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SIERRA LEONE: No Easy Road to Reconciliation

Lansana Fofana

FREETOWN , Mar 25 2010 (IPS) - Former child soldier Komba Gbondo maimed and killed many people from his hometown, and the 25-year-old is still too terrified to return.

Gbondo was 13 when Revolutionary United Front (RUF) fighters invaded his home town of Tombodu, in the eastern district of Kono and forcefully recruited and conscripted dozens of able-bodied men and boys, into their ranks.

For four years Gbondo was part of what was known as the “Small Boys Unit” – a death squad of underage boys who terrorised and killed civilians, including many people from his village.

“I killed and amputated the limbs of many people, but I was not alone. We were drugged and given gun powder which emboldened us and made us commit all those horrific crimes. I regret my actions today but I am still afraid to go back to my village for fear that my victims or their relatives might kill me,” Gbondo says.

A Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was set up immediately after the conflict ended, but Gbondo’s testimony is but one of many clear indications that eight years on, Sierra Leone’s reconciliation process is faltering.

Forty-five year old Margaret Sesay watched as her husband was murdered in front of her. “I know the guy who killed him and he is right now here in Freetown, but he can’t dare go back to the village. I think people like these should be taken to the communities and made to confess their deeds and ask for forgiveness. That way the nation will reconcile itself.”

But Bishop Joseph Humper, the chairman of the TRC, is pessimistic about the implementation of the Commission’s recommendations.

“My fear is that the country might slip into war or conflict if reconciliation is not given the due attention it deserves,” Humper says.

The TRC recommended in 2004 that government distribute copies of its report, findings and recommendations throughout the country.

A children’s version was printed, audio tapes made and songs composed in local languages to spread the message contained in the TRC report, but these failed to reach the communities which were badly affected by the conflict. Many think government has not been pro-active in disseminating this.

Many Sierra Leoneans are troubled to see that instead of reconciling former combatants with their communities, the presidency has recruited some of the most notorious ex-fighers into the security services, with some working as close-protection bodyguards to the president, his vice-president and other senior state functionaries, says Steven Kamara, a civil society activist.

“I think it was wrong for the government to re-arm these former killers,” remarks Ishmail Conteh. “Seeing them in uniforms and wielding guns reminds one of the dark days of conflict. I can even recognise some of these former rebel commanders parading behind the president. This is in no way helping national reconciliation.”

Conteh lost his child and cousin in the eastern town of Koidu when rebels captured the area in 1998. He is now a businessman based in Freetown.

Popular concern is further stoked by the fact that state security personnel have been involved in a string of politically-motivated acts of violence since elections three years ago, says Jacob Jusu-Saffa, the secretary-general of the main opposition Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP). Jusu-Saffa adds that there are fears that there will be violence during the 2012 presidential and general elections.

Information and Communication Minister Ibrahim Ben Kargbo dismisses these fears as exaggerated.

“Those security guys have been retrained and made to be more professional. If anything, they are now being kept busy so that they stay away from violence,” he says.

Kargbo says the president is a leading advocate of reconciliation. “I think the president has national reconciliation close to his heart and he expresses this whenever he meets the people.”

James Kamara, a construction worker whose sister was abducted – never to be seen again – when rebels invaded Freetown in January 1999 is one of many who feels this is not enough.

“Reconciliation is a difficult process,” he says. “The government has to take the initiative and bring the people together. They have to go to the towns and villages and bring victims and perpetrators together, to tell their stories and embrace each other.”

Kamara, whose also lost his son during the rebel invasion, says government should set up a task force that will go to communities and help reconcile people.

The lack of initiative by government prompted the non-governmental organisation “Fambul Tok” (meaning “dialogue between the people” in Krio) to take the initiative and launch its own reconciliation initiative in 2008.

Fambul Tok’s executive director, John Caulker, a former member of the TRC working committee, says: “We have waited for too long but nothing seems to be working practically. The nation is still bitterly divided, families are torn apart and tension is still mounting in the communities. This is why we have stepped in to help heal the wounds of war.”

Fambul Tok has reconciled hundreds of communities.

“We have covered more than 50 chiefdoms and hundreds of communities in various parts of the country’s east and south. We bring together victims and perpetrators under big trees in the villages and allow them to tell their stories. This has worked in all instances of our campaign. We also organise football matches in the communities where victims and perpetrators take part. It is incredible how these people embrace each other and get on with their lives,” Caulker says.

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