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Children of War and Hope in Sierra Leone

—Braima Moiwai

Children are as powerful as they are precious. I am a grown child of Sierra Leone, a country in West Africa where we have paid for this lesson in blood, in severed body parts and with the death of a million children, women and men. Part of my tradition calls for sharing, “komei,” which means in Mende, “let me share.” So, komei with you in the hope that the people of this land, my adopted home, will not ever pay such a price.

Partial view of the Pedrera in Barcelona, Spain —photo by Don Gurewitz.

Camel race in United Arab Emirates —photo UNICEF

Alienate a generation of children from the awareness of the beauty of what has already been created, dreamed and said. Give them little reason to hope that they can share in the abundance of the Earth. Fail to create faith in their unfolding hearts that civilization will welcome and love them and eventually call upon them to take their turn as creators and creatrices in their own right. Then…

Let short-sighted, lawless people fill the children’s ears with “easy answers;” fill their bodies with drugs and put weapons in their hands. Let these villains demonstrate their power by raping and maiming some of the children. Let them seduce the rest by their apparent superiority to the current powers that be when they kill the children’s families in front of their eyes, when they assassinate and mow down other adults who represent the current, imperfect order and with empty promises to put the children in charge after the destruction. Although we share this history with other nations and communities, this is the recently-ended darkness of Sierra Leone.

There is more to say about the little villains who pillaged in their own backyards. And there is even more to say about the bigger, invisible villains who conspire to benefit from suffering in every corner of our global village. But let me now share, komei, about my first trip back to Sierra Leone in seven years. And komei my hope to participate in a powerful healing to render impotent the villains and their shameful weapon and to mend the hearts, minds and spirits of our many orphans, including my own.

What healing force could be more powerful than all the weapons of mass destruction in the irresponsible hands of the twisted, empty souls of humanity’s invisible oligarchy? The sacred stories and oral traditions lovingly and mindfully passed from our few surviving elders to the wounded children—and we are all wounded children—will heal and protect us. Many of the orphans of the Holocaust and wise elders like Bruno Bettleheim found this to be true. And my own brother, Gbewah, whose very name means wise elder, is ready to spread the ripples of healing stories out from the hearts of the surviving members of my family to our village, our nation and our world. One day, the ripples will be felt in the Triangle. He says, “all our elders have been swallowed up by this war and we who survived are like birds after the hawk carried their mother.” But I am getting ahead of myself.

The story of my return to Sierra Leone begins when my lifelong friend, just back from his own visit, reported to me that the “up-country” roads—that is the roads that connect the urban part of the country to the rural villages—were newly safe enough to travel. The relative safety is due to efforts of UN peacekeeping forces, the will of the international community and the fact that the diamond mines in Eastern Sierra Leone are now running low. When I considered taking this journey, what were fresh in my mind were the repeated pleas of my sister in Sierra Leone and my intimate friends all over the world not to take the chance of returning while rebels and the gangs of armed children were still murdering and maiming civilians.

When my 11-year-old son, Juju, learned of my intention to surprise my surviving siblings with a visit, he was also worried. Although the US media have largely ignored the war in Sierra Leone since it started in 1991, Juju had seen the macabre images of amputees and refugee camps on American TV documentaries. He “spoke” eloquently to me in sign language: “Papa, there is war and people are starving.”

I felt our bond and I knew the risks I was taking with Juju’s potentially fatherless future. But my homesickness was overwhelming, my friend’s reports were encouraging and my need to bring whatever joy I could to my sister and the rest of my family made me determined to “li nya yei,” which means in my native Mende tongue, “to go home,” when one feels homesick. Rebel atrocities be damned. It was time for a family reunion.

I arrived in Sierra Leone on July 8, 2001. I landed at the Lungi Airport in Freetown, the capital city. After living 15 years in America, seeing my people was unsettling. I was greeted by starving children. The city itself was overcrowded and teeming with displaced people. Refugee camps were scattered all over the outskirts of the city. Maimed children with missing arms, legs, even genitals that were cut off by the rebels, lived with single mothers under plastic, United Nations tents, which were barely able to protect them against the drenching rains of the wet season.

