CWS delegation encounters trauma, hope in Sierra Leone

from Church World Service
Published on 23 Jul 2002
FREETOWN, SIERRA LEONE, WEST AFRICA - Members of the Church World Service delegation to West Africa traveled the length and breadth of Sierra Leone July 9-15 to see for themselves how the country is faring following a brutal 11-year civil war, which ended in January 2002.
"Peace has come to Sierra Leone," the delegation concluded. "But the struggle to recover goes on." Elections - judged free and fair - were held in June, and the newly elected President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah was inaugurated July 12 to a five-year term. Ex-combatants are being reintegrated into communities, and refugees are returning home from Guinea, Liberia and beyond.

Ex-combatants from the Sierra Leone conflict, defined as "anyone who carried a gun," number between 30,000-45,000, says Albert Kanu, Development Director for the Council of Churches of Sierra Leone (CCSL).

People are trying to put on a brave face. A war amputee, with three fingers missing, told the group, "You have seen for yourself the pains and struggles we have borne. Today we are happy. We let go what happened to us because there is peace in this country."

But just beneath the surface is evident a great deal of pain. "Everyone in Sierra Leone has been deeply traumatized by the war," observed the Rev. John L. McCullough, Executive Director of Church World Service and head of the eight-member delegation.

Homes, hospitals, schools and businesses from north to south have been looted and burned. Unemployment in the formal sector is high, the CCSL reports. Survivors of the war ask how they can forgive.

The Church World Service delegation came to Sierra Leone by invitation of CCSL, as part of a combined invitation last February by the respective councils of churches of the Republic of Guinea, The Gambia, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.

"There's been so much pain in this region for such a long time," McCullough said at a meeting of the CCSL Executive Committee.

Over the course of its visits to all four West African countries, CWS affirmed its intention to return to the U.S. and advocate for greater world attention and financial support for Sierra Leone and its troubled neighbors.

U.S. Ambassador to Sierra Leone Peter Chaveas told the CWS delegation that the new Kabbah administration "is a government with much more credibility," given its mandate in June in elections that were basically free and fair and "almost devoid of violence." This government "has five years ahead of it and the prospect to do something," Chaveas said.

Chaveas and others told the CWS delegation that international intervention is crucial for restoring peace in Sierra Leone, and that ongoing international interest and presence is essential in order to consolidate peace. Without it, Chaveas said, "Sierra Leone would regress. This is not even considering what the Liberia conflict could mean. Consolidating peace in Sierra Leone is a long term project."

Chaveas emphasized, "There's no substitute for getting this economy running again. This economy is devastated. I lack the words to express how bad things are.

"It's going to be a long, hard process to rebuild. We are resisting the notion that the humanitarian assistance phase is over," he added.

CCSL General Secretary Alimamy Koroma acknowledges there has been a flight of professionals from Sierra Leone, but he contends, "lots of capable people are left," a claim confirmed by the CWS delegation during its Sierra Leone tour.

CWS Delegation Visits War Sites, Refugee and Amputee Camps

In Sierra Leone, the CWS delegation divided into small groups and spent two days visiting the Kono, Kenema, Kambia and Koinadugu Districts. Delegation members visited recent returnees from Guinea, sites of devastation from the war, and met refugees newly arriving from Liberia.

They sat with paramount chiefs and other traditional leaders and met police and border guards, local churches, and humanitarian aid workers. One group slept in tents with UN peacekeepers from Pakistan. Another shared groundnut stew and other "road food" brought along by CCSL staff.

In Freetown, the CWS group visited a camp for war amputees, where 230 amputees and 2,000 family members were crammed into tents and fragile shelters. They need food, medical care, trauma counseling, and prostheses.

Concern Over Sierra Leone Society Hiding Away the Amputees

CWS delegate Susan Sanders, Minister and Team Leader for Global Sharing of Resources, Wider Church Ministries, United Church of Christ, Cleveland, Ohio, expressed her concern that Sierra Leone may want to put its amputees out of sight, considering them a painful reminder of a war everyone wants to forget.

Sanders, daughter of a World War II veteran and amputee, adds that the CWS delegation expects there will "be followup in the ecumenical community to get prostheses for these people. They are heroes and should not be hidden away and forgotten.

"As the daughter of an amputee," she said, "I know that amputees can live good and full lives."

