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A MORE SUSTAINABLE PEACE Healing comes to Sierra Leone, thanks to the Fambul Tok movement of community-led reconciliation

by Tim Høiland Photography by Sara Terry

Sahr and Nyumah grew up as best friends. But that was before the war. While attempting to flee their village in eastern Sierra Leone when invading rebel forces attacked it in 1991, the two boys were captured and ordered to kill. Sahr was given a knife and told to murder his own father. He refused. The knife was given to Nyumah, and a gun was put to his head. Once he had killed Sahr’s father, Nyumah turned and beat Sahr to a pulp.1 This was war, and it would be an 11-year nightmare. When a peace treaty was eventually signed, those who survived the war did their best to return to life as usual. Villages that had been burned to the ground had to be rebuilt from scratch. Families and their ways of life had to be pieced back together. Many returned home accompanied by the ghosts of amputation, an enduring reminder of the gruesomeness of war. Thousands of combatants who had grown old against their will at the ages of 10, 11, 12 struggled to reclaim the innocence of childhood. For too many it was too late. Tens of thousands of women and girls carried with them the silent shame of violation. And for all the obvious wounds, a myriad more lay


just below the surface, largely unacknowledged—but simmering. The highly touted Truth and Reconciliation Commission, intended to help the people of Sierra Leone find closure, found some success here and there, but it never reached rural villages like Gbekedu, where Sahr and Nyumah lived. Villagers were left without a sense of justice, and though guns and machetes had for the time being been set aside, true peace had not yet been fully restored. These communities, however, had a tradition—a memory from before the war. In a simpler time, after the day’s work had been done, village residents would gather around a bonfire for a time of “family talk,” or fambul tok in the Krio language. They would discuss whatever was on their minds, and together, led by village elders, they would resolve any disputes that had arisen during the day. It was at one such gathering, years after the war, where Sahr finally found the words and the audience he needed to be able to speak out. After courageously telling the truth about what he and his family had endured, he went a step further, declaring, “The man who beat me and killed my father is here.”

Hobbling over to the edge of the circle on his permanently crippled legs, he reached into the crowd and pulled Nyumah out of the shadows and into the flickering light. Sahr and Nyumah had not spoken in the years since the rebels invaded and their lives were torn apart. But around that bonfire, face to face with Sahr and in the sight of all, Nyumah confessed to his crime in stark, grisly detail. “But what I did,” he continued, “it was not my choice.” Then, bowing to the ground and putting his hands in the dirt, he asked Sahr

again establishing a multi-party system, the war lingered on, fueled by power struggles and corruption within the government, intense criticism of the dubious role played by private security agencies from South Africa and Britain, contested claims within the mining industry, and the complicated role of the remaining RUF in negotiations for peace with the seemingly revolvingdoor central government. The end of the war officially came in January 2002, more than a decade after the conflict began. As part of the peace agreement, blanket amnesty was granted to all but a few of the highest-level offenders. In partnership with the United Nations, Sierra Leone’s government established a Special Court for war crimes as well as a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), modeled after the groundbreaking one introduced in South Africa following the end of apartheid.

"I would like to suggest that we stop trying to­­-or even thinking that we can-save Africa, and instead start learning from Africa." -Libby Hoffman to forgive him. Without hesitation, Sahr granted forgiveness. The two embraced and began to dance as the community burst into exuberant song, voices rising into the night, swirling like sparks. The roots of war Sierra Leone gained its independence from Britain in 1961 after a century and a half of colonization. The young nation got off to a rocky start, in a post-colonial scramble for power not unlike those in other newly independent African states. By the late ’70s Sierra Leone had become a one-party state and soon after found itself mired in crippling debt.2 Pressure for political and economic reform came to a head in 1990, and, sensing a rare window of opportunity, a rebel army dubbed the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), including Liberian fighters loyal to Charles Taylor, made its move. Entering Sierra Leone from neighboring Liberia, the RUF began to sow terror in an effort to take control of the country. The RUF concentrated its attacks, however, not in the capital, Freetown—where a stronger military presence would have threatened the invasion—but in isolated towns and villages like Gbekedu, among farmers and artisanal diamond miners in rural areas. It was in this context that Sahr, Nyumah, and 10,000 other children were captured, tens of thousands of women and girls were raped, more than 2 million Sierra Leoneans were displaced from their homes and communities, and an estimated 10,000 suffered mass amputations—a horrific trademark of this war. Though a new constitution was approved in 1991, once

All photos © Sara Terry for Catalyst for Peace

Nyumah (left) and Sahr, just a few days after the dramatic bonfire ceremony that restored their friendship.

