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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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"They were not as rooted in the communities as people had envisioned initially," says Priscilla Hayner, an expert with the International Center for Transitional Justice and a consultant to Sierra Leone's TRC. "People think of a truth and reconciliation commission as the body leading to reconciliation, which maybe sets them up for disappointment in the short term because it's a much longer-term process."

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Caulker wants to be part of that longer-term process, making it something he feels is more authentic than the Western institutions of justice brought to his capital. In the past year, he has used a bare-bones budget from the US-based foundation Catalyst for Peace to crisscross the rutted roads of rural Sierra Leone, inviting villagers to try reconciliation their way, with fambul tok, asking for and receiving forgiveness around bonfires and offering atonement to the spirits of the ancestors. It's frugal – each ceremony costs about $300. Though it sounds simple, perhaps even silly, like catching a runaway jet with a rubber band, ­village after village – 35 so far and 10 scheduled – embraced the opportunity.

In communities where perpetrators were frequently victims themselves, kidnapped as youth and often drugged before being asked – ­or forced depending on your perspective – to commit heinous acts, residents say they want absolution.

"People will not forgive if someone does not come forward to them in person to acknowledge what they did.... Someone has to acknowledge that this person was hurt," Caulker says. "That restores dignity to the victims."

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The rationale of truth commissions can come close to rhapsody: "A people is rising," the El Salvador commission proclaimed, "from the ashes of a war in which all were unjust." This is not the language the villagers who welcome Caulker would use. They speak of their desire to apologize, to forgive, to heal; yet these noble gestures aren't so unlike more ordinary human impulses. They are still, at some level, about what people need.

In the impoverished villages of Sierra Leone, people most often say they forgive to bring peace ­not just for peace's sake, but because, they echo each other in saying, "Without peace, there is no development."

They forgive because tradition tells them it will improve harvests, and they will not go hungry. They forgive, in large part, because their bellies and their wallets are empty, and the old ways tell them that forgiveness can make them full again.

And so, to villages where every home had been burned down, where widowed women live with the memory and stigma of rape, men hoe fields with only one hand, and young people try to erase their childhoods as kidnapped soldiers, John Caulker goes to start reconciliation the old way, with some matches for a fire and a chicken for the spirits of the dead.

• Tomorrow: A farmer faces the rebel who amputated his arm.