A new multimedia series draws on the voices of five Sierra Leoneans to discuss the impact of the court on their lives and the future of the country.
A new multimedia series draws on the voices of five Sierra Leoneans to discuss the impact of the court on their lives and the future of the country.
In a number of current and past armed conflicts in Africa, rape has been used as a terrifying tool of war. From the Democratic Republic of Congo to Sierra Leone, sexual and gender-based violence have introduced a unique aspect of civilian atrocity during conflict, and rendered men, women, and children victims and survivors of heinous war crimes.
I was disturbed by PBS’s new film, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women. The two-part series is inspired by the 2010 book of the same name written by New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn. Accompanied by high profile celebrities, Kristof takes viewers on a tour of the dangers that women face in the developing world.
The International Center for Transitional Justice’s “Peace versus Justice: A False Dilemma” video explores the relationship between peace and justice and the raging debate that often excludes one at the expense of the other.
Last week, I highlighted two videos that are part of our ongoing celebration of the International Women’s Day Centenary and Women’s History Month. Throughout March we are looking back at WITNESS’ past work with grassroots partners on women’s rights by spotlighting five videos, available in our Web Store (DVD) and on ReFrame (video-on-demand).
WITNESS recently made a decision to focus a concentrated level of support to networks of human rights defenders working to challenge gender-based violence that occurs during and after armed conflict and under political repression (for more detail on this, see our previous blog post on the new network campaign strategy).
“Witness to Truth” Project –
On the Road with CDHR in the Northern Region
6.45 a. m. – Makeni, Bombali District
It’s the height of the torrential rainy season here in Sierra Leone and the weather is, well, seasonal. Sounds are all around me in the dawn of the new day – but these are not the familiar sounds of the city. Whereas I’m used to
barking stray dogs in the Freetown ghetto, I now have crowing cockerels competing for the loudest wake-up call. Whereas the urban streets are at this hour awash with cars, trucks, poda-podas and other such rust-buckets
careering into one another and blasting their horns, the dirt track outside my
window now is serene. Only the occasional moped engine or call of morning greeting punctuates the tuneful tweeting of Bombali’s birds. This is Amza’s Guest House, in the centre of Makeni Township – my base for a week on the road with a grassroots human rights organisation.
I didn’t sleep well. The conditions were hardly conducive. We arrived in Makeni from Freetown shortly before midnight, just as a fresh rainstorm was breaking. The rattle of rain on my tin roof ensured that although I was exhausted, I couldn’t rest. Allied to that, I was persistently pestered by the buzz of mosquitoes, eager to bite. My room had neither a mosquito net nor a sheet on the bed, so I had to lie under a makeshift canopy consisting of a hand-towel and two t-shirts. I awoke half an hour ago to find several tell-tale “bite bumps” on my arms and legs. Some of the mosquitoes have clearly enjoyed a feast at the expense of my discomfort; and I’m sure they’ll be on the lookout for more tonight.
Still, these nuisances are commonplace for a trip into Sierra Leone’s outlying Provinces, particularly the long-neglected Northern Region. You leave behind the few modern conveniences that make twenty-first century work possible in Freetown – conveniences such as laptop computers, internet connections, mobile phone coverage and functioning banks. You also leave behind, for the most part, the essential amenities that we so often take for granted elsewhere in the world – amenities such as running water, an electricity supply and paved roads. This morning I’ll be washing out of a bucket of ominously cloudy, stagnant water. I only hope I’m able to see well enough in the unlit bathroom to be able to distinguish my toothpaste from my tube of anti-fungal hand‑cream.
10.45 a. m. – Kamakwie, Bombali District
Almost four hours since my bucket bath, I’ve just stepped out of Toyota 4‑Runner into the sun-soaked surroundings of Kamakwie. It’s little more than a village, and lies in one of the outer Northern extremities of the Bombali District. We took about two‑and-a-half hours to drive here along uneven, muddy rural roads, dotted with the puddles of last night’s rain. On a couple of occasions we
plunged into deep swampy hollows and had to engage extra gears to get out,
kicking up showers of dirt and spattering our clothes. Upon passing through the more remote communities, children ran out to greet our vehicle, clapping and waving. Those that spotted me cried out “Oporto!Oporto!” – meaning “White man! White man!” in the local Temne language. I waved back, half grinning, half grimacing.
