Faith's unbreakable force

As Sierra Leone takes courageous steps in peacemaking.....

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

As Sierra Leone takes courageous steps in peacemaking after almost a decade of civil war, the country's religious leaders have united to help end the conflict and lay a foundation for national reconstruction.

West Africa, some outsiders have asserted, is a region collapsing in chaos and thuggery. Indeed, two nations - Sierra Leone and Liberia - have endured years of the "most brutal warfare in the modern world," in the words of Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, Sierra Leone's democratically elected president. Atrocities by bands of rebels have left thousands killed, maimed, and homeless. Hundreds of children have been kidnapped and turned into soldiers or sex slaves.

But like the diamonds gleaming out of the dark precincts of that country's mines, faith has shown itself to be an unbreakable force. "Sierra Leone has survived as a nation through faith - faith in God and in the principle of democracy," President Kabbah says, although "that faith has been aggressively challenged."

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That faith took concrete form when Christian and Muslim leaders joined together in the Interreligious Council (IRC) of Sierra Leone, not only to console their flocks and help those who had been harmed, but to take courageous steps in peacemaking. Their example illustrates the impact religious leaders can have by voicing shared moral concerns and acting on their values in times of crisis. It's a story being played out, too, by the Interfaith Task Force in Liberia, and in other African countries.

Kabbah and IRC members shared their experience in shaping a fragile peace in their war-scarred country at last month's assembly of the World Conference on Religion and Peace (WCRP) held in Amman, Jordan. The IRC is a "national chapter" of WCRP, a global organization that promotes collaboration across faith traditions to solve common problems. WCRP is actively engaged in conflict resolution and peacebuilding in the Balkans and Indonesia as well as in Africa.

"We have been able to do what we have done because of religious tolerance," says the Rev. Alimamy Koroma, co-secretary of Sierra Leone's IRC.

"Tolerance is part of our culture down to the village level," says Roman Catholic Archbishop Joseph Ganda. "Extended families include members of different faiths." Kabbah himself, for example, is Muslim and his wife Catholic. "We have gold and diamonds, but we are proud we have this other national resource, religious tolerance," Kabbah says.

The IRC was created in April 1997 to strengthen citizenship in the brand new democracy, under threat from rebels in the countryside. But one month later, a military coup overthrew the year-old Kabbah government and the junta joined forces with the rebels.

"We informed the coup leadership that the IRC called for the government to be restored," says Haja Mahdi, leader of the Council of Muslim Women. "The military leaders tried to coerce us to conduct a religious service with them," Mrs. Mahdi adds. "We declined." It was a bold step at a time that hostilities were causing a mass exodus of people to neighboring countries.

Despite threats, 'we chose to stay'

"There was good reason for us to leave the country because of threats and harassment," says Mr. Koroma. "But we chose to stay and to try to inspire hope among our people."

"We learned that being willing to take risks is very important," Mahdi says. Since then, IRC members have taken risks under highly volatile circumstances. Archbishop Ganda was taken hostage at one point, but managed to escape.

Armed forces marshalled by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) restored the Kabbah government, but rebel troops continued to terrorize the countryside. And in January 1999, the rebels invaded Freetown, carrying out a savage reign of terror in the capital. In addition to ministering to a traumatized populace and providing aid to the injured and those displaced from their homes, the IRC sought to open lines of communication with all parties.

"They did an outstanding job," Kabbah says. "They went into the bush and sat on the ground with rebel forces."

Women members went too, hoping to win the freedom of child soldiers. "I talked to the rebels as a mother," says Mrs. Saimihafu Kassim, IRC treasurer. Some of the rebels, she adds, asked her to pray for them. In a goodwill gesture in response to IRC efforts, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) released 53 children.

RUF leader Foday Sankoh urged the IRC to take the process further, to facilitate discussions between rebel factions in the bush as well as with the United Nations.

Meanwhile, the international community was urging Kabbah to take the "extraordinarily painful" step of negotiating with the rebels. "The Sierra Leone society was divided on the need for a cease-fire," says Francis Okelo, the UN secretary-general's special representative. Some wanted ECOMOG (ECOWAS forces) to keep fighting the RUF until a victory, he says, "but we felt a military victory was not possible."

"The IRC enjoys a unique position within the society, they have the respect and confidence of the people," Mr. Okelo adds, "so it was important to work closely with them right from the beginning of the peace process."

IRC members began communicating with all those who had a stake in the situation, including trips to neighboring countries to talk with religious counterparts and heads of state such as Charles Taylor of Liberia, a rebel backer.

"The IRC made it possible for the rebels to talk with the government," according to Kadi Sesay, head of Sierra Leone's human rights commission.

A cease-fire was reached in May, and when the rebels and government sat down at the peace table, both sides requested that the IRC be formally seated at the negotiations. There it continued the role as a go-between, convening parties when trouble developed, and serving as procedural guarantor of the talks (maintaining its independence on the agreement itself).

"The talks were quite tense at times," Okelo says. "The RUF had demands so drastic the whole structure of the society and government would change if they were accepted.... I needed to use the IRC members constantly in dealing with the RUF and the government."

"The IRC raises the concerns of the average Sierra Leonean," says US Ambassador Joseph Melrose, in Freetown. "When things looked bad in the negotiations, they kept the dialogue going."

While the RUF did compromise, the peace agreement gave the rebels amnesty, and established a process for disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of some 45,000 fighters back into society, to be carried out under ECOMOG and UN forces. It requires the first democratically elected government in 20 years to include top leaders of its enemies in a national unity government, something mature democracies would find difficult to do.

"I'm convinced I made the right decision to go that far," Kabbah says, "but only history will tell if I was right." Still, the issues of justice for the horrible wrongs committed are crucial ones the country will have to sort out along the way.

"With the peace agreement, there is a herculean task ahead of us," says Koroma. The religious institutions have the most highly developed social infrastructure in the country, and the IRC is now defining its roles, along with secular organizations, in consolidating the peace and working toward long-term social reconstruction.

"This is a treacherous stage in the peace where the process could unravel," says WCRP Secretary-General William Vendley. "There are issues among the rebel factions - some are frightened of being cut off and killed," and are not eager to give up arms. Dr. Vendley may play a third-party role with some rebel factions.

And along with disarmament, there is the resettlement of displaced people and repatriation of refugees. WCRP helps local chapters inventory their moral and social assets - their social capital, Vendley says, to see how they can best use their resources and to help them find financial support. Given the devastation over eight years, the needs are immense.

"We have begun sensitizing our various communities on the need to accept the peace and to work to live together again as one nation," Koroma says. "This will mean some aspect of forgiveness and reconciliation, but it will not be easy because our communities have been deeply hurt." A truth and reconciliation commission is planned, but it will take time to prepare both sides for that stage, he says.

Feeding soldiers to protect villagers

Public education on the agreement has taken place on TV, in villages, and among rebel camps. Perhaps the most controversial of IRC actions has been sending food to some rebel camps to keep hungry soldiers from making attacks on villages. Not everyone has appreciated such actions. But IRC members say ending the fighting is the first necessity. Only then can people have hope and reconstruction begin.

To that end, Koroma stresses, the roles of the international community are essential. "This war has gone on for eight years - for eight years we have been on our own - and I'm sure there are actors out there who could have stopped it. We need to ensure that we become a gun-free nation, as the guns have been silenced in the Gulf and Kosovo."

The disarmament process has gotten under way slowly. Some 3,000 ex-combatants, less than 10 percent, Okelo says, have entered demobilization centers.

"Please assist us in consolidating this peace, including with your prayers," urges Sheik Tejan Sillah. "We believe that prayers are the key to peace."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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