Recent news coverage of Fambul Tok

The Christian Science Monitor recently ran a 3-part series on Fambul Tok. Here are links to the articles, as well as copies of the text. Enjoy!

link to article at The Christian Science Monitor


Sierra Leone’s ‘family talk’ heals scars of war

Inspired by childhood memories of community rituals, human rights activist John Caulker treks across Sierra Leone to reconcile war crime perpetrators and their victims.

John Caulker might know the rough, red-rock roads of rural Sierra Leone better than he knows the hallways of his own office in Freetown, the seaside capital.

There, streets are crowded equally by people and piles of trash – a sign, in its own unintentional way, of abundance. Kids hawk candies, shammies, pirated DVDs, and cellphone chargers. They tease you, in the heat, with cold Cokes and baggies of drinking water tied tight at the top. An hour in traffic – a rather common way to pass an hour in Freetown – and you can do a day’s shopping from your car window.

Here, to the east, in the villages where Mr. Caulker has done human rights work for 10 years, neither goods nor income are disposable. Every kid’s belly seems to sag for lack of food. All that can be found for sale are staples – cassava, mangos, rice. Then there are the signs of the brutal, decade-long civil war: Abandoned houses, some clearly shelled, stand apathetically along the road. In one village, a rusting tank, its cannons sometimes used as makeshift laundry lines, sits at a crossroad, inscribed hopefully, “For Sale!”

The farther Caulker goes on his cross-country trips, the farther away Freetown seems – geographically, existentially. In countries recovering from war, capitals have the edge. They’re the places where political power is reestablished, aid projects are launched, and donor money flows. It’s in the capitals that the “postwar reconstruction” agenda, engineered in good part abroad, begins.

“It’s like they have this postconflict checklist: Truth commission, tick. Military assistance, tick. Trials, tick. Next. Go on to the next country,” Caulker says. “But the people have answers. They have their cultural values.”

Caulker wants to put those values on that checklist. For months, he has been traveling from village to village, reviving fambul tok – family talk in Krio (an English creole). It’s a tradition with a long history – before the war; before, even, the white man – and a range of meanings. Villagers sat around nightly bonfires, telling jokes and recounting the day’s events. Sometimes, fambul tok resolved disputes, adjudicating everything from petty theft to matrimonial discord. The practice made villagers more than neighbors; it united them as a fambul.

Caulker thinks these old ways may be Sierra Leone’s best method for dealing with its newest problem: reconciling rural communities after a war felt most brutally in these villages he says fell through the gaps of the postwar checklist. Here, former soldiers live again alongside the women they raped or whose husbands they killed, or the men whose hands they cut off. They didn’t apologize; didn’t acknowledge the past. They just, Caulker says, moved back in.

Reuniting the fambul is more than theory for Caulker. Before the war, he lived with his mother, Annie Rosaline Caulker, in Songo, outside of Freetown. At first, his village was sheltered from the brutality of a war that started, in the east, as somebody else’s fight. The Revolutionary United Front (RUF), notorious for looting Liberia’s diamond riches and terrorizing its people, brought its battle across the border in 1991, in search of neighboring Sierra Leone’s mineral wealth. The instability eventually led to a coup d’état and the splintering of fighting forces, who competed for political power and control of the country’s diamond mines. As the war dragged on, the list of military groups – and war atrocities – grew.

In 1995, the rebels reached Songo and forced Caulker’s family to flee to his aunts’ home in Freetown, which had been sheltered enough, on Africa’s western coast, that the atrocities seemed mere rumor.

“Freetonians thought that people who lived in the village who want[ed] to migrate to the city … fabricated these stories that there are rebels,” Caulker says. “They’d say, ‘Who are the rebels? You?’ … I remember my mother getting thrown out of her family house at 2 a.m. because her sisters didn’t think rebels existed.”

Caulker, his mother, and four children she’d taken in lodged in a basement down the street. But the slight – a personal cruelty and a cultural aberration – was too much. “She educated these people; she used her resources to bring them up. My mother was the eldest. And now her younger sisters and brothers did not come to her aid,” Caulker says. “I realized she will die in Freetown if she stays.”

