by Pushpa Iyer
Dr. Pushpa Iyer was in Sierra Leone leading a two-week course for fourteen Monterey Institute of International Studies and Middlebury College students. In this series of articles and student blogs, Dr. Iyer and her students reflect on the challenges to building peace in this war-ravaged country. -Ed.
Two bandaged stubs where his hands should be. While I contemplate how to greet him without a handshake, he gives me a bear hug. Completely taken aback and ashamed at my lack of response, I finally give him a smile as he welcomes me to sit down next to him. I am meeting with Ngwaja, a Sierra Leonean whose limbs were chopped off by the rebels in the country’s decade long war - a war that was undoubtedly one of the most brutal and violent in recent history.
Foday Sankoh and his group, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), led the war against the government. The RUF, however, had no clear political ideology. The central feature of the war was control of Sierra Leone’s diamond mines. The RUF conducted warfare with tactical and strategic support from Charles Taylor in neighboring Liberia, where illicit diamonds were traded for arms.
Ngwaja, then a soldier in the Sierra Leonean army, lost his hands on November 21, 1992. He recalls the exact moment when the RUF rebels captured him and four other soldiers in Kailahun in eastern Sierra Leone. All five of them were seated in a row facing their captors – over 200 RUF rebels, many of them very young men, some even children. The rebels shot dead his four colleagues. “When shot,” he tells me, “each one of them leaned over and died on the shoulders of the person next to him.” When the fourth one collapsed on his shoulder, Ngwaja closed his eyes waiting for sure death. He was surprised when the rebels said they were going to spare him, and that they were going to use him to send a message to the Government of Sierra Leone.
And in just those few moments they cut both his arms below the elbow. The message to the President was that there were no hands to vote. Ngwaja fled with his bleeding arms into the bushes. For five days all he thought about was survival. Then, on the 26th of November, he reached a hospital and was operated on the next day.
The anger and the hopelessness came later, he tells me. Lying on the hospital bed he wished the rebels had killed him and wondered why they had not. What was he going to do with no hands? I ask him if he wants revenge on the rebels who did this to him. His answer is “I never felt specific anger towards the rebels then or now.... It was just the war.”
This is the dilemma – how to distinguish the perpetrators from the victims - in post-war Sierra Leone. While Foday Sankoh and others in the top-level leadership of the RUF were easier to pass judgment on, the rank and file of the rebel groups were fellow Sierra Leoneans – neighbors, relatives, and community members. True, there were many who joined the rebels because they believed a change had to come and willingly took arms and turned violent. However, there were many others who were forced - some children as young as seven - drugged and made to commit heinous acts. Many of these rebels are victims themselves and need to be re-integrated into society.
The army took Ngwaja back to work on administrative tasks. No longer a soldier, life took on a different route, which he embraced. The need, he tells me, was to keep on going in life.
In 2006 he retired.
Since then Ngwaja has a routine. On certain fixed times each day, he sits outside a supermarket in Freetown. That is where I meet him. He greets friends and customers as they come in. They slip something into his pocket and that is how he manages to survive today. “What else can I do?” he asks me. “I have to live on the community’s charity and they should do something for me – after all, I was one of the first to lose my limbs in the war.”
I continue to probe him on how he looks back at the past. He responds, “What happened was in the past. I refuse to be embarrassed or depressed about losing my arms. It will not bring my hands back. I believe strongly in my God. I am here. I am going to look forward.” He then asks for monetary help from the people in the US – a request that becomes commonplace in the weeks to come. He wants me to come back so that he can give me his bank account number.
In Sierra Leone I visited many amputees – as those maimed in the war are referred to – who have been rehabilitated in camps outside of the cities. I felt a sense of discomfort every time I went to these camps. Why were they isolated? Why did losing an arm or a leg mean a person could not be rehabilitated in the midst of society and provided with suitable jobs so that they and their families could lead normal lives? On these far-away lands that the government provided, International NGOs had built them housing (although some lived in ramshackle huts.) How does a disabled person make a living outside of a city? By trudging every day to the city to beg? Their children walk miles to get to school and the reparations received from the government are a pittance compared to the life of banishment they are expected to lead.
The outrage I feel at their situation is mostly not shared by the amputees themselves. Their focus is on the small or absent reparation received from the government and anger over the fact that ex-combatants received more than them. They feel too much is being spent on delivering justice through war-crime tribunals while their immediate needs are still unmet.
Today’s basic needs, that only money could satisfy, are all they seemed to want. Is this the looking forward to which Ngwaja referred? And how does this tie into the long-term strategic re-building of a society – where dealing with history, memory, and trauma as well as providing justice is as important if not more important than meeting basic human needs?
Ngwaja’s parting comment was that “Peace is when you can come and go when you want.” This I understand. He gave me a hug again as a goodbye. This time I hugged him back. I did not however, go back to see him.
Please follow Dr. Iyer and her students in the months to come as they reflect on the challenges to building peace in this war-ravaged country. -Ed.
Veronica Beebe - Sierra Leone: Will This Place Know War Again?
Sughey A. Ramírez - Motorbike Riders in Sierra Leone: Menace to Society or Social Indicator?
Shauna Kelly - From War to Peacebuilding
Rishna Gracie - Sierra Leone's Memory of a Violent Past
Amanda Pope - Surviving on Hope in Sierra Leone's Isolated Camps
Deanna Tamborelli - Transitional Justice: The Need for a Multifaceted Approach
Christine Williams - Quiet Inequalities:Voices from the Women of Sierra Leone
Heidi Zirtzlaff - An Opportunity for Real Change: Building Peace in Sierra Leone
Ben Mitchell - Legacy of Exploitation in Sierra Leone
Mary Magellan - Media and Peacebuilding in Sierra Leone
About the Author
Pushpa Iyer is Assistant Professor and Program Coordinator of Conflict Resolution at the Graduate School for International Policy Studies at the Monterey Institute for International Studies. Before coming to the United States for her Ph.D. studies, she worked among the poor and marginalized through a local NGO in her home state of Gujarat, India. With that, she began her passionate and deep involvement in issues related to the empowerment of women and human rights. She also worked to bring peace between the divided Hindu and Muslim communities of Gujarat.
In the US, she has continued her work through her involvement with women prisoners and the victims of domestic abuse. She remains a strong advocate for the rights of the girl child, the women and other minorities in India. She has consulted for different NGOs and institutions including the World Bank, which took her back to India, Sri Lanka and the Philippines.