The Special Court issued indictments for 13 people it considered to bear the greatest responsibility for crimes against humanity and war crimes, representing various factions allegedly responsible for atrocities during the war.3 Three of those indicted died before they could face trial, and a fourth—who was never captured—has been rumored dead as well. Eight others have been successfully prosecuted, with sentences ranging from 15 to 52 years. Most significantly, this spring former Liberian president Charles Taylor was found guilty of all charges brought against him for his complicity in the war. This verdict marks the first time an African head of state has been convicted by an international tribunal; in May he was sentenced to 50 years in prison.4 While the Special Court has had success according to the terms of its mandate, the decision to indict a mere 13 men is puzzling considering the enormous scale of atrocities committed during the war and suggests it was designed more as a symbolic measure than to truly serve the cause of justice. And an expensive symbol it is: Costs are estimated at $200 million, with Taylor’s trial alone priced at up to $50 million.5 Meanwhile, the TRC was established with the mandate to “create an impartial historical record of violations and abuses of human rights and international humanitarian law… [and] to address impunity, to respond to the needs of the victims, to promote healing and reconciliation, and to prevent a repetition of the violations and abuses suffered.”6 The TRC operated from 2002 to 2004 but was limited to Freetown and regional capital cities, thereby failing to reach the majority of Sierra Leoneans who lacked the resources to travel in order to participate. Additionally, given the promise of blanket amnesty, relatively few considered it worthwhile to participate in any official capacity.


Recognizing the mounting frustration and disillusionment on the part of those victimized by the war, as well as the effects of the war that remained unaddressed at the community level, one Sierra Leonean human rights activist had an idea. It wasn’t particularly expensive, and villagers wouldn’t have to travel far. Most importantly, it was based on a model owned and led by those acquainted with the Sierra Leonean way of life. The best way forward for the people of Sierra Leone, he thought, would be to return to its past, to the rich traditions in place before the war. It was time, once again, for fambul tok. The birth of a movement John Caulker became a human rights activist as a university student when the war was just beginning to break out. Deeply concerned that atrocities committed against his fellow Sierra Leoneans were not being documented or reported, Caulker began donning a disguise and infiltrating the makeshift camps of rebel armies by night, eavesdropping on conversations around campfires. He would then pass his reports of atrocities on to Amnesty International and other human rights organizations, which would then advocate globally on behalf of those suffering in Sierra Leone’s war.7 After forming his own human rights organization, he served as chair of the TRC Working Group, using his position to urge

the government to establish a reparations program for those impacted by the war, with funding from the country’s mining revenue. When Caulker advocated for justice to be a component of the commission, along with truth and reconciliation, his suggestion was roundly condemned by rebels and government officials alike, and at one point he was temporarily evacuated with his family to neighboring Guinea for fear of his life. Caulker continued to emphasize the need for residents of rural communities to be included in the process of reconciliation, and he began to suggest that mini-commissions ought to be held closer to villages to enable greater participation and effectiveness. But these ideas were largely dismissed. Eventually, Caulker’s relationship with the other members of the TRC grew strained, and, facing increasing frustration and fatigue, he took the opportunity in the fall of 1997 to temporarily step away and accepted a human rights fellowship at Columbia University. While in New York, a photographer named Sara Terry introduced Caulker to Libby Hoffman, the founder and president of Catalyst for Peace, which mobilizes locally owned and locally led peace-building initiatives and then shares those stories with the world.8 During an all-day meeting at Catalyst for Peace offices in Portland, Maine, Caulker and Hoffman exchanged ideas and told stories about their own experiences in peace-building and reconciliation work.

The site of the community consultation in Kailahun, where Fambul Tok staff met with local stakeholders to ask whether they wanted to launch the program in their district.


Women celebrate a rice harvest on a community farm in Madina, Kailahun District, which brought victims and perpetrators to work together after a local Fambul Tok ceremony.