He took his mother home to Songo, but Caulker himself made the risky journey to Freetown several times a week. He’d decided, in the middle of a war, to start Forum of Conscience, a human rights organization, and the only place to do that was the capital.

In 1997, Caulker became something of a human rights spy. He’d throw on his dirtiest pair of jeans and a long T-shirt and slip between guerrilla groups, pumping proud, often drunk, fighters for details of their war atrocities. Then he’d duck into an abandoned house, test the phone line, and make collect calls to Amnesty International, funneling out details that helped the world sort rumor from truth. The work was dangerous: He lived in RUF-controlled territory and slept in abandoned cars. But he had little trouble getting war criminals to talk.

“The rebels were very boastful,” he remembers. “They said things happily…. ‘I killed three people,’ and another will say, ‘Yeah, I killed five.’ To them it was like a prize.”

Eventually, that violence reached his mother’s village, and Caulker brought her back to Freetown. Her death not long after, Caulker attributes to the war – not to the fighting, per se, but to the situation into which it forced his family. When his aunts bought an expensive casket and held an elegant viewing in the very home his mother had been turned out of, Caulker was furious. “But I was a little boy; I don’t have any voice by then,” he says; he was in his 20s – still too young, in a country with reverence for age, to do more than complain.

His mother’s funeral was held the day Nigerian peacekeepers arrived in Freetown to defend the capital from the RUF. But no one in the church where Caulker’s mother lay in her coffin knew what was happening when gunshots began.

“Everyone ran away from the church. Everyone,” he remembers. “I just sat under the coffin [to] be with her until it died down, and people came in again.” He crouched beneath the coffin for close to an hour; when the fighting broke briefly, they buried her. “Others were not buried…. There were corpses at the mortuary, and it was burnt down. It gave me some solace, that she was buried.”

When the war ended, Caulker tried to cultivate that sense of solace in his country. He became, with others, a tireless advocate for a truth and reconciliation commission, today a common institution for dealing with the legacies of atrocities like those in Sierra Leone. For 10 years, combatants on all sides of the conflict had moved from village to village, raping women, burning houses, even chopping off the limbs of civilians. Caulker traveled the provinces encouraging people to share their experiences with the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). His views weren’t always popular, but he persisted.

“John is not afraid to make himself unpopular with the powerful,” says Jon Lunn, a senior research analyst in the British House of Commons who has worked with Caulker since 1998. “One of the characteristics of him really has been to speak truth to power … to speak independently without fear or favor.”

He’s famous, in fact, for his advocacy on behalf of the war’s amputees. “The war victims, they all know him all over the country,” says Jamesina King, chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone. Caulker has been pressing their case for reparations for nearly 10 years.

Though preaching reconciliation to his countrymen, Caulker still hadn’t made peace with his mother’s sisters. “I’m talking to people about forgiveness, about reconciliation – and I realized I have something to address within my family,” he remembers. “I was so angry; these were people I thought I would never make peace with…. But I just thought, I’m doing it for my mother. The way she brought me up was not to keep things in my heart.”

He met his aunts again at his maternal grandmother’s funeral in 2002, four years after his mother died. “We need to talk,” he told them. He explained what he remembered and how he felt; his aunts argued. He can’t remember the conversation precisely, but what matters, he says, is that they have accepted each other and the pain between them. “It will take time for us to really get to where we were before my mother died. It is a process,” Caulker says. “You accept, and you continually accept, even when you think it’s finished.”

This, then, is how Caulker thinks national reconciliation – as a personal, one-on-one encounter he thinks Sierra Leoneans have never had – might finally begin. One gesture of acknowledgment at a time, relationships can be repaired. Unheard stories of suffering, and unvoiced pleas for forgiveness, can be shared. And in the morning, perhaps villagers, too, can leave the memory of a brutal war behind. Perhaps, he thinks, communities can be turned into fambuls again.

So, one village at a time, that’s what Caulker set out to do.

