Bomaru, Sierra Leone - Little but its history distinguishes Bomaru from other villages scattered across Sierra Leone's countryside. A quiet place with mud houses the same color as the dust kicked up by the occasional passing vehicle, it would seem, on an ordinary day, impoverished and washed out.
But today, women dress in freshly laundered wrappers ablaze in color; men wear regal Muslim gowns or their best T-shirts. An anonymous few sweat beneath layers of straw and fabric, in costumes like something from Sesame Street: They are – or are dressed as, depending upon your belief system – the village's local devils, whose appearance signals celebration; their rapid footwork leads a dancing procession to the village center.
Nearly 800 people from Bomaru and nearby villages have gathered for Fambul Tok, a grass-roots reconciliation initiative John Caulker wants to bring to every Sierra Leonean village. The phrase is Krio (English-based creole) for "family talk," the old way of resolving disputes through conversations around bonfires.
Mr. Caulker, whose human rights organization, Forum of Conscience, developed Fambul Tok over the past three years in villages across Sierra Leone, wants the bonfire to be a space for confession and forgiveness for war crimes. Bomaru is the first test of whether the idea works – or whether anyone even cares.
Dozens of people have come to Bomaru 17 years to the day after the war began here in March 1991. They're here to recount crimes they committed after their abductions and forced conscriptions in the 1990s into the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), a rebel group from neighboring Liberia infamous for chopping limbs off civilians. But by the time the bonfire is lit and the crowd settles in for storytelling, they've changed their minds.
Maybe it's coming face to face with the moment, maybe it's the half-dozen white people here to document it, but something has spooked the former war criminals.
"They are afraid that if they talk, they will be prosecuted," Caulker explains.
It's a legal impossibility; Sierra Leone negotiated its peace in part by offering fighters blanket amnesty. But here, legal promises can feel like borders – slippery when interests shift.
Caulker sends a film crew, print reporter, and intern – all white – away from the assembly briefly. He talks with the town chief and convinces them to proceed; the chief, a former RUF rebel, promises to offer the first testimony.
And so, the perpetrators talk one after another, until 2 in the morning. Mostly men speak, confessing atrocities they committed as unwilling soldiers forced to choose: kill, maim, rape, or be killed.
If any of the victims in these stories are present, they don't speak. Which is not what Caulker, whose career in human rights began with dangerous undercover research for Amnesty International during the war, had imagined. He'd thought he'd see perpetrators apologizing to victims, and victims reaching out in forgiving embrace.
"I don't want to make the mistake that this is reconciliation," he says. "This is not reconciliation. This is the beginning of the process."
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These days, reconciliation is not revolutionary territory. It's on what Caulker calls the West's "post-conflict checklist," which promotes reconciliation through institutions like truth and reconciliation commissions (TRCs). More than 40 countries around the world have turned to TRCs for what, in other circumstances, might be the work of courts or civil society groups: exposing crimes, on the one hand, and promoting social cohesion on the other.
Until South Africa pioneered TRCs in 1995, the past was made public in courts, by definition sites of retributive justice that, experts say, can be at odds with community healing.
"Very often the adversarial process [of criminal justice] has ... effects that can interfere with or delay social reconstruction," says Martha Minow, a professor of law at Harvard University and author of "Between Vengeance and Forgiveness: Facing History After Genocide and Mass Violence."
Prosecution pursues questions of guilt, and in the process focuses on the rights of defendants, potentially leaving victims of mass violence feeling neglected. "It also invites the defendants to defend themselves, rather than build bridges" with those they offended, she says.
Perhaps the most difficult problem is the most obvious: Like the former rebels in Bomaru, war criminals fearing prosecution don't want to tell the whole story – which is what many victims say they want most.
Truth commissions are a kind of compromise. They often offer amnesty in exchange for testimony, theorizing that knowing the truth about the past is more important for individuals and societies than convicting criminals of what can be proved in court. Sierra Leone didn't have that choice: Its judicial system, in shambles before the war, didn't exist after.
"Most of the justice system was destroyed by the civil war, and to ask for justice was very, very difficult for our people," says Hassan Seika, who leads the Bo Peace and Reconciliation Movement in central Sierra Leone.
Then there's the peace agreement, which promised combatants amnesty, taking a trial off the table and with it the possibility of the courtroom as a space for truth-telling. That decision would eventually be partially reversed, and the country would set up a United Nations-backed Special Court with a $100 million budget to try the nine leaders "bearing the greatest responsibility" for atrocities.
Meanwhile, Sierra Leone set up a truth commission, which Caulker calls "my baby." He led a campaign to establish the commission, then lobbied the Freetown-based institution to spend real time in rural communities, where the brunt of the war was felt. Caulker thinks it failed, and even its architects acknowledge that the TRC's consultations didn't live up to the hopes it raised.
"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."
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.