Kamakwie cannot have seen many foreign visitors in recent years, let alone foreign visitors coming to attend video screenings. Its local “barray” – the community building that acts as a courtroom, a town hall and a general gathering place – is a rudimentary, open-sided structure about the size of a basketball court. No walls, no windows, no doors, no electrical fittings. The local chiefs and elders are sitting at two wooden tables before a row of about ten benches. They are dressed resplendently as always, forming a collage of myriad colours and fabrics with their flowing gowns and decorate caps. Most of them are old, old
men; many are missing teeth as they smile to welcome us. When we arrived they were adjudicating over a land dispute between two families from a nearby village. Now an announcement has been made that a “film about the TRC report” is about to be shown here. The indigent parties shuffle off with their
grievances while expectant crowds begin to gather.
11.30 a. m. – Kamakwie, Bombali District
The barray is full and the community meeting gets underway. My host for the week, Gibril Massie Bah (“Massie”), opens the proceedings by inviting an Imam and a Pastor to lead, respectively, Muslim and Christian prayers. Heads are bowed as the crowd mumbles in worship – first Al-Fatiyah and then the Lord’s Prayer. I join in both.
Massie is a former teacher and has an excellent knack of communicating with the crowd in simple, measured terms. He largely uses the Krio language that is spoken across the country as a lingua franca, but occasionally he bursts into Temne or Limba, the two most popular tribal languages of the North. None of these is his mother tongue – he is Fullah by ethnicity.
Massie gives a bit of background to the “Witness to Truth” project, which his
organisation – the Centre for Democracy and Human Rights, or CDHR – is
responsible for implementing throughout the Northern Region. He introduces himself as the Director of CDHR and his colleague Osman Koroma as the CDHR Human Rights Officer. He tells the crowd about WITNESS, “an
important human rights organisation based in America that has been a long‑time friend of Sierra Leone”. He announces that I am here on behalf of WITNESS, having worked for more than two years in the “national process” of the
Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).
The purpose of our delegation in Kamakwie, Massie explains, is to educate the
community about the content of the recently-published TRC report. To do this, we’ll be screening the video “Witness to Truth”, which WITNESS has made as a vivid summary of what happened during the war and how the TRC process seeks to prevent a recurrence. We’ll also be presenting some of the “highlights” of the TRC report and, after the screening, answering questions from the audience.
Massie assures me that this mode of presentation is a tried and trusted formula that will become very familiar to me as the week progresses. In Kamakwie, it seems to work well and is met with nods of approval from the hundreds of villagers who have now gathered.
In addition to the core CDHR team, we also have a formidable secret weapon for our series of public education activities across the North. It comes in the shape of Reverend Usman J. Fornah, a Pastor of the Wesleyan Churchand the former TRC Regional Co-ordinator for the Northern Province.
Reverend Fornah is one of those people who seems to have friends everywhere we go. He’s a bundle of joviality and an astute mind to boot. On activities related to the TRC anywhere in the North – whether research, public education or advocacy – his effectiveness is unparalleled. CDHR’s decision to use him as a consultant on the “Witness to Truth” project has proven to be inspired.
Indeed, nowhere is Reverend’s personal impact more keenly felt than here in
Kamakwie. As he informed us on the way here, he was the local Pastor in the community for five years earlier in his career. Thus when he addresses the people to talk about the recommendations made in the TRC report – why they are so important for our country to move forward, why they provide the best hope for improved human rights protection and sustainable development in our communities – his words resonate with his “congregation”. Massie and Osman also make strong presentations, first about the TRC findings, then about the importance of realising human rights at the grassroots level. As the generator is cranked into action and the VCD player rolls, the first few frames of “Witness to Truth” are studied carefully with a hushed anticipation.
2.00 p.m. – Rogboreh, Bombali District
We’ve now finished our community meeting in Kamakwie, packed up the video equipment and started our journey back to Makeni. The film was really well received, albeit that most of those who responded at the end found its content to be “sorry”, “pitiful” and “painful”. During the poignant song that ends the film, I noticed that many audience members turned to their neighbours to share a solemn glance or a few words of consolation.
We received questions from the crowd on a broad range of topics. Two men asked consecutively about the difference between the TRC and the Special Court, which remains a constant source of confusion. A lively debate also ensued about the Government’s response to the TRC recommendations, which Massie described as “unfortunate”, as it “does not do justice to the TRC report”. One elderly gentleman asked about the likelihood of any reparations payments actually making it to Kamakwie, as he was looking after several orphaned and injured children and had never received assistance. We assured him that reparations payments were possible, provided that we don’t give up on our tireless efforts to see the recommendations become reality.