At the amputee camp, Ishmael Darami, a middle-aged man with a bright smile who had lost both hands, told the CWS delegates, "We are concerned first and foremost for the children. They need education.

"As for me," said Mr. Darami, who is Amputees' Association National Coordinator, "I take courage for the future. God can do something good for me."

The delegation also met a 15-year-old girl whose family had moved to Freetown from The Gambia. When the rebels entered Freetown in 1999, they killed her mother, father and brother in front of her, then swung a machete at her and cut off her right arm from the shoulder. She ran and was the only member of her family to survive.

Mohammed, 16, lost a leg in a landmine while fleeing rebels. Asked his hopes for the future, he said he wants to study computers.

The Rev. Canon Benjamin Musoke-Lubega, a CWS delegation member, was especially moved by a four-year-old boy whose right leg had been amputated by rebels when he was only two months old. "I have a son that boy's age," he said. He says that despite international media attention around the amputees, they seem to be getting few services.

Need For Healing, Lasting Peace, Trauma Recovery

The CWS delegates concluded their Sierra Leone visits wrestling with issues of forgiveness, impunity, and what is need for healing, trauma recovery and lasting peace.

"I am struck by the magnitude of what we have seen, CWS' McCullough said. "So much more than I had imagined. And I had imagined a lot. The people of this country have suffered so much. So many people share in the responsibility-- within this country, within the region and internationally.

"It's imperative," he urged, "that we learn our lessons from this because it should never be repeated."

While CWS program response to the visit is currently in process of being fully developed, McCullough said one thing is clear, "and that's helping people with trauma recovery, an area in which CWS has particular expertise." McCullough explained that such work would be carried out in collaboration with CCSL and the Sierra Leone government.

Even a government minister with whom the delegation met said, "You see some us sitting in front of you and you think we are sane. Probably we are not," she laughed, and added, "We are all traumatized and we need trauma counseling. I have a house now that I can't go to. That house is no longer habitable. That's traumatic."

Reintegration with Justice

The CCSL has been assigned responsibility for reintegration work in four chiefdoms in northern Sierra Leone. The CCSL says that communities to which ex-combatants are returning need practical, social and psychological support, given the brutality of the war-- especially that imposed by the rebel forces as they looted, raped, killed, and amputated on their sweep from Sierra Leone's north to Freetown along the Atlantic Ocean in the nation's south.

The CWS delegation heard considerable disgruntlement, says McCullough, that ex-combatants were getting all the attention and help to reintegrate, but that those who were hurt by them, especially the amputees, are getting nothing or almost nothing.

Sensitive to that concern, the CCSL is serving both ex-combatants and those who suffered at their hands. Its reintegration work has reached 350 ex-combatants and 150 "bright and impoverished" youth in host communities.

In Sierra Leone, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission and a Special Court are preparing to undertake the difficult task of balancing the need for justice with the need to forgive.

"Sierra Leoneans said to us, "How can people who committed atrocities like these be allowed to go free? People have to be held accountable for their actions," McCullough said.

A man in the amputee camp told McCullough that the ex-rebels are now being integrated into the army. "They go around in the streets asking people, 'Please forgive me,'" he said, "and they hand out candies."

"That is an insult to their victims," said McCullough. "People have to deal with the root causes." He also says the Truth and Reconciliation Commission needs adequate funding.

CCSL President and Chair of Sierra Leone's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the Rt. Rev. Dr. J.C. Humper, says the war ravaged "not only the infrastructure but the lives of the people. In order to avoid a repetition of what happened, we need every ounce of support."

Humper says the country needs "experts, and resources to address the needs of children and aged and to address this great enemy called the HIV/AIDS pandemic. We need help to revitalize our churches and to not lose our young.

"As long as young boys are roaming our streets with no job, our work is not finished," Humper added, referring to reintegrated young men and child soldiers. "They have to expend their energy somewhere, for good or bad."

Need for Economic Development, Skills and Leadership Training

Delegate Kirsten Laursen, CWS Deputy Director of Programs, says the group learned that one of the biggest needs the country has over the next five to 15 years is training.

"According to Mrs. Shirley Gbujama, the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children's Affairs," she explains, "Sierra Leone has gold, diamonds, cocoa, and fish, for starters, so it expects less dependence as the economy picks up.

