I decided to go on a field trip to the West African state of Sierra Leone in January 2010 because studying societies in conflict -- Africa’s in particular -- has been one of my interests. However, it was not an easy undertaking for various reasons. I was aware it would be both emotionally heart-wrenching and physically taxing, especially if we were to see many war affected areas and war victims.
But the whole trip was worth it in a lot of ways. The best parallel I can give here is my personal experience of misrepresentation of the conflict in my country, Sudan. Often, it is presented in mere black and white, even sometimes in academia. This is what has made me aware not to be under the illusion that I am well informed about any conflict just from studying secondary sources -- a fact my graduate studies also emphasized. That is why I constantly remind myself to be cautious with my opinions about any conflict I have studied through sources other than first hand experience.
Indeed, prior to the trip I had read quite a bit about the civil war in Sierra Leone. But a trip to go and witness first- hand testimonies from war survivors could not be substituted with anything else. Also, the conflict in Sierra Leone has been one of my interests mainly because it happened concurrently with the Sudanese civil war. I remember the time when one of my commanding officers in Sudan spoke of wars being fought by young boys like us. Sierra Leone was one of the civil wars mentioned. And so, in retrospect, I remember I was then an upbeat supporter of the Revolutionary United Front because they were rebels against the government just like the Sudan People’s Liberation Army of which I was a participant. Little did I know then about the mission, ideology and the purpose of the war the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) was fighting.
Meant to prepare us for what we should expect, the video documentaries we watched prior to our departure signaled the harsh reality of the past. They were also meant to foreshadow the current state of Sierra Leoneans awaiting us. Precisely, if one were to anticipate what to expect to see in people’s faces, it would be gloom or deep sadness. As we arrived, this was the case in some situations. The effects of the war were visible everywhere in many forms, despite 11 years of calm following the signing of a peace agreement between the RUF and the Sierra Leonean government that ended the war. The burden of the past is being carried around every day on the streets of every town in Sierra Leone by the fingerless and half armed: the war amputees are the living testimonies. Moreover, one doesn’t have to be on a mission to study post-conflict Sierra Leone in order to learn about what the war left behind. The desolated structures brought to ashes during the war are ever-present evidence.
However, despite visible struggles on the streets, the day-to-day struggle to meet even the basic needs, I saw a special trait of human resiliency, typical of a people who have just emerged from a bad experience. This seems to be a pattern, but one that is not always understandable to those outside the horrific experience. The people of Sierra Leone seem to enjoy life and are as happy if not happier than anyone from the rich countries.
As I remember, any fatigue I had in the evenings after returning from the day was more so a physical exhaustion than bad feelings from stories of the day. Not that I didn’t hear horrific war stories on a typical day -- instead the whole day was indeed made easy as the result of being cheered up. In other words, the good feelings I had were a reflection from the people, especially the cheerful and ever welcoming kids we encountered at every place we visited. Consequently and over time, our expectations of sadness, bitterness and gloom in Sierra Leone diminished as the days continued on. We came to expect that we would be always welcomed with smiles and cheers.
A visit to a diamond mine in Tonga was a turning point in our experience. We arrived under a searing sun, accompanied by a number of authorities, police detectives and journalists. People instantly reacted with anger, waving and shouting that we should not go anywhere near the piled up sands that were everywhere like a sand dune one would see in a desert. We were speechless.
No wonder the reaction of the miners on our visit to the diamond mine turned out to be less welcoming. The crux of the Sierra Leone Conflict was to control natural resources - the diamond mines. We shouldn’t have expected anything less than the harsh reception. It shouldn’t have been a surprise to me when the harsh reaction to our visit and the obvious suspicion was coupled with a guy who wants to persuade me to become his partner, seemingly trusting that I would be making a better deal with him.
Mawuor Dior was in Sierra Leone for a two-week course led by Dr. Pushpa Iyer of the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Mawuor’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:
Mawuor Dior was born in Southern Sudan. He was separated from his family as the result of the civil war in 1990. He fled to Ethiopia were he briefly stayed, but soon was forced back to Sudan when Ethiopia and Eritrea went to war in 1991. He then spent four years internally displaced at Sudan-Uganda border, and eventually made it to a refugee camp in Kenya 1995. He lived in a refugee camp called Kakuma, Kenya, for six years prior to his resettlement into the United States in September 2001.
Mr. Dior attended Colorado Christian University, Colorado, where he graduated in 2007 with a degree in social sciences with emphasizes in global studies and history. In May of 2010, he graduated from the Monterey Institute of International Studies, with a degree in International Policy Studies and specializing in Conflict Resolution.