/ 6 April 2008

Former Sierra Leone fighters make peace with victims

Dozens of ex-combatants from Sierra Leone’s 10-year civil war gathered on Saturday for ”healing ceremonies” to make peace with victims of the brutal conflict that left thousands dead.

”Small-scale ceremonies have already been held in other parts in the district but today’s [Saturday] gatherings are the most massive so far,” said Beatrice Allie, one of the coordinators of the project that saw gatherings in various towns in the Kailahun District, east of the capital.

The project uses the traditional justice system to heal the wounds and hatred caused by the conflict in towns such as Kailahun, which bears the same name as the surrounding district.

”The response has been overwhelming and does not have the trappings of modern courts like the United Nations-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone, where judges in robes and lawyers and other legal minds presides,” Allie said.

”Here, perpetrators are put before village elders, surrounded by a familiar environment where they ask for forgiveness,” she added.

Dubbed the community healing ceremony, it was started by a local NGO, Forum of Conscience.

”The choice of Kailahun District is significant,” said the project’s director, John Caulker.

”This was where the war began on March 23 1991 when rebels of the Revolutionary United Front crossed into Sierra Leone from Liberia,” he explained.

”It is the first time perpetrators are meeting face-to-face with victims as well as friends and relatives … to apologise for offences they committed during the conflict.”

From the dense jungle, where wild grasshoppers and wild deer roam, dozens of men emerged, some with long unkempt beards, some in rumpled faded T-shirts, and looked around hesitantly before coming forward with halting steps to look their victims in the eyes.

Their victims stood listlessly as if daydreaming at first, while a few cried.

Abdul Sowa, a one-time farmer who now uses crutches donated by the local Red Cross, could not hold back tears.

”At last, they [the ex-combatants] have acknowledged their crimes,” he said.

Town chief Mansa Musa of Bomaru, where the first shot was heard, was more circumspect.

”Here, we are not talking of who bears the greatest responsibility,” he said, referring to those on trial at the Special Court, set up to try those accused of being the main perpetrators of the war.

Here, Musa said, ”we are talking of those we know and recognised that they inflicted harm and did injustice to innocent civilians, mainly women and children”.

Asked if these ex-combatants have been forgiven, he said: ”What else can we do? Many of them are our kin. We have no choice. God knows best.”

A 35-year-old woman who was raped by one former combatant pleaded to onlookers: ”I have two sons for him. Please forgive him. He has been good to the children, going to the bush to hunt for meat and providing food for all of us since the war ended” in 2002.

”I love him. Please allow him back into the community.”

Elders occasionally broke into small smiles and shook their heads in apparent approval.

”Be at peace with every one as from now,” the chief of the elders, Sulaiman Deen, told the men, who immediately bowed and left the scene.

According to Caulker, thousands of such ”forgiveness ceremonies” are to take place throughout the country over the next five years, with funds provided by a United States-based foundation, Catalyst for Peace. — Sapa-AFP