A former rebel faces the Sierra Leonean farmer he maimed

Forgiveness is more than a generous heart, it's a practical matter in hardscrabble village life.

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    Facing Their past: Temba Kekura (left) meets the ex-rebel, Fallah Sakila, who cut his arm off.
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GPAINGBANKORDU, Sierra Leone - Before the war, when his village and his family and his body were whole, Temba Kekura was a farmer. He had few things, simple things, the things he needed – land, crops, family, and two strong arms. Then he became part of a story that repeats, village after Sierra Leonean village.

The rebels came. They looted, burned houses, raped. They killed Mr. Kekura's mother, and when he refused to join the force, one of them cut off his right arm.

So now, he calls himself a gardener. He tends peppers and okra with a hoe. Proper crops – cassava, sweet potatoes, and rice – he leaves to men with two arms, or to their war widows.

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Most days, his arm, that arm, hurts. "Whenever I feel pain, I just think bad things," he says about his life, about himself, but mostly about the man who left him this way. "My heart spoils."

So he has never talked about what happened; but his body tells a story everyone knows on sight. That story starts with Fallah Sakila.

Mr. Sakila is from a village just over the Liberian border, about a mile away. He was 20 when the Liberian rebel army, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), kidnapped him and forced him to become a soldier. When the war in Liberia spilled into Sierra Leone, his unit tried to abduct Kekura, who resisted. Sakila was told to cut off Kekura's arm as punishment.

"The commander told me, 'Even you, you joined us by force. If you fail to take this order, we'll kill you right here,' " Sakila remembers. "So I said, 'My dear friend, forgive me.' And I took the hand, laid it on a stick, and I cut it off."

If Kekura remembers the "dear friend" part, he doesn't tell. What he will tell, for the first time, is the story that unites him with Sakila. Sakila has come to apologize, and Kekura says he will forgive. "When somebody kills your relatives and apologizes to you, [and] you forgive a person, there will be peace," Kekura says. "So I accept to forgive this man."

The bitter irony of war here is that, years after it ended, perpetrators and victims still need each other. Here, in this small village and across the Sierra Leonean countryside, forgiveness requires public space for ritual and acknowledgment. "You cannot," says a woman raped and beaten in the bush here, "forgive someone you do not see."

Making that space is the job of John Caulker, founder of Fambul Tok. The Krio (Sierra Leonean creole) phrase means "family talk," but it's bigger than its translation implies: It's the old way of resolving disputes, creating community, and reestablishing peace.

The world has ways for dealing with legacies of war in postconflict countries: truth commissions and tribunals, demobilization programs and training workshops, and aid. There is a complex infrastructure for trying to make peace permanent.

But the people here say they just want a chicken. They need a sacrifice for the ancestors, as penance for the violence wrought on their lands. Then, they say, the harvests will improve. Whatever else reconciliation brings – the kind of closure Sierra Leoneans talk about as a "cool heart" – villagers here are looking for things more urgent: food for their families and the chance to make a living again.

But first, the ancestors must be appeased. So tonight, John Caulker has come with a chicken.

• • •

From his rural childhood, Caulker remembers nightly gatherings around a bonfire to gossip, joke, and recount the past. He remembers visits to sacred sites where the spirits of the ancestors lived. Caulker has taken this promise of a useful past to dozens of villages. He comes with Fambul Tok.

In Gpaingbankordu, it starts and ends with dancing. Women shake hips wrapped in bright African fabrics; men pound the dirt with their feet, dusting up their shoes. Three musicians bang dumda bendaa, long drums. The dance traditionally marks the death of a chief or the return of a war hero. Between songs, they gather around a bonfire and tell, often for the first time, what happened to them during the war:

They took my baby from my back and put him in the river.

I met [the rebels], and they did what they wanted to do.

He hit me with a gun on my ear, and I am still feeling the pain; even today, I cannot [carry] water on my head.

The men who committed these crimes wedge through the crowd, stand before their victims and, atoning, touch the ground with one hand. They, too, tell their stories:

The commander told me, "Take the child." I could've been killed. So I took the child. It's not my fault.

They told me, "If you refuse then we will kill you right here." So then I must cut you, even though you are my friend.

We were given matches to burn down the houses. That was my job anywhere we go.

One by one, victims are heard and perpetrators forgiven, so that they might dance and make peace with the ancestors. Then, they say, the harvest will be good for the first time since the war. ­ And then, they think about moving forward.

"If you are hungry," says Sia Falloh, the woman who can't carry water on her head, "you will not forget."

The next morning, a spiritual leader, wearing a dangling headband of animal fur, cleanses every corner of the village, dipping fistfuls of leaves into a bucket of water and sprinkling doors, footpaths, faces. Men walk single file through the jungle, to a stone, covered and secret, where the ancestors reside. There, they slaughter a chicken, intone prayers, plead for bountiful harvests.

Tradition says this will return peace to the village and fertility to the land; that, now, everything will be fine. Provided that tradition, too, was not a casualty of war.

"The war drove us [from the village]," says John Tombatemba, "and our ancestors, too. So we don't know whether they are here.... Even if they come back, they are strangers. Like us."

• • •

Caulker has initiated 35 ceremonies in as many villages over, roughly, four months; his program expands in the fall, and he expects to reach 800 villages by the end of the year. The rituals are as varied as the number of ceremonies, he says, ­ though the intended outcome, of course, is universal.

He's not the only person to see a need for grass-roots reconciliation in Sierra Leone and his approach is not without limitations.

"We have to be careful about putting African traditions up on a pedestal, because they're also a construct," says Andy Carl, executive director of Conciliation Services, which supports local peace-building initiatives. "They're being reinvented all the time, and part of the war in Sierra Leone was about the failure of traditional institutions."

But Caulker and others still have faith in the old ways. "Through our tradition, if you own up to what you did ... and you ask for forgiveness, it's almost a guarantee that the person will forgive you," Caulker says.

Villagers pledge precisely that, but even after the owning up and the accepting, some things don't change. After the fambul tok, Kekura and Sakila sit next to – but not near – each other on a wooden bench. "I am sitting as God made me," Sakila says, "but this man has a problem."

Kekura has been ready to forgive, but at the ceremony, he made Sakila beg – three times. He finally forgave – not because his heart is big or his spirit generous, but because it is the only kind of power he still has. "There is nothing I can do," he says. "Only to have peace."

In the course of an hour-long interview, neither man looks at the other. Three people could sit in the space between them. But Sakila offers Kekura help in his garden, and Kekura says Sakila is free to visit the village.

Perhaps, then, what has happened here isn't really about something as high-minded as forgiveness or reconciliation. Perhaps, rather, it is about ritual – the simple finality of an act still considered sacred enough to wash away what's gone wrong in the world.

Perhaps this is what Kekura means when he says, "It has happened," he says. "It is finished in my heart."

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