Sierra Leone's Grassroots Peace-Builders
01 April 2003
Keith and Ruth Neal, retired school teachers from Manchester, recently visited Sierra Leone, where a devastating civil war ended last year. They found people determined to rebuild.
On 18 January 2002 a peace agreement between Sierra Leone's central government and Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels formally ended a brutal ten-year civil conflict. This was followed by peaceful elections in May, when Ahmad Tejan Kabbah was re-elected President.
Yet much remains to be done. The Government has yet to take full control of the diamond mining area in the east of the country. Security has not been helped either by the on-going civil war in neighbouring Liberia and occasional incursions of Liberian 'rebels'. In January 2003 the United Nations still had over 16,000 peace-keeping troops in the country. Plans to reduce these to 2,000 by December 2004 are causing conster- nation to many people.
The security vacuum that will be created by the withdrawal of these troops has to be filled by the newly trained Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces (RSLAF) and the Sierra Leone Police.
There is a great need to speed up the re-integration of ex-combatants into society. Those most responsible for atrocities committed during the war have to be brought to justice as soon as possible. More support is needed from international donors for the newly formed independent Special Court and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Food security is high on the agenda. Productive land has been ruined by the war. But, as we saw during our visit, the good news is that people everywhere have a great hunger for peace and stability, and we met many who are working for it.
One was Emma Kamara. She lives with her husband, their five children and a niece in a small house in Freetown. She was formerly a Lecturer at Njala University College (part of the University of Sierra Leone) 130 miles east of Freetown. In 1994 RUF rebels started to attack neighbouring villages. Emma and her family escaped to Freetown where, with 15 other relatives, they managed to survive in a two-bedroom house.
As the war dragged on, Emma believed that only through the power of a higher wisdom could she work through her own personal trauma and sense of helplessness. She attributes her strong faith to her mother, a Muslim who greatly loved the church school she attended and so decided to send all her children to one. Emma says that the words of St Paul, 'If God is for you who can be against you?' have grown in her like a seed from her school days and are an inspiration to her now.
Through times of prolonged meditation and prayer she felt an inner sense of calling to help young children discover the moral and spiritual values which are essential for peace. She began in 1999 with 100 children aged from four to ten who attended her church. She taught them academic skills, introduced faith-building songs, and encouraged them to become a positive force for good.
Since then Emma has founded Children's Learning Services-Sierra Leone (CLS-SL), and with the support of a dedicated group of volunteers its work has grown. A partnership with the church we attend in the UK and individuals overseas have helped to raise the money to provide some mobile teaching resources for primary schools and orphanages. Through the use of videos and computers, CLS-SL can now give lessons in basic numeracy, literacy and peace-building. These precious resources are being requested by a growing number of pastors and teachers in rural areas.
Alieu Seasay, Deputy Director of Planning and NGO Co-ordinator at the Ministry of Education, welcomes such organizations as CLS-SL. The Ministry's resources are totally inadequate, he says, in the face of daunting tasks. These include:
* rehabilitation of over three quarters of the schools;
* construction of new schools to meet the demand for increased enrolment;
* provision of adequate teaching/learning resources;
* recruitment of many new teachers so that the teacher/pupil ratio is brought down to the statutory level.
In Waterloo, a rural settlement of about 15,000 people, some 18 miles from Freetown, we visited Pastor John Kamara. In 1996 RUF fighters attacked the town. Many of the residents fled into the bush; others were brutally killed. During a two-year period 90 per cent of the homes were destroyed. Now, people are returning to reclaim their properties and to rebuild them. Many internally displaced people are living in camps in the area.
Ex-combatants embrace John Bangura (right), founder of Hope-Sierra Leone.
Many of the women live alone with their children. They have all been traumatized by the war and need both spiritual and material support to rebuild their lives. Kamara has a small church and is also the Headmaster of the nearby Bread of Life Mission School. The main school consists of one classroom and an office. There is no toilet. He and six other volunteer teachers do heroic work, looking after more than 200 children on two different sites. The only help the school receives comes from John Kamara's supporting church in Freetown. During our visit, children of four different age groups were being taught simultaneously in the one classroom by three teachers.
On a steep hillside overlooking Freetown we visited Mount Carmel Community School, founded by 35-year-old Pastor Michael Williams. The school started in October 2002 with 42 children from this very poor area. It is housed within a church, and has a concrete floor, corrugated iron roof and UNHCR plastic-sheeted walls. The teachers are all volunteers and the resources are minimal. Yet the spirit of that place shone. The nursery class shouted out their unaccompanied song of welcome. The expressions on the faces of the children and their waving arms communicated a picture of hope and determination.
John Bangura now lives with his family in Denmark. We met him in Freetown while he was on a six-week visit home to Sierra Leone. He was inspired to found Hope-Sierra Leone (H-SL) after attending MRA/Initiatives of Change conferences in Caux, Switzerland, and Tanzania. Working with friends in Europe, together with a growing team from all parts of Sierra Leone, he is seeking 'to build bridges of forgiveness, honesty and love' in the quest for reconciliation in Sierra Leone. He is convinced that healing requires a basic change in people's motives and attitudes.
The response to this vision has been dramatic. In December last year H-SL held a peace and reconciliation seminar in Makeni, a town in the Northern Province and a former stronghold of the RUF. The seminar resulted in the planting of a 'peace and reconciliation tree' by members of the RUF, the Sierra Leone Military Brigade, the Regional Police, and the Paramount Chief with his Council of Elders and local citizens. Later, a similar event was held in the town of Bo, Southern Province. It brought together for the first time members of both the RUF and Civil Defence Force (CDF) along with a senior military delegation from the UN peace-keeping force, Minister of Internal Affairs and National Security Chief Samuel Hinga Norman, the Regent Chief of Kakua Chiefdom Bo, the press and leading citizens.
Representatives of the Sierra Leone Military Brigade in Makeni lead Christian and Muslim prayers after a reconciliation seminar organized by Hope-Sierra Leone.
Hope-Sierra Leone also holds community workshops on non-violent communication. After one of these, fisherman Alimamy from Tissana said, 'I used to fight a lot with my wife. During this workshop I have been transformed from committing domestic violence to treating my wife with respect, love and care.'
Reconciliation can lead to greater food security. Members of RUF and Hope-Sierra Leone are now working together on a new 100-acre farming project in Makeni. In the south the CDF are also working with H-SL on a 150-acre swamp rice project. Rice has already been harvested from an earlier pilot project covering 40 acres. This involved about 50 families in two different communities, one of them totally ravaged during the war. Local farmer Salieu S Kamara said: 'After the war, I thought it was the end of my life, my family and my very existence. But, thank God, through the Hope-Sierra Leone Empowerment Programme, I now own a rice field. I can now support myself and my family.'
Peace-building is a complex and multi-faceted process, but in the end it comes down to relationships between people. The friendships we made during our brief visit changed our perceptions and began to enlarge our vision. Is it just a pipe-dream to think that the globalization of friendships could play a significant part towards creating world peace?
For further information: www.hopesierraleone.org