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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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When the war ended, Caulker tried to cultivate that sense of solace in his country. He became, with others, a tireless advocate for a truth and reconciliation commission, today a common institution for dealing with the legacies of atrocities like those in Sierra Leone. For 10 years, combatants on all sides of the conflict had moved from village to village, raping women, burning houses, even chopping off the limbs of civilians. Caulker traveled the provinces encouraging people to share their experiences with the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). His views weren't always popular, but he persisted.

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"John is not afraid to make himself unpopular with the powerful," says Jon Lunn, a senior research analyst in the British House of Commons who has worked with Caulker since 1998. "One of the characteristics of him really has been to speak truth to power ... to speak independently without fear or favor."

He's famous, in fact, for his advocacy on behalf of the war's amputees. "The war victims, they all know him all over the country," says Jamesina King, chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone. Caulker has been pressing their case for reparations for nearly 10 years.

Though preaching reconciliation to his countrymen, Caulker still hadn't made peace with his mother's sisters. "I'm talking to people about forgiveness, about reconciliation – and I realized I have something to address within my family," he remembers. "I was so angry; these were people I thought I would never make peace with.... But I just thought, I'm doing it for my mother. The way she brought me up was not to keep things in my heart."

He met his aunts again at his maternal grandmother's funeral in 2002, four years after his mother died. "We need to talk," he told them. He explained what he remembered and how he felt; his aunts argued. He can't remember the conversation precisely, but what matters, he says, is that they have accepted each other and the pain between them. "It will take time for us to really get to where we were before my mother died. It is a process," Caulker says. "You accept, and you continually accept, even when you think it's finished."

This, then, is how Caulker thinks national reconciliation – as a personal, one-on-one encounter he thinks Sierra Leoneans have never had – might finally begin. One gesture of acknowledgment at a time, relationships can be repaired. Unheard stories of suffering, and unvoiced pleas for forgiveness, can be shared. And in the morning, perhaps villagers, too, can leave the memory of a brutal war behind. Perhaps, he thinks, communities can be turned into fambuls again.

So, one village at a time, that's what Caulker set out to do.

• Tomorrow: John Caulker coaxes war crimes perpetrators out of the bonfire's shadows.