The Kony 2012 blitz followed by Charles Taylor’s recent war crimes conviction in the Hague brought me back to time spent in Sierra Leone. Not to build my own dated tale of warlords and child soldiers, but these news items reminded me of the importance of responsible reporting on Africa and one remarkable story of the continent’s audacity in moving forward.
I’ve spent a lot of time in Sierra Leone, first on assignment with the local Red Cross during the war, then returning several times to report on the country’s post-war progress. Regarding the war, there’s plenty I could dig up about bad things seen, including stories of children with guns or Nigerian fighter jets buzzing over Freetown on bombing runs to kill Charles Taylor. I won’t, however, because similar to the flaws with the Kony 2012 campaign, it would create a negative distortion of modern-day Sierra Leone. Facts are important and those skewing them to fit sensationalized narratives of Africa will face greater scrutiny from leaders on the continent and in the diaspora.
In the case of Sierra Leone, media and NGO coverage still focuses disproportionately on child soldiers and conflict, and less on the country’s progress, when the war’s been over for more than a decade. The main instigator, Foday Sankoh, died in prison and Charles Taylor is behind bars. If the people of Sierra Leone—those who actually lived through war—want to look ahead then so should everyone else. And on moving beyond, I discovered a remarkable story of African hope, ingenuity, and community uniting to transcend war in Sierra Leone.
Between 1991 and 2002 an estimated 17 thousand children fought in Sierra Leone’s civil war, while thousands of others were abducted as forced laborers and sex slaves. At war’s end, many of these children had no parents or were banished from their communities because of the stigma of having been with the rebels. The U.N. offered a short program aimed at rehabilitating these youths and reconnecting them to communities. Most local sources I spoke to characterized it as ineffective. The Sierra Leone Red Cross Society decided it had to act and developed its own Child Advocacy and Rehabilitation (CAR) program with support of the British Red Cross.
CAR incorporated local mediums and community leaders to provide a comprehensive regimen of counseling, therapy, mentoring, reintegration, and training in job related skills to former child combatants, forced laborers, and sex slaves. I visited Sierra Leone’s CAR centers several times, interviewing the architects and meeting with participants. Most CAR members were abducted from the ages of 7-16, drugged, given guns, and forced to witness and participate in horrific acts unimaginable.
I was careful to focus my questions to CAR participants more about what they were doing in the present rather than asking them to dredge up terrible memories of their past. Most of them are now in their teens or early twenties, practicing carpentry and tailoring and making garments and furniture sold at local markets. A number of the program’s original participants have moved on to form their own construction businesses, which are involved with various aspects of building infrastructure in Sierra Leone. The CAR program has been expanded to include nationwide peace building activities and Sierra Leone Red Cross staff have served as consultants on rehabilitating child soldiers in post conflict zones all over Africa.
Sierra Leone’s Child Advocacy and Rehabilitation program, the local Red Cross staff who created it, and its youth participants represent local determination and African community in an ironic twist of humanity. These youngsters who had their childhoods stolen from them and were once forcibly employed in destroying the country are now actively participating in the local economy, conflict prevention, and building the nation.
There are many stories to tell about today’s Africa: stories that don’t skip the gains of the present to distort the ills of the past. Sierra Leone has a democratically elected president and an economy growing at over six percent. With regard to former child soldiers, dynamic locals came up with a community based solution to bring them back into society. The war is over, those who perpetrated it brought to justice, and those forcibly caught up in it at young ages have found hope and a way forward. That’s Sierra Leone in 2012.