Despite such a dismal greeting, I tried to remain optimistic. I was eager to hear news about my village, Bunumbu, after ten years of rebel war. What I heard was heartbreaking. Folks told me Bunumbu no longer existed. My village—with its thatched houses, coffee and cocoa farms—where I played under the moonlight, worked on the farms and joyously swam in the nearby Loya River, had been turned into a bushy, overgrown woodland. There were once as many as 40 families there. But, no one is living there now. Who destroyed Bunumbu? I was told it was the children—children who maimed and killed other children.

In the Capital, I saw more amputee children and the graveyards of children lucky enough to die instead of having to live with (and recover from) memories of ghastly horrors. It was the very children of my village who looted, pillaged and committed unimaginable crimes against hundreds of community members, but more importantly, against a way of life. The children of my village had visited upon them more violence than the generations which preceded them could ever imagine.

Many people blame the rebel leader, Foday Sankoh, who they say, acted in concert with Liberian president, Charles Taylor, to “recruit” the children of my homeland through force: children were kidnapped from their schools, some were raped. The children were easy to manage. After they were “recruited,” the leaders used drugs—cocaine, crack and heroin—to control them. The rebels, as young as 12 and under, were forced by Sankoh and the Liberian leaders to maim and kill. For what? For diamonds. My 11-year-old son could very well be a general with the rebel forces.

Sierra Leone is very rich in diamonds. The second largest diamond, the Leone Star, was found in Kona district, near Bunumbu. Who has profited from this lucrative trade that spawned a 10-year orgy of violence and destruction of my people’s traditional values?

I realized that my own family’s plight had been the plight of the entire country. In 1991, the rebels, that is the children living in the community, forced my family to flee Bunumbu without taking any of their belongings. They ran for their lives and spent what must have seemed like endless nights in the woods subsisting on roots and berries. I knew all this from the many letters and phone calls that I had been forced to be satisfied with during the aching years of physical separation.

The spent bullets, fired by children aiming AK-47 machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, were everywhere. “Children fell from the backs of mothers and they couldn’t turn back,” my brother’s wife, Mariama, said. “It was a matter of life and death.” I also knew from letters that my family had stepped over dead bodies all through abandoned villages to Segbwema, a town 20 miles away. It became their new home. The rebel leaders however, were unrelenting in their lust for blood and diamonds. The deadly children were unrelenting in their lust for a sense of power and control over their chaotic, might-makes-right world. In 1997, there was another upheaval and my family had to run for their lives again.

Hundreds of families trekked westward over 70 miles to Blama, a farming community noted for its rice, coffee and cocoa farms. That is where my extended family lives to this day. Bunumbu is but a memory. My head was swirling with confusion, pain, anger and questions. What could have possibly gone so wrong that allowed the very fabric of my country to be ripped apart? Many fellow Sierra Leoneans were asking themselves that same question as they looked at an entire population surviving in refugee camps. The elders, the very foundation of our society, had died. The weak and sickly could not run. Many lost their lives in the struggle.

Who would teach our children the precious and sacred oral traditions of our people? During my visit, the clear truths and teachings that I had grown up honoring in the past, glared at me from the chaotic present. The elders of our village had always been our vital link to the past. They were the keepers of the oral traditions of our ancestors’ wisdom. The present generation of children in Sierra Leone had been tragically denied these traditional values, and knowledge of the power these values could bring peace, order, justice and freedom.

Imagine a country where libraries and hospitals have been burned down and all the wise and learned are killed. In my village the elders who would teach the children are gone. They, who were our traditional libraries and teachers. These venerated herbalists and griots who were poised to pass on the old ways were almost all gone.

On the third day of my visit, having sufficiently recovered from jet lag, I took, along with my youngest sibling, Hawa, and two of my nephews, a bus to Blama to see the rest of my family. The highway we took is the only roadway that connects the city of Freetown to the rest of the country. Its present condition is terrible. We bumped up and down because of the seemingly countless potholes and through dozens of UN barricades to reach Blama. It took ten hours to go 180 miles.

During the rebel wars, the highway became known as the “Death Trap.” It earned that name because of the frequent rebel ambushes. No one was safe. Evidence of the war was everywhere. The wreckage of burned cars and trucks were all alongside the road. It looked like a junkyard. The people called it Sankoh’s Garage.

