Thursday, December 3, 2009

Memories of the war

Sometimes I forget that Sierra Leone experienced a brutal civil war in the not too recent past. People here are generally so hopeful and focused on future plans for development and improvement in the country that I can forget the tragedy that affected everyone here. Although it sometimes comes up in conversation, people here don’t talk often about the war, and I generally don’t ask many questions in order not to pry into something that may be very difficult for people to talk about. Also, since this is my first time in Sierra Leone, I have nothing to compare it to in terms of how the war changed things here. Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference between what was destroyed by war and what has deteriorated due to neglect.

Two days ago, Mary Hawa Turay, co-founder of cdpeace, arrived in Sierra Leone for a visit (she is still living in Canada). As we were driving back from Freetown together, she talked about some of the changes she could see due to the war, and some of the things the communities I’m working in have experienced. One thing she mentioned was the state of people’s houses. Before the war, the houses used to be bigger and better constructed – whole compounds with several buildings and a wall around where families lived together. Unfortunately, many homes were destroyed during the conflict. Throughout the country you can see the remains of buildings, still charred from being burnt to the ground. When people had to flee their homes as the fighting advanced, they left everything behind, and in most cases lost it all. Although people have been able to build new homes, they are working with much less than they had, and the houses now tend to be smaller and less solidly constructed.

The two chiefdoms in which I’m primarily working (Gbonkolenken and Paki Masabong) were really affected by the war, Gbonkolenken more so. Mary told me that when the rebels were advancing through the country from the south, when they came to the villages in Gbonkolenken chiefdom (which is essentially right in the middle of the country), the people of Gbonkolenken were one of the first groups to put up real resistance to the rebel advance. Because of this, the rebels decided to punish them – many people were killed and injured. Children were kidnapped. People were forced to commit atrocities (raping, killing, maiming) against their family, friends and neighbours. Whole villages were destroyed and burnt to the ground, so much so that there was nothing left. In the village of Mathombo, school children and adults were locked inside the school and it was set on fire. Many people died. The foundations of that school are still visible in the Mathombo community (Mathombo school is one of the cdpeace pilot schools and has just recently been rebuilt by cdpeace with the support of donors from Canada). Mary said that after the rebels made an example of Gbonkolenken, other villages throughout the north surrendered to them more easily.

I repeat these stories not to dwell on the terror and destruction of the war, but to contrast that with the current climate of hope I see here, and to remember what Sierra Leoneans have experienced. In the face of the devastation of the war that was really so recent (the war began in 1991 and was declared officially over in 2002), it is even more admirable and inspirational to me that the people I have met here now live so peacefully together and that their focus is so strongly on bringing development to the country. Of course there are many challenges here, and a lot of work to be done, but it is obvious to me how much people here are ready to move beyond what happened to them during the war and work hard to build a peaceful and prosperous country. It's pretty impressive.

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