During our first few days in Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, many describe the need to forget and move away from a haunting past. Their optimism is unexpected because we had drawn certain conclusions about their collective trauma and the country’s history of violence. In contrast, as we make our way through different parts of Sierra Leone, it becomes apparent that many locals are reluctant to let go of their traumatic past. Their memories tell the story of mutilations and scars that are shocking indications of the barbarism and violence that plagued Sierra Leone during its decade long war. One woman, a war widow, described in excruciating detail the events that unfolded on the day her husband was killed and she was shot and raped. This is only one of many stories shared with our group on a Saturday morning in Grafton, a small town outside of Freetown.
They all painted a blood soaked picture of horrific proportion. It was evident that those willing to openly revisit the past with us foreigners, in reality are outsiders of mainstream Sierra Leonean society. The amputees and war affected men and women we visit reside in camps on the outskirts of the city. As we visit more of these camps in three eastern districts of the country, we noticed that this seclusion is the norm. It seems clear these victims of war are forced to live away from the optimistic residents of Freetown.
The villagers of “Peace Town”, a town outside of Makeni where a peace agreement was signed, have witnessed little progress since the war ended. Diamond mine workers in Tongo, a small, remote town, are victims of a parasitic social structure that dehumanizes and deprives them of basic dignity. We are told that many of the mine workers are former combatants with the Revolutionary United Front, the armed group that fought the government. Unable to find other sources of employment they continue to work in the mines in hopes of striking it rich some day. The day we visit the mines, five men have died due to illness and inhumane working conditions. Their physical suffering and the psychological trauma of their violent past are not addressed through the government’s peacebuilding programs and are mostly dismissed by a society consumed in meeting its own immediate, basic needs.
During an interview with Search for Common Ground (SFCG), an international non-governmental organization, we learn about the challenges to reintegrating ex-combatants. One of the reintegration programs for the ex-combatants provided them with motorbikes, which they use as taxis. Soon however, there were clashes between law enforcement and motorbike drivers. Society in general and law enforcement in particular quickly categorized the motorbike drivers as being rash and aggressive because of their past life as combatants. Instead, as SFCG points out to us, creating awareness of road rules and laws could make the task of reintegration and acceptance easier. Stigmatizing the ex-combatants is not the solution to the problem but it is done because of the lack of a deeper understanding of their problems. This is particularly poignant if one understands that many of the ex-combatants were children, as young as seven years old when they were captured by rebels and forced to fight the war.
Who were the victims, who were the perpetrators?
These are the visible divides among the people of Sierra Leone. The conflict created many divisions between rural and urban communities, between amputee and ex-combatant, between men and women, and between youth and society. On the surface, each of these groups of people seem to have opposing experiences, however, they share similar grievances.
In Sierra Leone everyone is a victim. While the ex-combatants and the war victims claim victimhood for different reasons, both are warranted in their feelings of having had no control over how their lives took shape during the war. Besides, with little access to psychosocial counseling, trauma has a crippling effect on all.
Today, a decade since Sierra Leone’s brutal war came to an end, the challenge of reintegrating and reconciling victims and perpetrators still remains. The wounds inflicted by years of violence continue to sever this nation’s fragile social fabric. It is very clear to us that ex-combatants and war victims share a similar predicament; both are confronted with overcoming stigmas, alienation, and trauma that prevents their acceptance into communities.
Reintegration and reconciliation in Sierra Leone are complex endeavors. The ‘victims’ – ex-combatants and the war victims - need acceptance, need identities that go beyond their wartime experiences. The paralyzing collective memory of violence needs to be confronted to create a sustainable and integrated future.
Rishna Gracie was in Sierra Leone for a two-week course led by Dr. Pushpa Iyer of the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Rishna’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:
Rishna Gracie was born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and has lived in Iceland, the U.S. as well as, Brazil. She received her Bachelor’s degree in International Relations from Mills College and her graduate degree in International Policy Studies with a concentration in Conflict Resolution from the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Recent research missions to countries like Sierra Leone and Gaza have inspired her to focus on issues concerning gender in underprivileged societies. Ms. Gracie desires to work with communities that fail in meeting its basic needs and urgently need assistance. At this time, she is looking to expand her efforts to working with community-based organizations focused on furthering sustainable reconciliation between groups in the United States.