Sierra Leone's 'family talk' heals scars of war
Inspired by childhood memories of community rituals, human rights activist John Caulker treks across Sierra Leone to reconcile war crime perpetrators and their victims.
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In 1995, the rebels reached Songo and forced Caulker's family to flee to his aunts' home in Freetown, which had been sheltered enough, on Africa's western coast, that the atrocities seemed mere rumor.Skip to next paragraph
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"Freetonians thought that people who lived in the village who want[ed] to migrate to the city ... fabricated these stories that there are rebels," Caulker says. "They'd say, 'Who are the rebels? You?' ... I remember my mother getting thrown out of her family house at 2 a.m. because her sisters didn't think rebels existed."
Caulker, his mother, and four children she'd taken in lodged in a basement down the street. But the slight – a personal cruelty and a cultural aberration – was too much. "She educated these people; she used her resources to bring them up. My mother was the eldest. And now her younger sisters and brothers did not come to her aid," Caulker says. "I realized she will die in Freetown if she stays."
He took his mother home to Songo, but Caulker himself made the risky journey to Freetown several times a week. He'd decided, in the middle of a war, to start Forum of Conscience, a human rights organization, and the only place to do that was the capital.
In 1997, Caulker became something of a human rights spy. He'd throw on his dirtiest pair of jeans and a long T-shirt and slip between guerrilla groups, pumping proud, often drunk, fighters for details of their war atrocities. Then he'd duck into an abandoned house, test the phone line, and make collect calls to Amnesty International, funneling out details that helped the world sort rumor from truth. The work was dangerous: He lived in RUF-controlled territory and slept in abandoned cars. But he had little trouble getting war criminals to talk.
"The rebels were very boastful," he remembers. "They said things happily.... 'I killed three people,' and another will say, 'Yeah, I killed five.' To them it was like a prize."
Eventually, that violence reached his mother's village, and Caulker brought her back to Freetown. Her death not long after, Caulker attributes to the war – not to the fighting, per se, but to the situation into which it forced his family. When his aunts bought an expensive casket and held an elegant viewing in the very home his mother had been turned out of, Caulker was furious. "But I was a little boy; I don't have any voice by then," he says; he was in his 20s – still too young, in a country with reverence for age, to do more than complain.
His mother's funeral was held the day Nigerian peacekeepers arrived in Freetown to defend the capital from the RUF. But no one in the church where Caulker's mother lay in her coffin knew what was happening when gunshots began.
"Everyone ran away from the church. Everyone," he remembers. "I just sat under the coffin [to] be with her until it died down, and people came in again." He crouched beneath the coffin for close to an hour; when the fighting broke briefly, they buried her. "Others were not buried.... There were corpses at the mortuary, and it was burnt down. It gave me some solace, that she was buried."