Hoffman has been active in the field of peace-building for 25 years, and along the way she has learned the immeasurable value of trusting the wisdom of communities rather than seeking to dictate solutions. “Something extraordinary is possible,” she says, “when you ask ordinary people what they want and help them to build it.”9 For a country and a continent all too often left to the mercy of outsiders, this shift in thinking is long overdue. Resisting the urge to swoop into poverty-stricken and war-torn areas as “white saviors,” Hoffman suggests redirecting that compassion into supporting and helping to facilitate local solutions, using local resources. “I would like to suggest that we stop trying to—or even thinking that we can—save Africa, and instead start learning from Africa,” she says.10 In John Caulker, Catalyst for Peace had found a homegrown leader who would be an ideal partner for developing peace-building programs in Sierra Leone. “The synchronicity between our visions couldn’t have been more amazing,” Hoffman recalled from their first meeting. “So we decided to work together to make those dreams a reality.”11 In November 2007 they each gathered a few colleagues and got to work planning what would become Fambul Tok International (FTI). Caulker returned to Sierra Leone the following month to begin implementing their plans. Originally designed to include 161 ceremonies in regions of the country known as chiefdoms, Sierra Leoneans have

since asked for ceremonies at an even more localized level, so plans are underway for thousands of ceremonies in the coming years in small clusters of villages. During just the first two years, approximately 600 people testified to more than 20,000 neighbors at 55 ceremonies throughout the country. The "family talk" process For those of us who often go days—if not weeks or months— without meaningful interaction with our neighbors, the extent to which Sierra Leonean culture depends upon close-knit community and strong relational ties is difficult to fully appreciate. In turn, it is nearly impossible for us to understand the effect that years of war continue to have among estranged neighbors who were once like family. Restoring a sense of neighborly camaraderie, therefore, is a top priority. While truth-telling bonfires are at the center of the process, FTI’s community-building methodology requires work to be done both before and after the community gathers around the fire. In every case the first step is the consultation, which determines whether a community is ready for reconciliation. It also allows community members to decide what the process will entail. Once these key initial decisions have been made and leaders have been appointed to help keep the process on track, preparations for the bonfire ceremony may begin. Though ceremonies vary from community to community, each of them entails an evening bonfire, where victims and


A community gathers to hear the testimony of victims and perpetrators at a bonfire ceremony in Gbekedu, Kailahun District.

Forgiveness or retribution The story of Fambul Tok is told in a documentary film and full-color book of photos and essays (both titled Fambul Tok), which chronicle the movement from its conception until now. As the story-telling part of its mission, FTI uses these resources to share the remarkable stories of peace and reconciliation from Sierra Leone with the rest of the world. Many Western viewers of the documentary are astonished at the willingness of victims to forgive so quickly and so fully those who beat them, raped them, amputated their limbs, or ruthlessly killed their family members. Hoffman tells of one screening of the film in Portland, Maine. During the Q&A following the screening, a

"Peace is not the indifference that leads each to his or her own little island, unconcerned for and unengaged with others. Peace is the flourishing of the community and of each person within it." - Miroslav Volf perpetrators are given the opportunity to tell their stories and either to ask for, or to offer, forgiveness. While religion is not a formal part of the process, rural Sierra Leoneans are by and large very religious, whether Muslim, Christian, or adherents of traditional religions. In each of these cases, ceremonies are planned according to local practices, and staff work to ensure that both Muslims and Christians are represented at the decision-making level for each ceremony. No one knows ahead of time who will speak up, and it is not guaranteed that forgiveness will be offered or accepted, especially in the case of those learning of atrocities for the very first time. But in most cases, being eager to shed the unbearable weight of the war, victims and perpetrators do come forward, and significant steps toward reconciliation take place. In the days following the bonfires, communities hold traditional cleansing ceremonies and community feasts. Villagers designate a “peace tree” and build benches around it, dedicated as a permanent space for resolving conflicts among neighbors. Soccer matches are organized and community farms are planted, giving victims and perpetrators the chance to work and play side by side. Groups of “peace mothers” are also formed to continue the dialogue about the war’s ongoing impacts on their lives and any other issues they face. Through radio programs, the voices of these women are heard far and wide, urging former child soldiers and others who have fled their villages to finally come home, where they will be accepted and will finally find peace.