"They're hoping that by 2015 they won't be looking to donors for resources. But they need education and skills training now," she says, "and they will continue to do so in the future."

Laursen says women especially need training. "Women are weavers now, so that's progress, because it used to be taboo, only men did it." Training is also needed, she says, in peacemaking, management and leadership.

200 Years of Pent-Up Frustration Followed by Blowup: But Now, Hope

Sierra Leone's current situation is the culmination of 200 years of exploitation, McCullough observed, first by colonial powers and later by corrupt government with the backing of greedy international interests.

"There has been a failure of government, of social services, of the economy, and a lack of available health care and education. The years of pent-up frustration finally just blew up."

But, says the CWS delegation, in Sierra Leone there is hope. "In Kono District there are a lot of survivors," McCullough said. "Most are looking to the future. They want to get the children back in school. There is a lot of emphasis on education." There is a need to heal both survivors and victimizers, say CWS delegates.

Mrs. Shirley Gbujama, Sierra Leone's Minister of Social Welfare, Gender and Children's Affairs, a Methodist, briefed the CWS delegation on her ministry's work to locate lost children and reunite them with their families, and reintegrate child soldiers into their communities. "We get children back to school," she said, "and get older children involved in skills training so they will be able to support themselves." She described a workshop for street children organized by the ministry, saying, "We don't just give them food and clothing, but find out why they are on the street."

Many, who are contributing significantly to the support of their whole family, call the minister Aunt Shirley.

A related project, headed by Mrs. Bintu Magona, Executive Secretary, National Commission for War Affected Children and an expert in child counseling, is organizing psychological care and initiating an innovative "Voice of Children" radio and television station that will give children airtime to ask their questions and speak their minds.

Sierra Leone Church Council Heading Reintegration, Helping with Workstarts and Microcredit

CCSL coordinates reintegration projects designed in each community to fit participants' interests. If participants are interested in farming, CCSL helps connect people to sources of seeds and tools, find a blacksmith to make tools, or supply goats to the community. The church council is also involved in job creation, beginning with microcredit for women, targeting 25 women in each chiefdom, and later extending the program to youth and men.

"In areas where we are implementing CWS projects, we have started with the women, giving them small grants to start small-scale businesses," Kanu said. CCSL gives startup capital for "petty trading" (bread, biscuits, small household items, canned milk, or fruit). Others get capital for seeds, all on a revolving loan scheme.

"We are of the opinion that we can't keep helping them. They have to help themselves," Kanu said. As return on investment is plowed back into a revolving loan fund, more people are brought into the cooperative-reaching as many as 12,000 individuals in a year. CCSL performs the program in partnership with local churches and other community based organizations.

Notes of Hope

CWS' Sierra Leone visit ended on a note of hope with an impromptu concert by the CCSL Gospel Band-- a program of CCSL's Youth Desk-- and a gala farewell banquet.

The 20 or so young members of the Gospel Band are preparing to tour Sierra Leone with their music of peace and hope. They performed a mini-concert for the CWS delegation.

One song, adapted from Bob Marley's "No Woman, No Cry," became "Know Jesus, Know Life." By the end of the mini-concert, several CWS delegation members were on their feet dancing with band members and with each other.

The CWS delegation continued on to the fourth leg of its tour in Liberia, where the mission ended Thursday July 18 in a meeting with Liberian President Charles Taylor.

CWS delegates included the Rev. John L. McCullough (United Methodist); the Rev. Canon Benjamin Musoke-Lubega of The Episcopal Church, New York City; the Rev. Philip Reed of Missionaries of Africa (Roman Catholic), Washington, D.C.; Ms. Susan Sanders (United Church of Christ), Cleveland, Ohio.

CWS staff participating in the delegation included Victor Hsu (Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Senior Advisor to the CWS Executive Director; Kirsten Laursen (The Episcopal Church), CWS Deputy Director of Programs; Moses Ole Sakuda (Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Associate Director, CWS Mission Relationships and Witness Program, and Carol Fouke-Mpoyo (United Church of Christ), Media Liaison for the CWS delegation.

CONTACT: Carol Fouke-Mpoyo, CWS Delegate and Media Liaison
Phone: (212) 870-2252

Jan Dragin/Boston
Phone: (781) 925-1526
Fax: (781) 925-2311