International peacebuilding initiatives often fail to build the foundations needed for real and sustainable peace to emerge in post-conflict zones. Sierra Leonian human rights activist John Cukier recognized the need for a new approach in his country and joined up with Libby Hoffman, founder of a US peace organization, Catalyst for Peace, that is committed to supporting local community-based peace initiatives through an emphasis on storytelling. Together they founded Fambul Tok, which brings victims and perpetrators from the civil war in Sierra Leone together for the first time in village-level, tradition-based ceremonies of truth-telling and forgiveness. This has been documented in the award-winning film, Fambul Tok. In this entry from her blog, Libby discusses what happens when the film is screened to 60 ex-combatants in Sierra Leone.
There are occasional moments in this work when people, activities, resources, and timing all align, and there’s a powerful experience that grabs you in the pit of your stomach, leaving you feeling – This is what it is all for. Thursday, May 10, 2012 was one of those moments for me, with the workshop Fambul Tok held in Waterloo, just outside of Freetown (Sierra Leone), for a group of close to 60 ex-combatants. Powerful at many levels, it was a pinnacle coming together moment of the twin pillars of our commitment to the on-the-ground peacebuilding work of Fambul Tok, and to the ongoing storytelling through film around that work; the storytelling-AS-peacebuilding approach we have taken.
The week I arrived in Sierra Leone, Fambul Tok was just beginning a national campaign to prevent violence in the upcoming national election. They were kicking off their first official activities in Waterloo, the area just outside of Freetown with the largest concentration of ex-combatants from the war (over 9000). The events included football (soccer) matches, a carnival, and radio programs, all preaching nonviolence. Mohamed Savage was taking the lead as the Fambul Tok representative coordinating the work on the ground.
Yes, you read that right — Mohamed Savage. For those who have seen the feature-length film, Savage was one of the most notorious rebel commanders during Sierra Leone’s 11-year civil war. In the film, we first see Savage as an emotionless man denying all accusations against him, but in the last moments we watch Savage’s face transform on the screen. I was vividly aware of the moment Sara (Terry, Director/ Producer of the film) first called me after that interview took place, describing the extraordinary transformation she had just witnessed (and they had just captured on film, thanks to an alert crew!), and the stroke of inspiration that had led her to show Savage Naomi Joe’s poignant appeal to her brother to return home. (If you’re not familiar with this moment – watch the film!). In an epilogue to the film, Savage decides to return to the site of many of his atrocities, where he apologizes and is forgiven on behalf of the community (see below for link to the video of Savage’s apology and the community reaction). In the extraordinary continuation of his extraordinary journey from ex-combatant to peacemaker, Savage is now on the Fambul Tok staff.
The first events in Waterloo were a huge success and served as an opportunity to build bridges from the ex-combatants to other community members. Thrilled to be engaged in this way, there was a resounding call from many leaders of the ex-combatants for more, similar activities. With a new version of the film in hand (an educational version that includes Savage’s apology), John Caulker, the Sierra Leonian founder of Fambul Tok, thought the timing was right to have its first screening in Sierra Leone…for this very community of ex-combatants.
Together with Savage and other community and ex-combatant leaders, the vision grew from a simple screening and discussion to a daylong workshop for 40 leaders, drawing from each of the 10 sub-communities in Waterloo – the first official direct engagement of the ex-combatants in the Fambul Tok process (and Fambul Tok’s first official work in Sierra Leone’s Western Area, which includes Freetown and its immediate surroundings).
Savage was very keen to have his story shared with other ex-combatants. He was eager to use his story as a platform to urge others to refrain from violence going forward, and to encourage other ex-combatants to acknowledge their wrongdoing in the war and apologize to those they wronged. John and I had no idea how the film and Fambul Tok in general would be received by the group, and frankly we anticipated that there could be a lot of resistance – or at the very least, an unwillingness to engage with the ideas of nonviolence and reconciliation in any depth. We couldn’t have been more wrong.
Anticipating 40, as the workshop began in Waterloo, eager ex-combatant leaders kept appearing at the Winikon Plaza door until we had over 60 gathered for the event. For the opening, John asked everyone to introduce themselves and say one thing they would like to learn that day. The responses set the tone for the day, illuminating the primal motivations drawing people to the meeting:
“I want to be a good somebody in the community.”
“I want to get the skills to live in peace with our communities.”
“I want to get some skills to tell other ex-combatants how to live in peace with their community.”
“I want to help prepare [ex-combatants] to be changed people.”
“I want to acquire the skills to help build the country and my community.”
“I want to become united so we can create a better image.”
“I sell drugs. I do it because I haven’t had another way to be constructively engaged. I am looking to learn things that will help be constructive, so I won’t sell drugs anymore.”
“During the past elections, no one engaged ex-combatants. Doing it this time sends the signal that we can be peaceful, nonviolent.”