However, by far the most interesting question to my mind came from a lady near the back of the crowd, wrapped in a “lappa” (a single sheet of fabric) with a matching headscarf. “According to the video, one of the causes of the war was that almost everybody engages in corruption and dishonesty towards their fellow Sierra Leoneans,” she pointed out in Krio. “Do you agree with me that these practices are so common that they have become diseases in our bones, part of what makes us Sierra Leoneans? Don’t you see that we have always behaved in this way towards one another and that we’re likely to experience war again?” How do you answer a question like that?
The meeting ended with a series of handshakes and a warm round of applause for the CDHR team. The community clearly appreciated having been included in the “Witness to Truth” project and being given the opportunity to watch the film. As we drove out through the village, I observed groups of elders, women and children huddling together, apparently deep in reflection.
Now, barely half an hour along the road, we’ve stopped in the middle of a small
cluster of houses, which I’m told is the village of Rogboreh. The Paramount Chief, the most important man in the Sanda Tendaren Chiefdom, lives here and has invited us into his yard to partake in a meal. So here we are –
Massie, Osman, Reverend, our two drivers and I – sitting on small wooden stools in a circle around a single, huge tray of rice. A lady decants a steaming pot full of sauce and fish onto the rice and we all dig in together with our spoons, scooping up mixtures of green‑stained rice, flesh and bones. It’s my first and last meal of the day, and it’s most welcome.
6.00 p. m. – Makeni, Bombali District
We’ve spent today attending a conference in Makeni, centred on the theme that seems to be flavour of the month – CORRUPTION! The reality is that most workshops of this nature are actually talking shops and this one was little different. Delegates attended from all over the Northern Region and there were some conspicuous visitors from Freetown too – including Val Collier, the Head of the Anti-Corruption Commission. The anti-corruption message was drummed home by speakers of different affiliations, but I am convinced that most of them are just as embroiled in and inclined towards corrupt practices as the politicians they criticised and the delegates they tried to prevail upon. Corruption in Sierra Leone is a way of life – and it manifests itself in too many forms to mention.
The main purpose of our attendance was to present the TRC recommendations on fighting corruption, along with a variety of other key recommendations from the report. We used the platform as an opportunity to showcase the TRC report to all‑comers and to make a rousing case for strong and immediate calls to Government to implement the recommendations. The discussion on the TRC report was one of the most animated of the day – people listened intently to the content of the recommendations and asked pertinent questions about how best to pursue implementation in the face of Government intransigence. The Anti-Corruption Tsar himself, Val Collier, stated that by generating unity and momentum among civil society, we will eventually force the hand of the Government into taking action. Collier has proved himself to be a potent ally.
Now we’re on the road again, this time headed for the neighbouring District of Port Loko. We’ve encountered a serious mechanical problem (as opposed to just a standard mechanical problem of the variety that every car has in Sierra Leone)
with one of our cars, so we’re reduced to a single vehicle, the Toyota 4-Runner. Eager to preserve our presentation team at full strength, we’re heading on without our driver, Abdul, and giving driving responsibilities to Reverend Fornah. I take the front passenger seat, while Massie and Osman squeeze in the back together with a 21-inch television set that is taking up over half of the seating space.
We face a drive of about two hours in treacherous conditions to reach Port Loko Township, the District Headquarters. We have a Pastor rather than a professional driver at the wheel. Accordingly, to use a popular Krio expression, we’ll be approaching our journey “small small”.
10.00 p.m. – Port Loko, Port Loko District
What a relief to arrive safely at Bangura’s Guest House, seemingly about the only hostelry worthy of the name in the whole of Port Loko. We took one stop along the way at Rogbere Junction, where we did our best to scrape together a meal from among the intriguing variety of “street foods” on offer. I plumped for a thin white bread roll stuffed with plantains, fish balls and peppercorns – a few of which, upon closer inspection, turned out to be dead insects. Delicious. The others took hard‑boiled eggs from a cardboard box at the side of the junction, sold by a girl who could not have been more than eight years old. We all bought cold drinks from a pushy male vendor who had his hands through the windows of our vehicle before we’d even pulled to a halt. Having paid him, he still kept asking me for more money, right up to the point of our departure. It struck me that there weren’t many places to lodge in Rogbere Junction, so he and the others – overwhelmingly children – would probably have to sleep out in the open.
