While sitting in a dark, humid room at a war wounded camp on the outskirts of Freetown, one of the residents asked a question: If there is suffering, is there peace? As we walked around this camp, and many others, that question crossed my mind more than once.
In 2002, following the end of the civil war in Sierra Leone, tens of thousands of people were left dead, the country was torn apart, and most of the population had been victimized. Camps were set up throughout the country, created for specific victim groups - child soldiers, war widows, sexual assault survivors, and, most notably, amputees. Amputations were a common occurrence throughout Sierra Leone, used mainly as a way of punishing those seen as enemies of the Revolutionary United Front and as a way to prevent others from turning against them.
In theory, these camps offer an environment for survivors to reclaim their lives and draw strength from others who experienced similar atrocities. However, these camps can also detract from the healing process, creating an environment of perpetual victimhood and a separation of these victims of violence from the rest of the population.
In Grafton and Hastings, on the outskirts of the capital Freetown, communities have been created around the various identities of victimhood and suffering, including war wounded, war widows, and amputee groups. Within these groups, there is a sense of deprivation when compared to other segments of society. More troubling is the sense of deprivation that these groups feel when comparing themselves to each other. Although all suffered violence, either directly or indirectly, during the course of the civil war, there is a hierarchy of victims in Sierra Leone. The war widows express frustration that they did not receive the same benefits as the war wounded and amputees. The war wounded think that the amputees are getting the best treatment.
When it comes to material gains, it appears, at least to an outsider, that the amputation survivors have received the most aid. The houses in amputee camps are better, more solid structures than the housing we saw in the war wounded camps.
The thread of commonality that binds these various groups is that they are separate from the larger society. These camps are located outside of urban centers, away from hospitals and employment opportunities. Outside of Freetown, we spoke to one young man trying to better his circumstances through education, all the while being bound to a wheelchair. He expressed frustration that it costs nearly $10 to travel to and from the university every day and often taxis will not stop for him because they do not want to deal with the wheelchair and the room that it will take up in the car. In addition, $10 a day can be five to ten times what someone in Sierra Leone makes in a day, which in turn makes this cost unbearable for most. Because of this, many war survivors are limited to the camps that have been created for them with no access to the outside.
The separation from the rest of society perpetuates the atmosphere of victimization in Sierra Leone. Through the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration process following the ceasefire, many ex-combatants on both sides were provided with job training. This was not done for survivors of violence. They are dependent on the aid that they receive from the government and from international aid organizations, and if that aid does not cover their living expenses, many are reduced to begging on the streets. The victims of this war cannot overcome the structure of their society.
Not all victims of violence from the civil war live in these camps. One reason that was discussed was that there aren’t enough houses in the camps for all the people who survived the war’s atrocities. As stated before, the living conditions in these camps are relatively better than those outside of the camps. This does not negate the fact that choosing to live in these camps will most likely lead to an increased level of poverty for these survivors. They find themselves in a catch-22, with their victimhood being perpetuated by the current structural violence within Sierra Leone, which does not allow them to move beyond their current level.
Despite all of this, there are plenty of reasons that people choose to live in these camps, despite the hardships that such a situation provides. I spoke with a man in a camp outside of Kenema in the eastern region of the country. After proudly showing me his prosthetic leg (which is not a common item for amputee victims to have), I asked him why he stays in the camp if it is so difficult to make a living and improve his life and his children’s lives. He responded with: “We survive on hope. Hope that someone will help us.”
Amanda Pope was in Sierra Leone for a two-week course led by Dr. Pushpa Iyer of the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Amanda’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:
Amanda Pope graduated from the Monterey Institute of International Studies in Monterey, CA with a Master of Arts in International Policy Studies in May, 2010. She received her Bachelor of Arts from Lewis and Clark College in Portland, OR in 2008 after majoring in International Relations and Russian Language and Literature. While at the institute, Ms. Pope's specialization was Conflict Resolution and she traveled with 13 other students and Dr. Pushpa Iyer to Sierra Leone to study the challenges that this country has faced in their peacebuilding process since the end of the civil war in 2001. Ms. Pope currently resides in Washington, D.C.