in the US. She likes to show their photographs and laugh about tales of their younger days. The eldest, Darren, now 22, was recently in The Hague, working as an intern at the Coalition for the International Criminal Court, CICC, a network of non-government organisations which acts as watchdog for proceedings at the court. He is now back in New York, and Atiba-Davies said, “If it hadn’t been for my sister and mother in New York, I would not have applied for this job at the ICC and left my boys for a second time.”

Atiba-Davies said her main hope now is that her ICC work will help to make a difference in the lives of those affected by the conflicts the court is investigating. "I hope that this court will be a deterrence for warlords and heads of state who think they can do anything with impunity," she said. "If it [the court] is a deterrence, I can see the world becoming a more peaceful place."

Katy Glassborow is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.

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