This thought re-enters my head as I write now, because yet again it is raining heavily outside. We’re listening to Radio UNAMSIL, the UN’s public information radio station that can be received in most parts of the country. We’ve just heard an interview with Sierra Leone’s Attorney-General, Frederick Carew, who was talking about the various pressing legal issues facing him today. The
hottest topic was the beating to death of a local newspaper editor by some
henchmen apparently hired by a Parliamentarian from the ruling SLPP party. Carew claimed that he had set up a coroner’s inquest into the death, rather than a murder inquiry, because he did not wish to prejudge any criminality in the matter. This explanation met with audible gasps and expressions of
dissatisfaction from those with whom I’m listening. Carew only talked briefly about the Government’s “White Paper” response to the TRC report. He was curt and elusive on the substance of the paper – perhaps indicating that he is not really familiar with the content of the TRC recommendations. Nevertheless, he did concede that the issue of the TRC report is certainly not closed yet and hinted that the Government might revisit the recommendations in due course. Even such a glimmer of hope is enough to send us to bed with cautious optimism.
6.00 a. m. – Port Loko, Port Loko District
Another early start, another bucket bath, another long drive ahead. Today we are planning to hold two community meetings in this District, both of them following the same format as Monday’s session in Kamakwie. We’ll return here for the second meeting in the afternoon, but first we’ll go to Lungi-Mahera, right on the coast of the northern headland. We’ve collected another team member – CDHR’s District Field Officer John Kargbo – who is now squeezed into an implausibly tight space with Massie, Osman and the television set in the back seat.
Reverend, who awoke less than ten minutes ago and emerged from his room groaning like a bear with a sore head, will be driving in zig-zags to avoid the many hazardous lakes of water on the road. I’m still tired from last night, as Reverend’s loud snoring from next door woke me up on several occasions. At one point I was so disorientated by the heady heat and the pitch-blackness of the room that I had not the faintest idea where I was. Now it’s almost light, but we’re off even further into unchartered territory.
9.30 a. m. – Lungi – Mahera, Port Loko District
This town is something of an anomaly. It hosts Sierra Leone’s only international airport, yet it is as detached and parochial as any community I have encountered anywhere in the country. We’ve branched off the main road by quite some distance, following a brown mud-track for about four miles to reach the barray building. There is nobody around, bar a solitary old man in a beige suit and cap who is obviously somewhat drunk.
Before starting our meeting, we have to pay our respects to the resident Paramount Chief. Massie tells me that this Chief is one of President Kabbah’s staunchest and most loyal supporters, which is again something of an anomaly considering the general opposition to the SLPP in the North. As we walk into the Chief’s parlour, an enormous framed portrait of “Pa Kabbah” stares down at me. The Chief emerges from behind a plastic veil and, propping himself up on a walking stick, extends his hand in greeting.
After a brief discussion, during which the Chief declares his support for the TRC
recommendations, we sign the Chiefdom visitors’ book for posterity. The Chief explains that he cannot attend the screening in person because he is still recovering from a recent illness. He promises to send all his Section Chiefs in his place and assures us that his Chiefdom representative is already at the barray helping to arrange the meeting. We didn’t see him as we passed, we tell the Chief, but we will go back and check. It turns out that the Chiefdom representative, a reputable member of the traditional authorities, was at the barray all along. Somewhat alarmingly, he is the early-morning drunkard in the beige suit and cap.
12.00 noon – Lungi – Mahera, Port Loko District
This morning’s meeting was far less vibrant than Monday’s session in Kamakwie. The townspeople seemed less informed, less engaged even. They watched the video with almost blank, expressionless faces, only occasionally “tutting” in disapproval or sighing in resignation. Massie, Osman and Reverend were unanimous that the Lungi‑Mahera crowd was the least receptive of any they had reached on their community sensitisation tours.
One possible explanation for such an “unmoved” reaction to the film is that the
people of Lungi-Mahera were largely unaffected and untouched by the war
itself. Due to the importance of the international airport in their backyard, they were well protected by the national Army and multi-national peacekeepers for the duration of the conflict. They were not attacked in their homes and subjected to the ghastly range of abuses depicted in “Witness to Truth”, nor were they displaced, abducted, enslaved or forced to fight. Perhaps they see the war as something that happened to “someone else”; perhaps they don’t relate their own plight to the vast destruction and human tragedy of the conflict. Impossible as these may seem, they are the kinds of justifications offered by one human rights activist with whom I raise the issue in a telephone conversation after the meeting. There is not, he suggests, much sense of “solidarity” among Sierra Leoneans, even when it comes to their suffering and breaches of their fundamental rights. “Why do you think it takes so much international assistance to achieve anything better for our country?” he asks. “We Sierra Leoneans only care about ourselves, not for the nation or the common good.”