“The synchronicity between our visions couldn’t have been more amazing,” said Libby Hoffman of John Caulker when recalling their first meeting. “So we decided to work together to make those dreams a reality.”

member of the audience expressed disbelief at the notion of forgiveness for such crimes. Some members of FTI’s staff in Sierra Leone were in attendance, and afterwards one of them expressed disbelief of a different kind. “He was just as astonished that forgiveness wouldn’t be part of our approach as Americans were that forgiveness was part of it,” Hoffman said. “That was insightful for me. It wasn’t just the individual who was hurt; it was the community. So justice is about the community being made whole again. You need participation from both victim and perpetrator for the community to be made whole again. It brings the whole community into the process to support one who has been wronged.” Westerners struggle to understand forgiveness without retribution. This is true even for Christians, who believe we have been reconciled to God through Christ while we were still his enemies. The grace and forgiveness we have received is completely unmerited, and we’re instructed to go and do likewise, laying down our lives for others. But when it comes to those who have wronged us, it doesn’t always follow that we automatically forgive. After all, shouldn’t the perpetrator be made to pay for his crime? Does it really do justice to simply forgive him? Miroslav Volf, in his book Free of Charge, offers a meditation on God’s character as one who freely gives and forgives and then asks how followers of Christ should give and forgive in return. “The heart of forgiveness,” he writes, “is a generous release of a genuine debt.”12 “When we forgive,” he continues, “we acknowledge the offenses and blame the perpetrator. But then we treat the person as if the offense did not happen. To forgive means most basically to give a person the gift of existing as if they had not committed the offense at all.”13 That is precisely what happens in those truth-telling bonfires: The victim gives the perpetrator the gift of existing not as a killer or a rapist but as a friend, a neighbor, a part of the family. And in turn the community is made whole and finds peace. But peace, Volf writes, “is not the indifference that leads each to his or her own little island, unconcerned for and unengaged with others. Peace is the flourishing of the community and of each person within it.”14 Our world is hungry for that kind of flourishing. Creation groans for that kind of peace. After giving a presentation to a group of sixth graders in inner-city Philadelphia, Hoffman led a discussion of fambul tok and the implications of forgiveness and reconciliation for the students in their own school. They too puzzled over the ability of people to forgive such terrible crimes and they discussed what they understood justice and community to mean. Hoffman was impressed with the depth of their discussion, but she

didn’t know right away how deeply the lessons of fambul tok had sunk in. Three days later, however, while the students were on a field trip, one student acted out and caused a disruption. Rather than immediately involving their teacher, the students gathered together with the student who had misbehaved and together were able to resolve the conflict. One of the boys involved then proudly announced, “Hey! We just had our own fambul tok!”15 After watching the film, viewers commonly ask Hoffman what they can do to support FTI. She always urges them to begin where they are. Rather than jumping immediately to situations of conflict halfway around the world, Hoffman suggests asking questions like, “Who do I need to forgive? Who do I need to apologize to? How can I help my community be a more whole community?” We will make the greatest contribution to peace, she believes, when we become people of humility, courage, honesty, and generosity. When we cultivate these virtues in our own lives, Hoffman says, “we’re making humility, courage, honesty, and generosity more powerful in the world, and the impact of that can’t always be measured.”

"Smething extraordinary is

possible when you ask ordinary

people what they want and help them to build it." -Libby Hoffman

A new story For Sahr and Nyumah, the fambul tok bonfire in Gbekedu was the decisive moment of reconciliation. And while it marks the end of a long, tragic story of pain and suffering, of hatred and shame, it also marks the beginning of a new story. Sahr and Nyumah are once again best friends. Though Sahr still hobbles painfully on his permanently crippled legs, Nyumah helps him by working on his farm, and he intends to build Sahr a new house as soon as he can. The two can be seen walking together, arm in arm, laughing. And both men have a community around them, committed to walking the long path toward peace together. This story of reconciliation and forgiveness is truly remarkable, but it is not unique. All across Sierra Leone, communities are once again gathering around bonfires, rediscovering the power and the possibility inherent in their own tradition of fambul tok—truth-telling among long-lost friends. To learn more about Fambul Tok International please visit (Editor’s note: due to space limitations, the endnotes for this article have been posted at

Tim Høiland is an advocacy journalist and a regular contributor to PRISM. His work focuses on the intersections of faith, development, justice, and peace. Read more at


A More Sustainable Peace  
A More Sustainable Peace  

by Tim Hoiland