These responses immediately dispelled any doubts we had about whether this group was interested in refraining from violence, and living in peace with each other and their community! After an initial discussion of the term “ex-combatant,” and the advantages and disadvantages that came from being saddled with that term as their collective identity, we settled in to watch the film.
In all honesty – my stomach was fluttering during the screening. Sitting next to Mohamed Savage, watching 60 other ex-combatants watch his story unfold, in the context of this great national story of communities and individuals courageously and graciously dealing with the horrible wounds of the war – it was hard not to be amazed that I was actually in this place, in this moment. With all of us together, watching Savage embrace the mission of reconciling with his community. Thinking back to that moment, and thinking back to the start of the program – could I ever have imagined it leading…here? To this? Never in a million years! I was very conscious of all the interweaving moments, interwoven lives and stories, that had led to just this moment – of all of the individuals, working to live their lives to their highest and best purpose. The Bigger Hand, indeed.
Many ex-combatants were sobbing during the screening. Several were so moved, they had to get up and leave, unable to continue watching. But the most extraordinary moment was after the screening when Mohamed Savage stood up to speak. With singular focus and an eloquence born from the obvious, raw honesty behind it, he urged his fellow ex-combatants to change their ways. He urged them all to acknowledge the wrong they had done during the war, and to apologize and reconcile – with themselves and with the communities they had wronged. He urged them to commit to never turn to violence again. He talked about the resistance they would face in that process – that their friends and acquaintances wouldn’t immediately accept that they had changed, and that they would have to be patient and persistent in going forward anyway. He spoke about how, in going back to apologize, he had done what he had done not only for himself, and for his community, — but for them, to be an example to them, and to help them to do the same thing.
John asked the group what they thought about the film and Savage’s story, and how many of them might want to follow Savage’s example and reconcile with the communities they had hurt. Every single person in the room raised their hand. Every. Single. Person.
Lively discussion group and smaller group conversations yielded more insights into the film’s impact on this audience. Several noted that it illuminated for them how “senseless and wicked” the war had been, and watching it caused them to regret strongly what they had done. Many said it was the first time they realized the pain they had caused others in the war. They also acknowledged that, in the reconciliation process they wanted to embark on, their first task would be to prepare “inwardly” to apologize – they knew it would take work for them to be honestly, emotionally ready to apologize. They wanted to embrace this work as their next task.
In contemplating the way forward, there was a clear recognition that many had fought in the war because they had been manipulated by politicians, or by others in senior positions. There was a clear and strong commitment going forward, above all, not to be manipulated by politicians. Rejecting the former slogan “A dae wit you” (I am with you) that had been repeated as emblematic of their loyalty to those above them, there was a strong and countervailing commitment to organize now for good, for self-improvement and community improvement.
To lay the framework for the new opportunity this group wanted to claim, they decided at the workshop that they no longer wanted their identity to be defined by events from the past, and especially by their actions in the war. They wanted to choose a new term to define their group identity – a term that expressed what they wanted to be in their communities going forward. A lively discussion ensued, and it was finally agreed – they would adopt the term “Peace Parents” to describe themselves from now on. There was a clear sense that they wanted to be leaders in bringing peace in their communities going forward, and they recognized that that wouldn’t be the work of a day. But rather, like parenting, it would take long term commitment and careful tending and nurturing, to help forward peace.
Together, they decided on the criteria for Peace Parents – including committing to no violence, and no violent communication; reconciling with your people; and being productively engaged in your communities and providing community service.
John summed up the day by saying how much he had learned – namely, that ex-combatants were not bad people. But simply people that needed another opportunity.
As extraordinary as the day was, I was aware at the time, and am even more aware now – that it was only a beginning. But it was a powerful beginning indeed. And an illustration of how transformative spaces can be created and supported. Strong, committed leadership, alert and committed and compelling storytelling, and an ongoing commitment to invite others into courageous, generative, unselfish action for the benefit of a larger community – this is a powerful mixture.
This text first appeared as part of Libby Hoffman’s ongoing blog on the work of Fambul Tok and her peace organization, Catalyst for Peace. Libby Hoffman has been active in peacebuilding for over 25 years as a professor, trainer, facilitator, program director, consultant, and funder. A former professor of political science at Principia College, she left academia to focus on the direct practice of conflict resolution and peacebuilding. She developed Catalyst for Peace in 2003, which promotes an inside-out approach to peacemaking where external parties partner with local communities to create space for the local resources, knowledge, and capacities to be mobilized and manifested.
Watch Libby Hoffman’s Ted’s Talk, “Forgiving the Unforgivable” on how Fambul Tok is healing individuals and communities.
You can also watch videos on Savage’s return, the Waterloo workshop with ex-combatants and the role that Sierra Leonian women are playing as Peace Mothers on Fambul Tok‘s Vimeo site.
The original feature-length film, has been screened worldwide, winning numerous awards. A shorter classroom version is also available.