• Tomorrow: John Caulker coaxes war crimes perpetrators out of the bonfire’s shadows.


Sierra Leoneans look for peace through full truth about war crime

Human rights activist John Caulker looks beyond the high-profile and costly prosecutions to village-level reconciliation.

from the July 8, 2008 edition

Little but its history distinguishes Bomaru from other villages scattered across Sierra Leone’s countryside. A quiet place with mud houses the same color as the dust kicked up by the occasional passing vehicle, it would seem, on an ordinary day, impoverished and washed out.

But today, women dress in freshly laundered wrappers ablaze in color; men wear regal Muslim gowns or their best T-shirts. An anonymous few sweat beneath layers of straw and fabric, in costumes like something from Sesame Street: They are – or are dressed as, depending upon your belief system – the village’s local devils, whose appearance signals celebration; their rapid footwork leads a dancing procession to the village center.

Nearly 800 people from Bomaru and nearby villages have gathered for Fambul Tok, a grass-roots reconciliation initiative John Caulker wants to bring to every Sierra Leonean village. The phrase is Krio (English-based creole) ­for “family talk,” the old way of resolving disputes through conversations around bonfires.

Mr. Caulker, whose human rights organization, Forum of Conscience, developed Fambul Tok over the past three years in villages across Sierra Leone, wants the bonfire to be a space for confession and forgiveness for war crimes. Bomaru is the first test of whether the idea works –­ or whether anyone even cares.

Dozens of people have come to Bomaru 17 years to the day after the war began here in March 1991. They’re here to recount crimes they committed after their abductions and forced conscriptions in the 1990s into the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), a rebel group from neighboring Liberia infamous for chopping limbs off civilians. But by the time the bonfire is lit and the crowd settles in for storytelling, they’ve changed their minds.

Maybe it’s coming face to face with the moment, maybe it’s the half-dozen white people here to document it, but something has spooked the former war criminals.

“They are afraid that if they talk, they will be prosecuted,” Caulker explains.

It’s a legal impossibility; Sierra Leone negotiated its peace in part by offering fighters blanket amnesty. But here, legal promises can feel like borders – slippery when interests shift.

Caulker sends a film crew, print reporter, and intern – all white – away from the assembly briefly. He talks with the town chief and convinces them to proceed; the chief, a former RUF rebel, promises to offer the first testimony.

And so, the perpetrators talk one after another, until 2 in the morning. Mostly men speak, confessing atrocities they committed as unwilling soldiers forced to choose: kill, maim, rape, or be killed.

If any of the victims in these stories are present, they don’t speak. Which is not what Caulker, whose career in human rights began with dangerous undercover research for Amnesty International during the war, had imagined. He’d thought he’d see perpetrators apologizing to victims, and victims reaching out in forgiving embrace.

“I don’t want to make the mistake that this is reconciliation,” he says. “This is not reconciliation. This is the beginning of the process.”

These days, reconciliation is not revolutionary territory. It’s on what Caulker calls the West’s “post-conflict checklist,” which promotes reconciliation through institutions like truth and reconciliation commissions (TRCs). More than 40 countries around the world have turned to TRCs for what, in other circumstances, might be the work of courts or civil society groups: exposing crimes, on the one hand, and promoting social cohesion on the other.

Until South Africa pioneered TRCs in 1995, the past was made public in courts, by definition sites of retributive justice that, experts say, can be at odds with community healing.

“Very often the adversarial process [of criminal justice] has … effects that can interfere with or delay social reconstruction,” says Martha Minow, a professor of law at Harvard University and author of “Between Vengeance and Forgiveness: Facing History After Genocide and Mass Violence.”

Prosecution pursues questions of guilt, and in the process focuses on the rights of defendants, potentially leaving victims of mass violence feeling neglected. “It also invites the defendants to defend themselves, rather than build bridges” with those they offended, she says.

Perhaps the most difficult problem is the most obvious: Like the former rebels in Bomaru, war criminals fearing prosecution don’t want to tell the whole story – which is what many victims say they want most.