The spirit of my people amazed me. We were packed into the mini bus like sardines. Nonetheless, we passengers entertained each other with songs and survival stories. We listened in silence to a woman telling how her entire family was forced into a house only to have it burned down by the rebels high on drugs while they were inside. She was the only survivor.

As I listened to the stories and songs, my anxieties rose in anticipation of seeing my brothers. The last time I saw them was in 1986, when leaving to join my fiancée in Durham. From letters, I also knew about their families. My oldest brother Bockarie had three children. Amara had six, Gbewah had nine. Kenie proudly had ten and Hawa, my sister, had one. When I saw Gbewah, I recognized him the moment he smiled. All of us have the same big smile. But he looked tired and thin. His wife Mariama and the children had just returned to the farm. Interestingly, I learned that deafness may be a genetic trait in my family. JuJu has a cousin who is also profoundly deaf.

Despite such overwhelming challenges, I tried in the smallest of ways to restore a few of our society’s traditional values with my family. I remembered, when I was a child, we used to eat from a single bowl according to our ages. Nostalgia forced me to suggest that we eat with our hands from the same bowl for old time’s sake. I remembered how our late mother made the five boys eat from a big congo pan and the four girls from another. Gbewah’s huge appetite was well represented by his enormous hand filled with rice. We teased him about his “kavae,” his huge appetite and he in turn, teased me about my huge head. Our joyous laughter was a healing relief and despite the sorrow that lined my way there, I knew I was home—home at last.

I thought too about the survival stories I had heard on the mini bus and wondered about what my own family had endured. The next day, Bockarie and Kenie joined us at Gbewah’s home for a family meeting. Traditionally, he or she who comes home asks for the news and so I did. Gbewah opened the meeting by calling on our ancestral spirits to join us and he thanked them for their guidance. “Thank you for coming home,” he then said to me. Gbewah connected the family to The Dead. There was complete silence in this traditional Naming of The Dead. Gbewah named family and members of the community close to us who had died in the war: our mother, Matta Gbateh, our brother Amara, our Aunt Jenneh. She had 15 children. Only two survived the war.

Our silence during the Naming of The Dead echoed far beyond the walls of Gbewah’s home. He finally broke the silence with a story: “Once upon a time,” he began, “a bad spirit came and turned the heads of the children against their own parents. With the help of guns and drugs coming in, the children fought amongst each other, ruled over the adults and took all the wealth for themselves. This rebel war was about diamonds, something for the strangers.”

Then my brother started naming other members of our once close-knit community who had died. Uncles, aunties, grandparents. That’s when I realized the seemingly irreparable gap in our generation. Yes, we are like baby birds that just lost their parents to the hawk. My journey home was about the faces and hearts of those who had called me from afar. Yes, the bushpeople, the farmers, the original wildcrafters. Seeing members of the community who raised me, people who loved me, I know what it means to be really loved. I know of growing coffee and cocoa and cultivating rice. This special way of life that even the colonial Englishman could not change. This is a way of life I inherited from my grandfather who told the colonizers that the ancestral land belongs to the families. It is a natural right.

While considering my country’s dilemma, I am reminded of Patricia Jones-Jackson’s book, “When Roots Die.” It is an account of how Africans, during the African Slave Trade, were cut off from their customs and heritage by little villains gone astray to enrich big villains far away. Similarly, the horrible war in Sierra Leone has disconnected the survivors and future generations of my people from the wisdom and precious traditions that can only descend from the elders.

Although I am far too young, inexperienced and imperfect to be an elder—and although I, too, am orphaned—I must and will try to participate in the massive healing on Sierra Leone’s hope-filled horizon. I am grateful to this community and this country for sheltering me and the sacred wealth my grandparents, my father and my mother entrusted to me. I am a living library and librarian in one. I am also grateful to my wise friends who held me back from running headlong into the fray all these years. I have shared our sacred teaching tales with thousands of children in the Triangle to show my gratitude to my adopted home and community. Let the healing continue for all of us.

In the noble words of my grandma, Nembutal, “the world is a spider web. A break in the web affects the whole.” Let us continue to tell our healing stories, to mend the web and to weave the children and each other back into a beautiful, diverse, just, compassionate and peaceful worldwide village.

—Braima Moiwai

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