Vol 3 November 2002       

Freetown, capital of Sierra Leone

The Amazing
Story of
Sierra Leone

with Jariatu Sesay

by Carol Hiltner
Jariatu Sesay, of MAMAS (Mothers Against Military Advancement), grew up in Sierra Leone, Africa. She then attended college in the United States, where she remained during Sierra Leone's decade-long civil war, trying to awaken the international community to her country's need for help.

The brutality of that civil war in Sierra Leone is on a par with the worst atrocities of the 20th century.

But the war's aftermath — with its environment in which Christians and Muslims regularly pray together for peace — embodies a story of healing and forgiveness unequaled in any time or place.

And yet both the horrific war and its amazing spiritual consequences go largely unknown in the West.

Here, then, as told by Jariatu Sesay, is the amazing story of Sierra Leone.

Carol: What happened in Sierra Leone that now requires extraordinary forgiveness?

Jariatu: That is very hard to describe. It is one of the most brutal conflicts in recent times.

The war in Sierra Leone raged for nine years. It reached a climax when rebels invaded the capital, Freetown, on January 6, 1999.

Human Rights Watch has described the human rights abuses that took place over the next three weeks as amongst the most serious in modern day warfare. Many people in the provinces have had nothing but unimaginable brutality for the past nine years.

"Cut hands" or amputations were the signature atrocity. Estimates are that up to a hundred thousand civilians' hands were amputated during the decade-long civil war in Sierra Leone. But rural people who dug the ditches and worked in makeshift morgues report that many people died from these wounds and were never counted into the official estimates.

And the statistics concerning the systematic abduction, raping, and forced labor of girls and women — a rebel method for control and survival in the bush — are even more overlooked.

Also, according to official estimates by UNICEF, fifty-four hundred children fought in Sierra Leone's civil war. But a local group called Children Affected by War maintains that the figure is probably double that. One rebel group admitted in late 1999 that thirty percent of its combatants were children.

These children tell horrifying stories about how the war affected them. Through drugs, alcohol, and sheer fear, many were turned into killing machines.

When I was a child growing up in Sierra Leone, the sound of a firecracker would send us running under the bed for cover. But today, they find the sound of gunfire exciting. A favorite children's game is playing hide-and-seek from helicopter gunships. The children have completely lost their innocence.

If this doesn't require extraordinary forgiveness, Carol, what else does?

Carol: What shifted to allow reconciliation to begin?

Jariatu: On July 7, 1999, the government of Sierra Leone and the rebels signed a peace agreement. In this agreement, brokered by the United Nations' Organization of African Unity and by the Economic Community of West African States, the Revolutionary United Front committed to lay down its arms in exchange for representation in a new government.

The agreement also included a general amnesty for all crimes committed during the civil war, and mandated the formation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission and a national human rights commission.

The whole country craved peace, and was willing to accept any peace accord from anywhere. After the accord was signed, there was no choice for the country but to reconcile.

Carol: What formal and informal processes are being used to heal the situation? And how are they working?

Jariatu: The international community has suggested that we are all supposed to be going through trauma counseling. But let's just say that with only one qualified psychiatrist in Sierra Leone, plus a few counselors who have had "drive-thru training," there is no way the country can rely on formal processes.

Therefore, we are embarking on our own informal self-healing processes, through music, television shows about conflict, reconciliation, and forgiveness, and through use of arts and crafts to heal the soul.

But the primary informal process has been learning religious tolerance. It is very common to see an individual praying in a mosque on Friday, then going to church on Sunday. Christians and Muslims hold vigils together to pray for forgiveness and tolerance.

Nowadays, for every twenty square miles there is a mosque or a church to comfort the soul.

And I will say that it's working very well so far. May it continue to help heal the country!

Carol: What more do you think could or should be done?

map of Sierra LeoneJariatu: I am more than supportive of helping the ex-combatants re-integrate into society, and making sure that the amputees and other victims are well taken care of. And this is happening. The international community has been doing a wonderful job in these areas.

However, when I was in Sierra Leone visiting the camps on behalf of MAMAS, I noticed that a certain group has been totally neglected by both international and national agencies in the country. This is the group that did not participate in the war. They are neither victims nor perpetrators. Therefore, they do not qualify for any assistance package being offered today.

Unfortunately, this gives the message that we are paying people for having committed atrocities. Rather, we need to give the message that we are helping the ex-combatants in order to build a better nation, helping them to re-integrate into the society that they have destroyed.

And we need to focus on the young boys who had the capability to fight during the war but chose not to — those who refused to destroy their own country and chose instead to escape. These noncombatants have now returned home — to nothing. If we don't take care of these neglected segments of our society, they will be the first ones to pick up arms when something goes wrong in the future, so that they can later be labeled as "ex-combatants" and given the "goods" that our our current ex-combatants enjoy.

Carol: How do you think what's happening now in Sierra Leone relates to the rest of the world?

Jariatu: It shows that the world truly has shrunk to a small village. A smoke in your neighbor's compound signifies that a fire is on its way to your own.

We screamed to the world to come to our aid for ten years, and were practically ignored. The outside world pulled down its shades and ignored the fire next door. But then, after the World Trade Center bombing on September 11, it was discovered that the same terrorists responsible for that were fueling the war in Sierra Leone, in order to increase their revenues by having access to our diamonds.

So it might have made a difference if the rest of the world had come to our aid when we were crying out for help.

And today, as we go through our process of reconciliation, healing, and forgiving, we need once more the help of the outside world. "The gun is silent" does not mean "the war is over." We need a shoulder to lean on so that we do not collapse out of sheer exhaustion.

Carol: How might those of us who wish to support tolerance and forgiveness be of help to the process in Sierra Leone?

Jariatu: We need the world to come to our aid by helping us acquire information technology, so that we can communicate if there is impending danger. Although the fire has been put out, there may be parts still burning beneath the rubble that could ignite and create another big fire if we don't have the tools to put it out when it starts.

As mothers, we have forgiven the rebels and are willing to tolerate them in our midst. But what if they decide to attack us again? We have no way of defending ourselves except to call for help.

People can help us acquire information tools by supporting the MAMAS communication project that's about to be launched for the first time in Sierra Leone (see MAMASNet.org).

Carol: Thank you, Jariatu.

Jariatu SesayJariatu Sesay grew up in Sierra Leone as eldest daughter in a large family. From an early age, she helped the family put food on the table.

Jariatu went on to college in the United States, where she remained to became a mobilizing voice for peace, human rights, and women's empowerment during her country's terrible civil war. Having learned how to protect her family, she now become a spokesperson with the authority and clarity to effect change.

Jariatu's videos and radio interviews calling for the international community to "open the blinds" and see what was happening in Sierra Leone contributed to a time when efforts finally converged for peace and — now — the beginnings of healing.

Jariatu tells of how her mother once came to her when she was growing up and said, "I can buy fish in the harbor, but it's your job to use your education and presence to make the merchants buy this fish from you." So Jariatu dressed in her Sunday clothes, pulled herself up to full height, and made the local business owners know that they could trust her to bring them the best of the catch, with no irregularities in the bargain.

Today, as an adult volunteer working tirelessly with the MAMAS project, Jariatu meets with survivors of the war to help families learn the skills they need to go from crisis to recovery. Her leadership, humor, and unfailing intuition for best alliances are making a contribution which will be felt over the years ahead — with no irregularities in the bargain.

Jariatu can be reached by email at SandaJay@yahoo.com.

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