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.

Henry Jacobson
'It's like they have this postconflict checklist: Truth commission, tick. Military assistance, tick. Trials, tick. Next. Go on to the next country.' – John Caulker, founder of Fambul Tok

John Caulker might know the rough, red-rock roads of rural Sierra Leone better than he knows the hallways of his own office in Freetown, the seaside capital.

There, streets are crowded equally by people and piles of trash – a sign, in its own unintentional way, of abundance. Kids hawk candies, shammies, pirated DVDs, and cellphone chargers. They tease you, in the heat, with cold Cokes and baggies of drinking water tied tight at the top. An hour in traffic – a rather common way to pass an hour in Freetown – and you can do a day's shopping from your car window.

Here, to the east, in the villages where Mr. Caulker has done human rights work for 10 years, neither goods nor income are disposable. Every kid's belly seems to sag for lack of food. All that can be found for sale are staples – cassava, mangos, rice. Then there are the signs of the brutal, decade-long civil war: Abandoned houses, some clearly shelled, stand apathetically along the road. In one village, a rusting tank, its cannons sometimes used as makeshift laundry lines, sits at a crossroad, inscribed hopefully, "For Sale!"

The farther Caulker goes on his cross-country trips, the farther away Freetown seems – geographically, existentially. In countries recovering from war, capitals have the edge. They're the places where political power is reestablished, aid projects are launched, and donor money flows. It's in the capitals that the "postwar reconstruction" agenda, engineered in good part abroad, begins.

"It's like they have this postconflict checklist: Truth commission, tick. Military assistance, tick. Trials, tick. Next. Go on to the next country," Caulker says. "But the people have answers. They have their cultural values."

Caulker wants to put those values on that checklist. For months, he has been traveling from village to village, reviving fambul tok – family talk in Krio (an English creole). It's a tradition with a long history – before the war; before, even, the white man – and a range of meanings. Villagers sat around nightly bonfires, telling jokes and recounting the day's events. Sometimes, fambul tok resolved disputes, adjudicating everything from petty theft to matrimonial discord. The practice made villagers more than neighbors; it united them as a fambul.

Caulker thinks these old ways may be Sierra Leone's best method for dealing with its newest problem: reconciling rural communities after a war felt most brutally in these villages he says fell through the gaps of the postwar checklist. Here, former soldiers live again alongside the women they raped or whose husbands they killed, or the men whose hands they cut off. They didn't apologize; didn't acknowledge the past. They just, Caulker says, moved back in.

• • •

Reuniting the fambul is more than theory for Caulker. Before the war, he lived with his mother, Annie Rosaline Caulker, in Songo, outside of Freetown. At first, his village was sheltered from the brutality of a war that started, in the east, as somebody else's fight. The Revolutionary United Front (RUF), notorious for looting Liberia's diamond riches and terrorizing its people, brought its battle across the border in 1991, in search of neighboring Sierra Leone's mineral wealth. The instability eventually led to a coup d'état and the splintering of fighting forces, who competed for political power and control of the country's diamond mines. As the war dragged on, the list of military groups – and war atrocities – grew.

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.

"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."

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.

"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.

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