Understanding atrocity in Sierra Leone

“There are times when silence is louder than any voice,” says Mariatu Kamara, a 22 year-old university student living in Toronto, as she reads an excerpt from her book, The Bite of the Mango, to a packed theatre at the Kay Meek Centre in West Vancouver on Wednesday, October 21st. The audience is dead silent as she describes her childhood in Sierra Leone, West Africa. Nearly everyone takes a sharp intake of breath as Mariatu speaks of the civil war that hit Sierra Leone when she was only 11. Her face is stoic as she talks about unimaginable acts that occurred during the war – like watching houses burn down with her friends trapped inside, or seeing a man’s wife and baby killed in front of him – acts that she witnessed first hand. I don’t find myself gasping, however, maybe because this story has a different meaning for me. The villages Mariatu talks about in Sierra Leone are places I have visited. Sierra Leone is a place that I know and love – yet perhaps still do not fully understand.

For those who aren’t familiar with Sierra Leone, it is a tiny country on the West coast of Africa that endured a brutal civil war from 1991 to 2002. A group of students who were displeased with the president, Joseph Momoh, formed the RUF (Revolutionary United Front) in hopes of bringing a revolution. The leader of the RUF, Foday Sankoh, was joined by Liberian leader Charles Taylor, and the war that had once been a political uprising turned into a bloodbath. The Liberian interest in the war was originally due to the large amount of diamonds found in Sierra Leone, and they were fighting to bring them back into Liberia in order to sell them to the overseas market. Unfortunately, the money from the diamonds they sold went to finance the war, which led to a flourishing arms and drug trade.

The RUF attacked villages and farms, raping, maiming and murdering thousands of civilians, primarily women and children. They also recruited children as young as seven to join them as soldiers, drugging them and training them to kill. A U.N. study states that over 10,000 of these child soldiers fought in the civil war. Also, over 20,000 civilians had arms or legs amputated because of the conflict, and tens of thousands of people died. The exact number is unknown because a proper census was not conducted before the conflict, largely due to the huge number of rural villages, but it is known that more than two million people were displaced as refugees. The war left Sierra Leone with no infrastructure, no job opportunities, and a political system nearly as corrupt as it was before the conflict.

While talking to Mariatu, I realize she and I both spent the past summer in Sierra Leone. She visited her family and worked with her non-governmental organization, The Mariatu Foundation, which provides support to war victims as well as women and children undergoing abuse. My work was similar; I stayed with a Sierra Leonean family and worked for a non-governmental organization. Nearly the same age, and in the same year of university, it seems that Mariatu and I both have similar paths we both want to finish our degree and then go back to Sierra Leone to live and work. Similar paths, but the journey to reach them could not be more different.

When I was 10 years old, blissfully unaware of the conflict going on in another part of the world, Mariatu was right in the middle of it, running for her life. While I was taking music lessons, going to school, and horseback riding, Mariatu was facing the loss of something I can’t even imagine losing: her hands. The same day Mariatu first came into contact with the rebels was the day they cut off her hands, telling her to go to the president and ask him for new ones. The rebels were amputating people’s hands and arms because they didn’t want anyone to vote the president back into office. They thought it was better if people had no option to vote at all. While I was acting in my grade seven play, Mariatu was playing a part that seems unrealistic for a 12 year old becoming a mother. She was raped by an older man when she was only 11 and had experienced the loss of her son before his first birthday. This wasn’t some far off story for Mariama, nor a movie she could just flick off when she got tired of it; this was her life. Despite the love I might share with her for Sierra Leone, her loss is something I can never fully understand.

For me, hearing stories and seeing the ruins of the war can not even compare to the horror of the reality that Mariatu was facing. Upon learning I’ve been to Sierra Leone, many people ask me if it’s safe there now, how the country is recovering, and how the people are recovering. I find this an incredibly difficult question to answer. Although I can dedicate my time to working towards making Sierra Leone a better place, and helping those who have been wounded, I can never fully understand how they are really recovering. Simple statistics about the number of people helped in amputee camps, or about those who have survived war injuries, say nothing about how people are coping. One cannot hope to understand how people are recovering from such a horrifying ideal by putting ‘numbers of people helped’ into a report and sending it back to a donor country to say, “Look, we’re doing a great job… these people are really doing better now!” Mariatu points out this idea in her book, The Bite of the Mango, when she talks about how she was dealing with the loss of her arms: “I felt I could almost deal with the horror of what the rebels had done to me after all, hundreds of other young people had also lost their hands. There was some comfort in knowing that we shared the common fate of learning to survive and care for ourselves after such a devastating ordeal.”

Mariatu’s words are a constant reminder that perhaps the best thing donor countries can do for places like Sierra Leone is to enable the people there to help themselves. Constant aid will not really fix anything. Nearly one half of the government budget in Sierra Leone is financed by international grants and loans, which is keeping Sierra Leone from advancing. It is rare for the civilians to see any of this money pass by, and a system of waiting on aid has emerged; the government is waiting on aid, the citizens are waiting on the government... and nothing is getting done.

In 2009, total US bilateral aid to Sierra Leone in all categories was $32.885 million. US assistance focused on the consolidation of peace, democracy and human rights, health education, particularly combating HIV/AIDS, and human resources development. According to a US Aid Report, most of this aid is directed through the government. However, the real aid the people of Sierra Leone need is the opportunity to help build back their own country. As Mariatu says, “It was through the people in my country who helped me that I realized I was not a victim, but someone who could still make a difference.”

Despite Mariatu’s loss, the incredible forgiveness she exhibits is overwhelming and humbling. Never once does she show any resentment towards the rebels who took away her hands. Rather, she has chosen to forgive them and to now try and make the best of her situation. She has decided to look forward, rather than looking back. “I may not have hands, but I have a voice,” Mariatu said. “And no matter how nice my home in Canada is, my first home will always be Sierra Leone. The heart of my country is the heart of the people who helped me see myself not as a victim but as someone who could still do great things in this world.” Mariatu’s bravery is hard to grasp, especially when you consider what she has been through. However, it is a lesson in forgiveness and a lesson that is not easy to forget. “I lost my hands so that I could touch the world with my heart,” Mariatu says. Perhaps this is something she has already done.

//Krissi Bucholtz

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