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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.

By Jina MooreCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 9, 2008

Facing Their past: Temba Kekura (left) meets the ex-rebel, Fallah Sakila, who cut his arm off.

Jina Moore

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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.

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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.

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:

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