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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.

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"I don't want to make the mistake that this is reconciliation," he says. "This is not reconciliation. This is the beginning of the process."

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These days, reconciliation is not revolutionary territory. It's on what Caulker calls the West's "post-conflict checklist," which promotes reconciliation through institutions like truth and reconciliation commissions (TRCs). More than 40 countries around the world have turned to TRCs for what, in other circumstances, might be the work of courts or civil society groups: exposing crimes, on the one hand, and promoting social cohesion on the other.

Until South Africa pioneered TRCs in 1995, the past was made public in courts, by definition sites of retributive justice that, experts say, can be at odds with community healing.

"Very often the adversarial process [of criminal justice] has ... effects that can interfere with or delay social reconstruction," says Martha Minow, a professor of law at Harvard University and author of "Between Vengeance and Forgiveness: Facing History After Genocide and Mass Violence."

Prosecution pursues questions of guilt, and in the process focuses on the rights of defendants, potentially leaving victims of mass violence feeling neglected. "It also invites the defendants to defend themselves, rather than build bridges" with those they offended, she says.

Perhaps the most difficult problem is the most obvious: Like the former rebels in Bomaru, war criminals fearing prosecution don't want to tell the whole story – which is what many victims say they want most.

Truth commissions are a kind of compromise. They often offer amnesty in exchange for testimony, theorizing that knowing the truth about the past is more important for individuals and societies than convicting criminals of what can be proved in court. Sierra Leone didn't have that choice: Its judicial system, in shambles before the war, didn't exist after.

"Most of the justice system was destroyed by the civil war, and to ask for justice was very, very difficult for our people," says Hassan Seika, who leads the Bo Peace and Reconciliation Movement in central Sierra Leone.

Then there's the peace agreement, which promised combatants amnesty, taking a trial off the table and with it the possibility of the courtroom as a space for truth-telling. That decision would eventually be partially reversed, and the country would set up a United Nations-backed Special Court with a $100 million budget to try the nine leaders "bearing the greatest responsibility" for atrocities.

Meanwhile, Sierra Leone set up a truth commission, which Caulker calls "my baby." He led a campaign to establish the commission, then lobbied the Freetown-based institution to spend real time in rural communities, where the brunt of the war was felt. Caulker thinks it failed, and even its architects acknowledge that the TRC's consultations didn't live up to the hopes it raised.