Our bus cruised down the bumpy dirt road and I stared out the window admiring the landscape. The cool ocean breeze blew through my hair and in these moments I was left alone with my thoughts. Sierra Leone is blessed with dazzling beaches, rolling hills, and a lush green landscape. It has also been cursed with war, brutality, and greed. A constant haze hangs over the country, like a remnant of the sins the land and her people have witnessed.
In 1991 there were many reasons to go to war. A corrupt government had left the people poor and illiterate. There was an overwhelming sense of frustration and anger over the situation in the country. Many wanted change. In Liberia, Charles Taylor had begun his revolution and the violent forces spilled west into Sierra Leone. They took advantage of the desire for change and followed their own desire for wealth to the diamond mines. In our meetings, we heard many legitimate reasons for wanting change, but the violence that ensued from this desire for change was unexpected and vicious.
At war’s end, change had not come to the country. Sierra Leone had regressed. Along with poverty, illiteracy, and lack of development, Sierra Leone was now in shambles. The rebels had burned whatever they touched. Vast amounts of the population had been displaced. Many had been directly affected by the war. The people we met with were much in agreement; the war had left the country worse off. As we drove around the cities, signs of the war were everywhere. But out on this country road lining the ocean, the burnt out and destroyed buildings were absent. Away from the towns, it felt almost as if the war had not occurred. It looked as if these trees and mountains had not witnessed war, like blood was not spilt on this land. But would this place know war again?
I had been troubled by this question when we met with students at Fourah Bay College days earlier. As we listened to them tell us all the causes of the war, I just kept thinking, all of these factors still exist in Sierra Leone today. Poverty affects an overwhelming majority of the people; illiteracy rates are extremely high; the government is plagued by corruption and an inability to instill change; and the region is highly unstable. It is a convergence of factors that creates a situation where war is not just possible, but highly likely.
There is one subtle difference between the Sierra Leone of today and that of 1991. The country has experienced war. The people have seen the repercussions of war. Even though nine years have passed since the final peace agreement was signed, remnants of the war remain. Signs of the war’s destruction are everywhere, standing like monuments and warnings for future generations. Those who lived through the war say that all Sierra Leone wants is peace. Even though the problems the country faces seem insurmountable, the people do not want any more violent conflict.
Even though we heard so many voices say that conflict will never again touch Sierra Leone, a fear grew in me. These adults who reassured us are not the future of Sierra Leone. The future of Sierra Leone is the children who are growing up in an environment where access to food and water is limited. My fear grew more persistent when we asked adults if they speak with their children about the war. They gave us a lackluster response. Several times, the answer was that if the child asks they would tell them. Otherwise they would learn about it in school.
I was hopeful when we spoke with university students who expressed faith in reforming the current system through nonviolent action. They reiterated the importance of good governance, and in those moments I had hope. They spoke of the dangers of corruption and of the needs for opportunities for employment; for government responsibility; and for free and fair elections. I had hope that these students will be the future leaders of Sierra Leone, and they will be the change that the country so desperately wanted and needed.
As our bus raced down those dirt roads, I reflected on all that we saw and heard during our meetings in Freetown. On the dirt paths out in the provinces the country seemed at peace, and in the stillness I could almost picture a way forward for Sierra Leone.
Veronica Beebe was in Sierra Leone for a two-week course led by Dr. Pushpa Iyer of the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Veronica’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:
Veronica Beebe was born and raised in Fresno, CA. She graduated from the University of California Santa Barbara with a degree in Political Science and Religious Studies. After finishing a year at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, she will be starting this fall at American University pursing a Master's degree in U.S. Foreign Policy. Currently, she is an intern at the U.S. House of Representatives.