In 1991, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) began a bloody insurgency against the government of Sierra Leone. The resulting conflict lasted 11 years and caused more than a third of the population to flee; thousands more were killed by guerillas or had limbs forcefully amputated by machete. In the wake of the crisis, the U.N. and the re-instated Sierra Leonean government took an unprecedented measure, creating a “Special Court” to seek justice against war criminals in a tribunal that combined international and state law. As a third year law student at Harvard, Rebecca Richman Cohen went to the Special Court on a fellowship to work for the defense. When she returned to the country several years later, she brought a film crew.
The documentary that resulted from Cohen’s three year stay is “War Don Don,” screening next week at the Ambulante Film Festival in Mexico, following a short run in New York last fall. Her film traces the trial of RUF leader Issa Sesay, a man directly responsible for many of the war’s worst atrocities, who also protected many civilians from the clashing forces. Wayne Jordash, Issay’s lead defense lawyer, admits at one point that in other circumstances, he would have been friends with Issay. For Cohen, this is part of the central point: War criminals, if not for the war, might not be criminals.
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