Interweaving Peacebuilding and Film

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.

Best Documentary Film, Beloit International Film Festival, USA, 2013
Honorable Mention, International Film Festival for Environment, Health and Culture, 2013
Best Documentary Feature, SENE Film, Music & Arts Festival, 2013
Best Human Spirit Documentary, Chagrin Documentary Film Festival, 2012
Golden Lobster: Best Documentary, Portland Maine Film Festival, 2012
St. Clair Bourne (Best Documentary) Award, San Francisco Black Film Festival, 2012
Norman Vaughan Indomitable Spirit Award, Mountainfilm, 2012
Jury Special Prize, Portugal Underground Film Festival, 2012
Jury Grand Prize, Non Violence International Film Festival, 2012
Best Documentary, Queens World Film Festival, 2012
Best Documentary, Reynolda Film Festival, 2012
Best Feature, Show Me Justice Film Festival, 2012
Crystal Heart Award, Heartland Film Festival, 2011
Human Spirit Award, Nashville Film Festival, 2011
Honorable Mention Best Documentary, Nashville Film Festival, 2011
Best Documentary, Ft. Myers Film Festival, 2011
Best of Fest, Global Social Change Film Festival, 2011
Best Documentary, Audience Choice Award, FLICKERS: Rhode Island International Film Festival, 2011
SIGNIS Award, Zanzibar International Film Festival, 2011
Luxor African Film Festival, Egypt, 2014
Human DOC International Film Festival, Poland, 2013
Intimate Lens Ethnographic Film Festival, Italy, 2013

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16 Responses to Interweaving Peacebuilding and Film

  1. Kira M May 6, 2015 at 8:21 am #

    It’s amazing what people could or would do for peace. Being able to forgive the man that raped you, or beheaded your child; that’s something most Westerners would have an incredible difficulty to even begin to consider. Many wars were developed and continued for so long because of the influence and coercive power the government and authorities might have on their population. There is nothing more peaceful than hearing an ex-combatant say he wants to apologize to his community and feel peace within himself and others. The 60 men started by approaching the group and wanting to be forgiven and be honest about the heartaches they have caused their family, friends, people; and then they come out to actually say it. Their traditions have given them the opportunity to start over, to start fresh, as a “good” somebody in the community.

  2. Iulia May 13, 2015 at 3:36 pm #

    I find it amazing that most of the disputes between the victims and the perpetrators have been somewhat resolved through Fambul Tok bonfires, in which both victims and perpetrators were able to share their side of the story, and it worked even better than Truth and Reconciliation Commissions and actual prosecutions, from which the general population was not able to benefit fully. As Hoffman states, through Fambul Tok victims have achieved greater reconciliation, because they were able to face their perpetrators and hear their side of the story; they also think that this is great punishment for perpetrators, because it takes a great deal of power to come forward and be publicly ashamed by your neighbors.

  3. Jessica W May 13, 2015 at 11:42 pm #

    This situation also goes to proove how a reponse of hatred and revenge is simply a choice, just like forgiveness is a choice. The fact that we are living in such a violent world is also a result of choices we’ve made as a society. Of course, choosing to forgive is much harder than choosing to hate; but as people with good reason and conscience, we are capable of choosing the right thing even though it is more difficult.

  4. Maeva R October 17, 2015 at 3:35 pm #

    what a disgrace that i knew nothing about this. Honestly the media shows you stupidities like how much bigger can kim k’s buttocks can be instead of showing you what is going on in the world. No one is better placed to understand the true effects of war than ex-combatants. It is truly how they all gathered to try to make the world just a bit more peaceful.

  5. Francesca Varrone November 27, 2015 at 9:24 pm #

    I find this is what the world should be showing to people. This women had the power to forgive her rapist after so many years. It doesn’t only take courage but power. It is an extremely different task to accomplish and to forgive something like that is mind blowing. This is what peace is all about. The man is wanting forgiveness in what he did. We need more people to stand up like this in life it is only right. It sets people mind in peace and we can all live in a peaceful society with no hate. I shows that people do what they believe is right. Everything is a choice in life and if you decided do a bad choice it is shameful.

  6. Yolanda Gualdieri December 6, 2015 at 4:29 pm #

    I think that this is what the media and the world should be showing to people. Not the bad things that they actually show. The power that the women had to forgive the person who raped her is amazing (Editor’s note: see Libby’s Ted’s Talk). The perpetrator wanted forgiveness and the victim gave it. The victim got more out of it because they could hear the other side of the story. It is so easy to hold a grudge and not forgive the person who did such horrible thing to you. The women not only had courage to forgive her rapist but also had to power to do so. This situation also proves that hating and giving forgiveness is just a choice you chose to make in your everyday life.

  7. Julia Graziani December 10, 2015 at 11:24 pm #

    All I can say is that it takes a lot of courage for that woman to forgive a man who raped her. Forgiveness is the key to help you move on and bring peace but forgiving a man, who sexually abused you, is brave on so many levels! Everyone has a choice and the most common one to choose, and the easiest choice, is to hate, but all that anger just ends up building up inside you.

  8. Sophia Silla December 12, 2015 at 7:17 pm #

    It is amazing how the actions of one, can impact the entire community. Being able to acknowledge your mistakes and not only be whiling to try and improve from them, but also help others improve from them is truly amazing. It is one thing to say you will change, but it is another to plan your apologizes, hold discussions and create terms in order to ensure reconciliation. Living in a military culture, all we ever hear about is wars and violence against others, but I think the media should focus more on promoting peaceful actions such as the Fambul Tok that took place in Sierra Leone.

