Not talking about atrocities

16 July 2010 at 04:37 4 comments

By Aaron Kaye, Kiva Fellow, Sierra Leone

I’ve been living in Sierra Leone for the past couple months and have never in my conversations with Sierra Leoneans broached the subject of the fighting and civilian atrocities that shook the country during the late 90s.  I discussed the topic only when friends or colleagues here brought it up.  Was this the right approach, or should I have discussed the topic, heeding US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’ advice that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants”?

The people of Sierra Leone suffered terrifying and unconscionable acts of violence at the hands of rebel fighters.  This included amputations, mutilation, rape, and forced conscription of youngsters, among other horrors.  The country today is recovering from the violence that ended less than a decade ago.  Fighters have been reincorporated into society and massive disarmament operations have occurred.

In coming to work here, I considered the complex question of how to address the very recent conflict that has affected so many lives here.  By all accounts everyone here knows someone who was touched in some way by the violence.  And when walking the streets of Freetown, the capital, I often wonder whether the men my age I pass on the street were once rebel fighters or soldiers-turned-rebels (referred to as sobels).

The national stadium and the center of Freetown from the hills above town.

I firmly believe that addressing the past is a necessary way to enable healing, to address today’s issues, and to explore any lingering factors that could lead to a return to violence.  Yet I feel it’s not my place to start this discussion.  Many of the people I meet have likely already told their stories to NGOs.  And I am not trained to counsel those affected nor would I be recording anything for posterity.  I am here to help make small loans, not to act as mediator.  But is this a poor excuse for remaining silent?  Am I somehow being complicit by not talking about this?  In instances where the subject did arise in conversation I was more than grateful to hear accounts of how my friends and their families were affected and moved by their stories.  But in my judgement, it would be selfish to go out of my way to ask these questions, essentially indulging my curiosity to hear stories of what transpired.

Is it wrong to take this route?  Am I allowing myself and the Sierra Leoneans I meet to hide from the past by not discussing it?

Entry filed under: Africa, blogsherpa, KF11 (Kiva Fellows 11th Class), Sierra Leone. Tags: .

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  • 1. david oglaza  |  19 July 2010 at 03:58

    dont ask until someone asks you the question as they may not feel like talking about it but forced to when asked. Its a bit like when people say yes they will attend meetings when they have no intention of doing so as culturally its wrong to say no! those that have worked in the developing world will know what I mean!

  • 2. Eileen  |  18 July 2010 at 09:29

    I too, have had these thoughts, though I’ve never been to Africa and been in a position to ask the question. I often wonder if my info gathering and interest is really spawned by the my passion to recognize end genocide, or if there’s a part of me that feels the need to “watch the car crash”.

    I actually sponsored a woman in DRC, and spent six months writing letters to her without ever directly mentioning the conflict and asking her what happened to her. Even without a direct reference, she never wrote me back. Maybe she was waiting for me to ask? Maybe she couldn’t face it? I’ll never know.

    I think the fact that you are thinking about it means that you’re trying to do your best. That’s all anyone can ask of you in that situation.

  • 3. Bing Bingos  |  17 July 2010 at 12:29

    it’s really good work and really good blog and information…..

    Sagar Gurjar

  • 4. Katie  |  16 July 2010 at 05:44

    Am I allowing myself and the Sierra Leoneans I meet to hide from the past by not discussing it?

    No, I don’t think you are. I think that you’re doing the right thing, for the reasons you mentioned above (NGOs already doing it, self-indulgent curiosity, etc.)

    There’ll always be your own hometown/home-country (wherever that may be for you) folks w/ violence in their pasts to go out of your way & ask such questions if you ever feel that it is the right thing to do.

    I think you’re dead on in your approach with respect to Sierra Leone. 🙂

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