3.00 p. m. – Port Loko, Port Loko District
I’ve thought a lot about my friend’s comments on the drive back to Port Loko Town from Lungi-Mahera. I’ve come to the conclusion that I disagree with him. Yes, it’s true that many Sierra Leoneans are selfish and have no urge to strive for the advancement of their nation – one need look no further than many of the current generation of leaders for good examples of this malaise. But there are exceptions to this sad state of affairs; there are outstanding Sierra Leoneans who care about more than themselves. The reason I know this is that I have the privilege of working with some of them in my daily advocacy efforts with WITNESS. I am constantly impressed and inspired by the commitment of some of my colleagues in Sierra Leone civil society – colleagues like Massie, Osman, Reverend and John Kargbo, with whom I’m traveling today. They struggle against the majority and in the face of considerable adversity to stimulate social change in their country. They seek to empower the vulnerable, voiceless citizens around them and to give genuine meaning to human rights. It is the very least I can do to give every ounce of my energy in support of their mission.
As if to back up my conclusion, we’ve come across a quite remarkable place in the middle of a field in Port Loko Town. The signboard proclaims proudly: “Human Rights House”. Inside, I find all four walls covered in bookshelves, neatly stacked with human rights treaties, textbooks, journals and special publications. There are collections of drawings by war-affected children from the Former Yugoslavia; policy papers on the setting up of truth commissions, in Sierra Leone and elsewhere; and magazines issued by local community-based organisations. I am pleasantly surprised when I notice on a shelf at the front of the room, in pride of place, a copy of the full, four-volume printed TRC report.
We are about to hold our second community meeting of the day here, in the
conference room of Human Rights House. The crowd looks promising, both in terms of size and composition. CDHR has conducted a really clever and well‑organised public information campaign to generate interest in this screening of “Witness to Truth”. Some of the audience members have already introduced themselves to me as civil society activists – and they seem to have a good grasp of the human rights issues that underpin the TRC recommendations.
5.30 p. m. – Port Loko, Port Loko District
The reaction and the level of discussion among the audience in Port Loko has been the best of any screening of “Witness to Truth” I’ve attended so far. For about an hour after the film had concluded, a packed conference room remained in place to ask questions and debate some of the more controversial issues. A very resonant question came from a youth in a football shirt at the extreme right of the crowd. He asked: “Having put so much money and resources into this truth and reconciliation process, all the way up to the production of the TRC report, what efforts is the international community making to ensure that its investment will not go to waste?” In responding, Massie pointed out that Sierra Leone has a reliable partner in WITNESS, which has kept the TRC process alive whilst others have taken their eyes off the ball. He also expressed his belief that international donors will insist on implementation of the TRC recommendations as a pre-condition for further funding. It is not so much a question of political will, I added, as a question of the rule of law: after all, the Government has a strict legal obligation to implement the recommendations and it ignores such a requirement at its peril.
9.00 p. m. – KambiaTown, Kambia District
It’s been a hard day’s night and we’ve all been working incessantly since the start of the week. By the time I’m writing this, Massie and Osman are probably already asleep. We’re occupying all four of the available rooms at the Red Cross Guest House in Kambia Township, which we reached well after dark having driven another couple of hours. I’m covered in red dust from the roads, but I’m too tired even to lift the bucket for a wash. I’ll crawl under my mosquito net and conk out in just a few minutes from now, confident of a good night’s rest. Not even Reverend’s snoring can keep me awake tonight!
8.00 a. m. -Kambia Town, Kambia District
We’re ready to embark on another double-header of community meetings, but before we do, we’re indulging in a local speciality. It’s a large helping of “yebe”, a kind of thick broth that contains peppers and meat stock, stewed fish and succulent slices of boiled cassava. It might be considered a little heavy compared to my standard morning fare of bread and spreadable cheese, but when four hungry men are on the road they will take whatever opportunity they get to eat heartily! It takes us no more than twenty minutes to polish off most of the pot – without doubt my favourite meal of the week. We leave a generous individual portion for Bobby, the boy at the Guest House who provided candles, buckets of water and house-sandals for us last night.
