Hell is not merely a fiery story of eternal damnation written in a book; hell is what civilians experience in times of war. It is a lived experience that brings deep psychological trauma. War disintegrates the very social fabric people live in – their sense of safety, hope, and security. War separates, demonizes the other, and unleashes the worst in our human capacity to commit great evil.
“With their machetes, the child soldiers ripped open the stomach of pregnant women to see who would win the game in guessing the gender of the unborn baby.” This was a story I heard this summer, when I travelled for the first time in Africa to Sierra Leone to undertake a field research project exploring issues of justice. My question was, “How do we even begin to satisfy the justice needs of people after mass atrocities, genocide, and gross human rights violations?”
After the 11-year civil war in Sierra Leone, many ordinary citizens in the rural villages were dissatisfied with the transitional process of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the UN-backed Sierra Leone Special Court. These were very much top-down processes that seemed to satisfy the needs of the international community but not the local community.
I worked with Fambul Tok International, an NGO that was formed after the war to address community reconciliation through community-led peacebuilding efforts, including truth-telling ceremonies rooted in indigenous traditions. Fambul Tok means ‘family talk’ in Sierra Leone’s Krio language and is a grassroots process. The research was intended to assess Fambul Tok’s effectiveness as a community-based, post-war transitional justice process in Sierra Leone.
As we drove through the dirt and rocky roads to access remote villages, the trembles of the car shook away my sense of worry as it reawakened childhood memories from my native country Haiti. It has been 300 years since my ancestors were uprooted around the same area in West Africa and brought to Haiti on slave ships. I said to myself, “I’m happy to be back after so long”.
Through the focus group interviews I conducted, I was able to enter a sacred space within the Sierra Leonean culture. I was shown a mass gravesite where hundreds of bodies had been dumped during the war. As I walked closer to the grave, I could but imagine the suffering they endured. Every single one of them was human. Each had family and dignity and now they lay wasted, buried. How many humans have perished in countless wars throughout history? I felt my mind flood with anger and despair slowly crept into my soul as I was confronted by the meaninglessness of life.
I shared a meal with a town chief and heard many stories. I believe stories are gifts and I carry every single one of them with me today as I write this piece. Through stories the spirit of people is passed down and remembered.
A woman told how the rebels had burned down her house, killed her husband and daughter, and stole all her cattle. She recognized the perpetrator as her neighbor, and had known him since he was a child. Even though there was a lot of pain and sorrow, she understood that since he lived in the community, neither she nor the community could move forward without reconciling with the person who had caused this harm.
I was shocked at how many people were willing to forgive. They said that healing the wounds of their society and village could not take place without it. They believed that it was an essential element to stop the cycles of violence. I was shocked because I expected to hear a more punitive, western approach to justice in which prisons are always the solution and the perpetrator is removed from the community.
I observed that this was generational difference; most of the adults valued forgiveness while the youth quickly sought a punitive approach to justice. It seemed that most of the youth were too young to remember the civil war or had not lived it. However, the older generation recognized that the need for the collective reconciliation outweighed their own primal lust for revenge.
There is a great need to localize justice processes all around the world in places of conflict; people need to be given a voice in shaping their own futures. I believe having a sense of ownership in the process of post-conflict reconstruction is fundamental and is one of the key ingredients for satisfying the needs of people after they experience war and its horrors. What would justice look like after the current conflicts in Syria, South Sudan, and Iraq? As we speak millions of people are isolated, displaced by waves of pain that continue to drown their sense of hope.
Even though I acknowledge the value of various approaches to justice – restorative, retributive and indigenous – I do not wish to romanticism any one of them. What I know for sure is that we need to allow people to collectively decide for themselves and not impose a “universal” because context always matters. I believe this is what Fambul Tok has done, and has done well.
As for me. I was changed in this way: having observed the experiences of the people of Sierra Leone and their ability to overcome the horrors of the war through their wealth in values, I am no longer bogged down by the trivial things in my life when something goes wrong. I live more lightly.
This piece was originally published in the Zehr Institute for Restorative Justice Blog