  9. Vasili M December 13, 2015 at 2:27 pm #

    It’s interesting to see how transformative the experience of this event was for so many people. For an individual to change their perception so drastically from militant perpetrator to someone who promotes peace is incredible and testament to our ability to learn and change. It’s also amazing to see how these individuals who had atrocities happen to them have the amazing capacity to forgive. This article is an example of how great our capacity for change is.

  10. Sewsen A. May 6, 2016 at 10:04 pm #

    Such an inspiring article! I believe that one of the best ways for a victim to heal is for their perpetrator to acknowledge their wrongdoings and sincerely apologize. Indeed, to realize that was has been done in the past was wrong, unethical and unjust( especially in the case of the civil war that took place in Sierra Leone), the victim may eventually come to the realization that they did not deserve what happened to them. Hence, the dehumanization they experience may eventually be reversed. As for the former combatants, they have proven that even evildoers can change, if not for themselves, but for the grater good of society. Hopefully, more men and women will continue to work toward reconciliation! Although it may take time, I am positive that it will only lead to a more united and peaceful community! It may be hard to forget the past and forgive the “enemy”, let alone collaborate with them, however, as President Nelson Mandela once said, “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner”.

  11. Leah Mechaly May 7, 2016 at 6:54 pm #

    This article was inspiring for many different reasons. The fact that a woman could forgive the man who raped her is an extremely difficult thing to do, however, it goes to show how forgiving people can be and the possibility of making the world a better place. Another really important point that had a strong impact is the fact that because of the actions of one person, an entire community was affected. It’s nice to see how family-oriented they all are and is even more impressing to see how they can all move forward from the tragic event together.

  12. Sofya Squalli May 10, 2016 at 12:41 pm #

    This article was really interesting and inspiring to read. It is amazing how the actions of one person can impact those of a whole community. Mohammed Savage took a stand and wanted everyone else to follow in his footsteps. Being able to admit and acknowledge the mistakes he made in the past and being able to commit to never turning to violence is a big step in the right direction and I think the Fambul Tok that has taken place in Sierra Leone is a huge exemplary and inspiring event that shows the values of being part of a community and also shows how a community can go from being in a Civil War for 11 years, to being one step closer to peace and forgiveness.

  13. Brendan O'B May 11, 2016 at 11:28 pm #

    This story is absolutely incredible and I applaud Savage and the 60 men for opening up to their communities like this. But I think it begs the question, how can we apply these methods to the western hemisphere and other places around the world? Fambul Tok’s methods appeal directly to Sierra Leone’s culture by creating a community fire place, a known locale, to discuss important issues within the community. As far as I know, us in the west don’t have any equivalent tradition like that. Do we need to find an equivalent? Do we make a campfire just like Fambul Tok? I’m not trying to say the campfires are Fambul Tok’s linchpin, but I do think they play a large role in the process. But if it was able to get 60 ex-combatants to promote peace, then they have done their job effectively.

  14. sara r. May 11, 2016 at 11:54 pm #

    There are many ways countries or communities worldwide attempt to seek justice. I find it quite intriguing how methods of doing so differ depending on beliefs, or cultural values. It seems as though Fambul Tok was truly the most appropriate and beneficial means to reach both the victims and perpetrators, which seems so absurd through Western lenses. How a woman can forgive her rapist uncle, how a man can rekindle his friendship with someone who beat him and murdered his father, is beyond me. Our society socializes us to prefer a retributive justice and wish for our wrongdoers to be punished. However, while being exposed to these other cultures, we see that there actually is a way to address the needs of the victims, acknowledge what happened and even perhaps rehabilitate the perpetrators in order to reintegrate them into society. The fact that so many ex-combatants were eager to come to terms with the past while recognizing what they did was wrong, and were actually willing to rebuild a more peaceful community free of violence, is so impressive, and seems so unfeasible when looking at the Western world. Their community and peace-orientation are what drove Fambul Tok in the first place, and this helped Sierra Leone’s inhabitants to remember, move on, and prosper. It shows that restorative justice (reconciliation) is perhaps a much better justice system than the retributive one, and I believe we, on the other side of the world, have major changes to make if we want a justice that is actually just.

  15. Zakary Dorfman May 12, 2016 at 5:32 pm #

    Libby Hoffman experienced something remarkable on May 10, 2012. To be able to sit next to Mohamed Savage at the screen of her film Fambul Tok must have been remarkable as she described. What occurred in Sierra Leone in gaining peace was remarkable. The fact that the victims of such abuse can stand up and forgive their perpetrator is amazing. This would not have been possible had their not been a sense of community in Sierra Leone. This is something that is quite prominent in this country. I highly doubt that if this were to occur in Canada or any western country there would forgiveness. It would simply turn into a blood bath. However it is inspiring and amazing to be able to see that the victims of Sierra Leone can come together and forgive the perpetrator who was responsible for the crime they committed towards them.

  16. Tony To May 15, 2016 at 5:36 pm #

    It is always amazing to see an individual inspire many. Although Mohammed Savage committed terrible acts, he acknowledges his faults and had the courage to ask for forgiveness. Rather than running away, he committed himself to a life of peace, and many ex-combatants followed his lead. It is wonderful to see how conflict can be resolved, when everyone is willing to open up and listen to each other. This article, describing Fambul Tok, shows that anyone is capable of peace; however, peace is not something that is created over night. I am sure the Savage had to go through a lot to lead a life of peace after his past.

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