Our first port of call today is within Kambia Township – just a ten-minute drive from here. We’re holding a session at the local Government primary school, which has a large assembly hall. A two-day workshop is being staged there by Action Aid, with a focus on local civil society empowerment. CDHR has negotiated a two-hour slot in today’s programme for the screening and discussion of “Witness to Truth”. As such we are guaranteed a hand-picked audience of civil society representatives from all over the Kambia District – allowing us to cover even the most remote areas in a single meeting. It’s another great opportunity to reach out to the grassroots.
10.00 a. m. -Kambia Town, Kambia District
The hall of the KDEC Primary School is positively bustling with people as Massie takes the platform to introduce the CDHR / WITNESS programme. On our arrival here we were welcomed by several esteemed representatives of the District Council, of which the Chairman, Mr. Yillah, was a TRC statement-taker a few years ago. There appears to be a good deal of affection for the TRC in this part of the country – catalysed I am told by a very successful round of public hearings in Kambia Town in 2003. We are not quite preaching to the converted, but there is certainly a sense that talking about the TRC report will strike a chord with the scores of Kambians present.
Today our VCD player has finally given up on us. It seems that endless hours of “gallops” over potholes and mud-humps have taken their toll on the disc‑playing mechanism. Osman has attempted for the last half an hour to get it working, but without success, so we’re reverting to our back-up plan of the WITNESS VHS player and a sound amplifier provided by a local video centre. We’ve lost some of the sound quality from previous screenings, but there is still ample capacity to cover the whole hall. Particularly when, for the first time I can remember, there are no chattering children around to cause disturbance.
1.00 p. m. -Kambia Town, Kambia District
The screening has been another great success, particularly in terms of audience
participation. There was a high proportion of literate persons present, many of whom eagerly took up Massie’s offer to fill out evaluation forms recording their responses to the video. In addition, at the end of the event, an enthusiastic young man called Umarr Kamara from an organisation called United for the Protection of Human Rights (UPHR) took me to one side. He expressed his willingness to be involved in any way possible in the drive to implement the TRC recommendations, particularly by holding further screenings of the WITNESS video in communities around Kambia. It was a heartening discussion, which again reminded me of the impact and the importance of human rights work at the grassroots. We’ll be taking Umarr up on his offer.
2.00 p. m. – Rokupr, Kambia District
We’re now sitting on the dock of the bay in Kambia’s second town, Rokupr, just a short drive away, waiting for the hall to be prepared for our final screening
of the week. As we watch the swirling waters of the Manngeh River from our parked vehicle, Reverend asks me whether I could swim across to the other side. I say yes, confident that I could easily manage the stretch of barely a hundred yards of water. My answer gives rise to startled noises from each of the others in the car – according to Reverend, there is no Sierra Leonean who could swim that far. “He would definitely drown,” adds Osman. My further revelation that I learnt to swim at school is subjected to intense scrutiny. We end up having a lengthy discussion about the comparisons between the British and Sierra Leonean education systems.
3.00 p. m. – Rokupr, Kambia District
When we initially saw our venue in Rokupr, the Rice Research Centre run by the
Ministry of Agriculture, sitting empty and apparently deserted, we had some skepticism about the likely size of the audience. A few minutes ago, however, Sulaiman, CDHR’s Field Officer in the Kambia District, showed up with a large crowd to allay our doubts. Apparently he has spent the past hour riding through the community on the back of a motorcycle, announcing the screening of the WITNESS video in Temne language over a megaphone. The town’s dignitaries, including its Chief and several councillors, have arrived in conspicuous four-wheel-drive jeeps. A stream of young children is filtering into the compound, all with trays on their heads, ready to sell their petty wares to hungry or thirsty participants. Some young men from the area have set up about fifteen rows of long, wooden benches in front of the podium. Already, there’s hardly a free seat in the house.
As on a few previous occasions, Massie invites me to address the crowd as part of the opening statements. I keep my comments (all in Krio) short and to the point, congratulating CDHR on its marvelous service to the people of the Northern Province, thanking the audience for attending and explaining why the WITNESS video is such an effective medium through which to share the key messages of the TRC report. I finish with a challenge to the people: question every public official who comes to your community, including Government Ministers, about the progress made towards implementing the TRC recommendations. Only in that way will we manage to convince those in power that the TRC’s work is understood and valued by all Sierra Leoneans, even in the most outlying areas.
