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Sierra Leoneans look for peace through full truth about war crime

Human rights activist John Caulker looks beyond the high-profile and costly prosecutions to village-level reconciliation.

By Jina Moore / July 7, 2008

STRAW MAN : A ‘bush devil’ whirls in a traditional welcome dance for villagers gathering for a reconciliation meeting. Getting war victims and perpetrators to talk renews community connections needed for development.

Sara Terry / Polaris


Bomaru, Sierra Leone - Little but its history distinguishes Bomaru from other villages scattered across Sierra Leone's countryside. A quiet place with mud houses the same color as the dust kicked up by the occasional passing vehicle, it would seem, on an ordinary day, impoverished and washed out.

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But today, women dress in freshly laundered wrappers ablaze in color; men wear regal Muslim gowns or their best T-shirts. An anonymous few sweat beneath layers of straw and fabric, in costumes like something from Sesame Street: They are – or are dressed as, depending upon your belief system – the village's local devils, whose appearance signals celebration; their rapid footwork leads a dancing procession to the village center.

Nearly 800 people from Bomaru and nearby villages have gathered for Fambul Tok, a grass-roots reconciliation initiative John Caulker wants to bring to every Sierra Leonean village. The phrase is Krio (English-based creole) ­for "family talk," the old way of resolving disputes through conversations around bonfires.

Mr. Caulker, whose human rights organization, Forum of Conscience, developed Fambul Tok over the past three years in villages across Sierra Leone, wants the bonfire to be a space for confession and forgiveness for war crimes. Bomaru is the first test of whether the idea works –­ or whether anyone even cares.

Dozens of people have come to Bomaru 17 years to the day after the war began here in March 1991. They're here to recount crimes they committed after their abductions and forced conscriptions in the 1990s into the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), a rebel group from neighboring Liberia infamous for chopping limbs off civilians. But by the time the bonfire is lit and the crowd settles in for storytelling, they've changed their minds.

Maybe it's coming face to face with the moment, maybe it's the half-dozen white people here to document it, but something has spooked the former war criminals.

"They are afraid that if they talk, they will be prosecuted," Caulker explains.

It's a legal impossibility; Sierra Leone negotiated its peace in part by offering fighters blanket amnesty. But here, legal promises can feel like borders – slippery when interests shift.

Caulker sends a film crew, print reporter, and intern – all white – away from the assembly briefly. He talks with the town chief and convinces them to proceed; the chief, a former RUF rebel, promises to offer the first testimony.

And so, the perpetrators talk one after another, until 2 in the morning. Mostly men speak, confessing atrocities they committed as unwilling soldiers forced to choose: kill, maim, rape, or be killed.

If any of the victims in these stories are present, they don't speak. Which is not what Caulker, whose career in human rights began with dangerous undercover research for Amnesty International during the war, had imagined. He'd thought he'd see perpetrators apologizing to victims, and victims reaching out in forgiving embrace.