For as long as I can remember, I have been terrified of cab drivers. The thought of entrusting my life to one stranger for the duration of the itinerary, under the premise that they will receive payment upon my safe arrival, can be a bit daunting. After all, unless you engage your driver in conversation, you will know nothing about their life. The good or the bad. If you’re anything like me, you might walk away with their taxi identification number. But what if you knew that your cab driver had witnessed the death of his mother? What if you knew that he had killed hundreds of people? What if he had murdered your family? This is the situation I was faced with in Sierra Leone.
Motorbike riders are a characteristic part of the landscape in today’s Sierra Leone, particularly in Freetown. During my initial ride through the city, the first of many, my eyes bumped along the roads, following the clusters of young motorbike riders, clad in western style t-shirts and jeans, who were engaging in conversation, usually with each other, or watching for their next client. A scene that began as a seemingly background aspect of my stay soon turned into one of the most threatening images of my trip. Whenever we mentioned the motorbike riders during interviews and conversations, the response was almost always the same, “the motorbike riders are the ex-combatants.” This statement would be accompanied by an even more telling furrowed brow, a firming of the lips, or wholly disapproving eyes. Current local opinions of motorbike riders in Sierra Leone describe them as “dirty,” “violent,” and “a public threat.” We soon learned that when Sierra Leone’s brutal eleven year war ended in 2002, a group known as the Bike Rider’s Association (BRA) was created to help transition ex-combatants into the workforce as motorbike riders. These ex-combatants, many of whom had been child soldiers, had been drugged and forced to amputate the limbs of innocent civilians and murder indiscriminately. As we were able to confirm with national organizations such as Student Partnership Worldwide, few ex-combatants received any type of psycho-social counseling services after the war, and these organizations are not equipped to provide such services and as a consequence, are not interested in prioritizing the issue. Ex-combatants therefore not only entered the workforce, but rejoined society after years of unaddressed experiences of trauma and violence.
Those who were not alive or present for the war or its immediate effects, such as myself, might find it easier to identify an ex-combatant as both perpetrator and victim. However, in a place where the complexity of the war issues has made justice difficult to render and where few have faced the law for their war crimes, a persistent sense of unrest and a lack of closure finds people fraught with unplaced blame. As a result, ex-combatants are marginalized, even by the police. According to Defense for Children International (DCI), an unsurprising “70% of ex-combatants don’t want to be identified.” Another local organization, Help A Needy Child, has started a countrywide program that is working to create activities to help them explore their past. Still, the focus in both civil society and the government appears to be on keeping the ex-combatants occupied and introducing conflict resolution skills to address immediate issues, such as police and motorbike rider confrontations.
What role could untreated yet identifiable issues of trauma be playing in conflict in Sierra Leone today? According to the website of a popular Sierra Leone newspaper, www.awoko.org, as recently as 2009, the Sierra Leone police enforced a by-law banning motorbike riders from plying what they call the Central Business District (CBD) of Freetown. One of the strategies used to enforce this law involved the placement of nails on boards and throwing these under the tires of bike riders who break the rule. One critique of this approach was that it proves the motorbike rider issue has escalated to an unmanageable level if this has emerged as the best solution to the problem. Sierra Leone is not at war, but if my experience has affirmed anything, it is that the absence of war is not peace. One villager remarked, “Victims suffering. Is that peace?” The more time we spent talking to communities and trying to identify the challenges to peacebuliding that have emerged since the war, the more I realized that many of the factors that helped trigger the rebel war in Sierra Leone are still present. According to the Center for Accountability and Rule in Sierra Leone, the country is “close to the problem situation that led to the war” and COME Sierra Leone says, “the possibility of the recurrence of violent conflict is great.” Issues of poverty, corruption, and organization persist. These factors, coupled with the weighing tension among the people of Sierra Leone as a result of fragile overlaps of perpetrator and victim categories, create an environment not unlike that which existed at the onset of the war. There is a great need for psycho-social services in Sierra Leone. The experience of war is recent and the memory of the people is enhanced with every charged encounter and unaddressed emotion. Peace and reconciliation will be irreconcilable until the people of Sierra Leone are provided with tools with which to confront the clinging shadows of their past along with the challenges of their present.
Sughey A. Ramírez was in Sierra Leone for a two-week course led by Dr. Pushpa Iyer of the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Sughey’s blog is part of a series of reflections by Dr. Iyer and her students on the challenges to building peace in this war-ravaged country. -Ed.
About the Author:
Sughey A. Ramírez was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois. As the daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants, her Latino heritage has greatly influenced all aspects of her life, including her academic career. In May 2010, she completed her B.A. in International Studies-Sociology/Anthropology with a regional focus on Latin America at Middlebury College in Vermont. She is interested in pursuing a career in the areas of Public Health, Human Rights and Development. Previously, she worked with the UNICEF funded local NGO El Abrojo in Montevideo, Uruguay and hopes to expand her experience to other Latin American and African countries.