My brief statement is met with thunderous applause. A bespectacled man in a baseball cap even rises to his feet to clap more loudly. The Chief grabs me by the arm and proceeds to tell me that I’ve really made the community happy – “we’ve never had a white man come here and talk to us in our own language,” he exclaims. And how do you see the TRC recommendations, I ask. “We’re right behind you!” he replies emphatically.
6.00 p. m. – Rokupr, Kambia District
We’ve just packed away the last of the equipment into the vehicle and we’re sitting in the evening shade sipping on Vimto (a purple soft drink) from old-fashioned glass bottles. Massie made the toast – To the fifteenth and final CDHR screening under the “Witness to Truth” project! Reverend, Osman and I clinked our bottles to Massie’s and enjoyed a gulp of (almost) cold, (almost) fresh, (almost) fizzy drink.
We’ve definitely ended the screenings tour on a high note in Rokupr. Apart from the heartfelt bursts of applause during our introductory statements, there were numerous displays of emotion throughout the video and some heated discussions afterwards. A young lady whose husband has been held by the Government in “safe custody” detention for several years made an impassioned case not only for his release (as per the TRC recommendations), but also for a set of measures to be put in place for his smooth reintegration into society. Not everyone in the room agreed with her point, but when Reverend explained the injustice of the “safe custody” system, there appeared to be general approval.
A youth – indeed, the same youth who just sold us our Vimto – argued strongly
that young people should not be held responsible for their deeds as members of
the fighting factions, because most of them were forced or duped into fighting. Osman answered that the TRC report broadly agrees with him, repeating the finding on the exploitation of marginalised youths. An older member of the audience stated that whilst that may be true, it should not excuse the youths of the horrendous acts they committed of their own free will.
Massie closed the community meeting with a promise to return in the near future and help the people to further understand the content of the TRC report. He was deservedly cheered off the stage. Even then, he diligently applied himself to the task of completing and documenting the distribution of copies of the WITNESS video. Part of the reason I’ve bought him this soft drink is to encourage him to sit down and rest for awhile. Ultimately, though, he and I share the view that a human rights activist’s work in Sierra Leone is never done.
10.00 p.m. – Makeni, Bombali District
Back where I started at Amza’s Guest House in Makeni, reflecting by candlelight on a vast array of experiences packed into a single week. It is never easy to venture into the rural areas of Sierra Leone with such a demanding workload, but it is always worth the effort. There are few things in life more rewarding than helping to change someone’s perspective on life, helping to reassure someone that his or her opinion matters, or helping to empower someone with knowledge and understanding. Working with WITNESS and CDHR in the Northern Region entails all those rewards, as we begin to achieve a groundswell of support for the TRC recommendations at a local level.
The “Witness to Truth” video could hardly be more resonant for grassroots advocacy purposes. It speaks to Sierra Leoneans in their own language and depicts events that have happened in their midst. Our week on the road has given us renewed focus and renewed zeal for our higher-level advocacy efforts in the months ahead. We’ll make our representations to Government officials in Freetown knowing that we have a mandate to speak on behalf of the people in the communities we’ve visited. We all hope that by the next time we return to those communities, we’ll be bringing them good news about the implementation of the TRC recommendations.
For now, though, I’ve got to get some rest and prepare myself for tomorrow’s
workshop on the TRC report in Magburaka, followed by a couple of local radio
appearances over the weekend. A night with the mosquitoes and a bucket bath in the morning will surely see me right. Goodnight.
“Witness to Truth” Project
Hi Everyone – Sorry to be so long in posting. I have been busy with a lot of other stuff but moving the Sierra Leone project along with Gavin’s capable assistance in the meantime.
This letter from Angie was delivered to the President yesterday in Sierra Leone, along with a message that we would like to meet with him while he is in NY this coming week for the UN Summit.
The understanding we are getting from key advisors to the President is that he is in agreement that the White Paper was insufficient, which is a good sign, and that a new one is being developed. Meanwhile, our allies on the ground are taking a role in drafting a proposed revision themselves with input from someone inside the Attorney General’s office. We must get something strong before Parliament votes on the budget towards the end of this year.
His Excellency Alhaji Dr. Ahmad Tejan Kabbah
The President of the Republic of Sierra Leone
State Lodge, FREETOWN,
Dear President Kabbah,
Thank you again for very graciously making time to meet with me at State Lodge on Wednesday 11 May 2005.
As you may remember, representatives of WITNESS and several civil society partners joined us to discuss the challenge of following through on the valuable work of the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).
