FORGIVENESS AT THE BONFIRE

A dark frame brightens up to the scene of a group of people seated around a blazing bonfire. As the flames dance, bathing the dark faces in their fiery warmth, a man rises to speak, inviting the audience to take the opportunity to speak about whatever is bothering them. A loud silence ensues, punctuated by the crackle of the embers, pregnant with palpable tension. Finally, as if from the gloomy darkness out of reach of the fire’s light, a voice is heard, wishing to confess a wrong before the throng. A scuffle ensues, presumably from anguish stirred within the hearts of some of the listeners of the confessor’s remarks. This is the scene that ushers us into the documentary that tugs at your heartstrings.

The 2011 American documentary film Fambul Tok, which is Sierra Leonean pidgin for ‘Family Talk’, documents a restorative programme by the same name, which aims to mend the social fabric of the Sierra Leonean people, which was torn apart by a civil war which raged between 1991 and 2002. On March 23, 1991, a band of rebels by the name Revolutionary United Front (RUF), with backing from Charles Taylor and under the leadership of Fonday Sankoh, attempted to overthrow the government of Sierra Leonean President Joseph Momah, sparking a decade-long war that shook the country to its core. Following the British government’s military intervention supressing the rebel insurgents, the war finally came to a formal end in January 2002 after having left indelible scars on the Sierra Leonean populace. Whilst no accurate statistics of the casualties are available, the protracted armed conflict left at least 70,000 people dead and more than 2.6 million people, displaced.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was established under Article XXVI of the Lomé Peace Agreement that was adopted by the Sierra Leonean Parliament in 2000, published a report “to create an impartial historical record of violations and abuses of human rights and international humanitarian law related to the armed conflict in Sierra Leone,” in line with its mandate of facilitating genuine healing and reconciliation. The Report traced the war’s historical antecedents to Sierra Leone’s colonial past where British rule divided a previously unified Sierra Leonean state and whose imposition of common law trampled established customary law traditions. The Commission found “the central cause of the war was endemic greed, corruption and nepotism that deprived the nation of its dignity and reduced most people to a state of poverty.” The war was catalysed by the large diamond reserves in Liberia which provided the RUF with a source of funding to sustain its warfare from illicit diamond trade, from which the RUF is alleged to have made a profit of 200 million dollars between 1991 and 1999.

In 2007, while the nation was reeling from the shock of a divisive civil war, John Caulkler, galvanised by the impetus to see a reconciliatory process that healed the real wounds of the nation, initiated the Fambul Tok programme that would reach the victims of the war at a community level. The restorative programme would begin with consultations with community leaders from all 14 districts to determine the communities’ needs and goals for reconciliation. John’s efforts to establish an effectively restorative programme were in response to his frustrations with the Special Court for Sierra Leone which was established in 2002 following a request by the Sierra Leonean government to the United Nations to form a “special court” to address the serious crimes witnessed during the civil war. After 10 years, the court only managed to prosecute 9 men in the course of 4 trials, with the whole trial process costing a whooping 300 million dollars.

Culture of forgiveness

There is a saying among the people of Sierra Leone that says, ‘There is no bad bush where we can throw a child’. The saying succinctly captures the culture of forgiveness shared by the people of Sierra Leone which highlights the importance of mending broken relationships and resolving conflicts. John Caulker drew from this rich culture when designing the Fambul Tok process with a view to reaching the persons and families that were offended among the grassroots communities who felt abandoned by the Special Court and would ask “Who will lead us?” in their search for a culture-centred healing process.

The Fambul Tok programme has been able to tap into the community-mindedness of the Sierra Leonean nation to structure a process that calls upon the unified efforts of the community. It presents itself as a practical and reasonable way to resolve conflicts that is backed by the culture of the people of Sierra Leone.

Following the years of armed conflict that resulted in a divisive nation, the people of Sierra Leone have existed with enmity and bitterness being undercurrents in their interpersonal relations. Some of the victims interviewed in the documentary recounted horrific atrocities that were committed against them by their relatives or people with whom they live in the same community. Fambul Tok has been able to achieve the restorative value of peace by inviting offenders to speak up and explain the reasons why they committed offences against their fellow countrymen, ask for forgiveness while also encouraging victims to express their pain, how the offences affected them and encouraging them to forgive the victims.

In one scene portrayed in the documentary, the people of Sierra Leone call for one of the rebel commanders to come forward and face the community. The commander’s infamy for bloodthirst and brutal executions struck dread into the hearts of Sierra Leoneans across the nation. Despite the commander declining to bear his face, and unsuccessful search efforts by the programme in collaboration with the villages scattered across Sierra Leone, communities taking part in the programme nevertheless choose to bury the hatchet.

One of the most poignant stories in the documentary is that of Captain Mohamed Savage, who was colloquially known as Dr.Die. Savage was one of the rebel leaders during the war that was widely known for his cruelty and savagery, for which he was christened Dr. Die. The communities of Sierra Leone recounted the horrors they experienced by his hand, stories that would become more gruesome with the telling. Interestingly, Savage himself denied any responsibility for the allegations, claiming misunderstanding of the facts by his accusers. It was clear, however, from the deep ridges in his face and his glassy stare into space, that these accusations weighed heavily on his conscience.

After viewing a video recording of one of the victims begging him to come forward and seek forgiveness, Savage agrees to take part in the restorative programme despite having refused to testify before the Special Court. Indicative of the profound situation he now finds himself in, he says “Life is coming to me… nine to ten years I was not in life; I was just doing things.” Savage’s refection tells a narrative of a state of life akin to death from ostracization and tainted conscience.

The 82-minute film paints the picture of resilience and a rebirth from the flames by the nation of Sierra Leone. While indelible scars remain on the bodies, minds and hearts of the victims of the war, Fambul Tok nurses the nation back to unity by rekindling the embers of forgiveness among the people of Sierra Leone. Fambul Tok, and its resounding success in fostering cohesion among the people of Sierra Leone, shall remain a testament of the integrity of indigenous systems, and an endorsement of the wisdom that animates community rituals. As contrasted with the Special Court proceedings, in 10 years, The Fambul Tok programme has had over 2,700 people testifying before the bonfires to over 60 thousand of their neighbours. The programme has had over 150 bonfire ceremonies that have altogether cost 2.5 million dollars

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