I was very moved and encouraged by your commitments in that meeting to publish a White Paper in the near term, and I was thrilled to hear the news that the “TRC White Paper” was issued on 27 June 2005. But I was disappointed on reading it. There were almost no new commitments made in the paper, and I feel strongly that further steps need to be taken before I can begin encouraging donor governments and agencies to make the needed contributions.
I am joining my friends and allies in civil society in urging you to revisit the “TRC White Paper” and propose further measures that demonstrate your genuine commitment to moving the country forward. As soon as a revised and strengthened “TRC White Paper” is before Parliament, I am prepared to do all I can to help ensure that your government has the support it needs to make bold reforms for Sierra Leone’s future.
I want to be able to applaud your efforts publicly between now and 5 December 2005, when I will be co-hosting a benefit concert in New York City with WITNESS that will focus on the future of Sierra Leone. It is sad to imagine having to express my regrets at such an event that things are not moving forward under your leadership in the way that I had hoped they would be.
Please stand with me, and with the people of Sierra Leone, in a commitment to ensuring a lasting peace by implementing the many recommendations made by the TRC. I am watching closely and I am awaiting your word.
Gavin returned from Ghana with thousands of copies of the TRC report on Sunday and it has surely already been delivered to the President! I am strategizing next steps, since as I mentioned the White Paper was not what we were hoping for and Angie and I wont go to Washington DC or back to Sierra Leone until we get some more momentum from the President of Sierra Leone and the government to implement reform. We are drafting a letter to him now.
In the meantime, we just struck up a collaboration with the producers of BLING!, a new documentary about the role of diamonds in fueling the conflict in Sierra Leone and featuring Kanye West and other well known musicians from the world of hip hop reflecting on diamonds….More on that soon.
So in a surprise turn of events, following commitments from the Chairperson of the TRC who went to Ghana with Gavin to get the printers rolling that the TRC report would be in his hands in July, the government issued a document they are calling a White Paper. The response from the TRC working group of NGOs in Sierra Leone has been understandably critical — the paper falls well short of being a comprehensive series of legislative recommendations and NGOs are urging that it be considered a “Green Paper” open for refinement and comment. The Government has not responded. Meanwhile, Angie and I are preparing a letter to the President expressing our concern and we are delaying a return to Sierra Leone and a trip to Capitol Hill in Washington DC to lobby for funds until there is a more solid series of recommendations on the table. I will post the “White Paper” to this blog later today from my office….
Angie and I met recently when she was in New York and I updated her on the TRC project. She is still willing and interested to return in Sierra Leone with us in late July or early August to help herald the published White Paper from the President! She is checking to see if she can do it in combination with another trip she is making to Africa. Meanwhile, Gavin returned from Ghana to Sierra Leone yesterday and confirms that the report will indeed be with the President in early July. SO, we have our work cut out for us and we are busy planning with our local partners. The other good news is that the Fund for Global Human Rights has provided a grant of $30,000 to a local group forming to focus on TRC advocacy and outreach. More on all this soon….
Ok, these are the guys that are screening our video version of the TRC report around Sierra Leone. For those of you interested in seeing the video, go to the home page at www.witness.org for an excerpt. You can also order it at the store section of our website.
Hey there –
Many hours layover in Brussels but its given me the chance to hatch a scheme with a former TRC researcher also passing thru to get the final printed report to the President so he will issue the legislative recommendations to his cabinet and from there to Parliament. Step by step!
We got a text message after the press conference from a top foreign dignitary in the country… It said: Well done. Unprecedented commitment from President Kabbah. Lets talk when you can.
Again, your comments are encouraging and inspiring — with the exception of Doug who posted most recently. As for your remarks Doug, it is sad but true that Angelina’s presence moved some mountains. We are so fortunate to have her as an ally. And as for hubris, maybe some day you will get to see how we work first-hand, and how much emphasis is placed on empowering local groups to do for themselves rather than grandstanding. I think life is too short to spend time naysaying…there is so much to be done and we can all play our part.
Speaking of local partners, I keep being stymied with photo uploads. I will be posting pix of some of the guys we are working with in Sierra Leone as well. Maybe they will take a minute to post something from thier perspective!
The other good news is that Angie has promised to go back in June or July this year to help keep things moving forward. I guess this blog is going to stay alive! By the way, she and I talked about concepts for a site she could build to provide information and opportunities for engagement on a range of issues she is passionate about. Let me know what you would want to see there…
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