Truth commissions are a kind of compromise. They often offer amnesty in exchange for testimony, theorizing that knowing the truth about the past is more important for individuals and societies than convicting criminals of what can be proved in court. Sierra Leone didn’t have that choice: Its judicial system, in shambles before the war, didn’t exist after.

“Most of the justice system was destroyed by the civil war, and to ask for justice was very, very difficult for our people,” says Hassan Seika, who leads the Bo Peace and Reconciliation Movement in central Sierra Leone.

Then there’s the peace agreement, which promised combatants amnesty, taking a trial off the table and with it the possibility of the courtroom as a space for truth-telling. That decision would eventually be partially reversed, and the country would set up a United Nations-backed Special Court with a $100 million budget to try the nine leaders “bearing the greatest responsibility” for atrocities.

Meanwhile, Sierra Leone set up a truth commission, which Caulker calls “my baby.” He led a campaign to establish the commission, then lobbied the Freetown-based institution to spend real time in rural communities, where the brunt of the war was felt. Caulker thinks it failed, and even its architects acknowledge that the TRC’s consultations didn’t live up to the hopes it raised.

“They were not as rooted in the communities as people had envisioned initially,” says Priscilla Hayner, an expert with the International Center for Transitional Justice and a consultant to Sierra Leone’s TRC. “People think of a truth and reconciliation commission as the body leading to reconciliation, which maybe sets them up for disappointment in the short term because it’s a much longer-term process.”

Caulker wants to be part of that longer-term process, making it something he feels is more authentic than the Western institutions of justice brought to his capital. In the past year, he has used a bare-bones budget from the US-based foundation Catalyst for Peace to crisscross the rutted roads of rural Sierra Leone, inviting villagers to try reconciliation their way, with fambul tok, asking for and receiving forgiveness around bonfires and offering atonement to the spirits of the ancestors. It’s frugal – each ceremony costs about $300. Though it sounds simple, perhaps even silly, like catching a runaway jet with a rubber band, ­village after village – 35 so far and 10 scheduled – embraced the opportunity.

In communities where perpetrators were frequently victims themselves, kidnapped as youth and often drugged before being asked – ­or forced depending on your perspective – to commit heinous acts, residents say they want absolution.

“People will not forgive if someone does not come forward to them in person to acknowledge what they did…. Someone has to acknowledge that this person was hurt,” Caulker says. “That restores dignity to the victims.”

The rationale of truth commissions can come close to rhapsody: “A people is rising,” the El Salvador commission proclaimed, “from the ashes of a war in which all were unjust.” This is not the language the villagers who welcome Caulker would use. They speak of their desire to apologize, to forgive, to heal; yet these noble gestures aren’t so unlike more ordinary human impulses. They are still, at some level, about what people need.

In the impoverished villages of Sierra Leone, people most often say they forgive to bring peace ­not just for peace’s sake, but because, they echo each other in saying, “Without peace, there is no development.”

They forgive because tradition tells them it will improve harvests, and they will not go hungry. They forgive, in large part, because their bellies and their wallets are empty, and the old ways tell them that forgiveness can make them full again.

And so, to villages where every home had been burned down, where widowed women live with the memory and stigma of rape, men hoe fields with only one hand, and young people try to erase their childhoods as kidnapped soldiers, John Caulker goes to start reconciliation the old way, with some matches for a fire and a chicken for the spirits of the dead.

• Tomorrow: A farmer faces the rebel who amputated his arm.


A former rebel faces the Sierra Leonean farmer he maimed

Forgiveness is more than a generous heart, it’s a practical matter in hardscrabble village life.

Before the war, when his village and his family and his body were whole, Temba Kekura was a farmer. He had few things, simple things, the things he needed – land, crops, family, and two strong arms. Then he became part of a story that repeats, village after Sierra Leonean village.

The rebels came. They looted, burned houses, raped. They killed Mr. Kekura’s mother, and when he refused to join the force, one of them cut off his right arm.

So now, he calls himself a gardener. He tends peppers and okra with a hoe. Proper crops – cassava, sweet potatoes, and rice – he leaves to men with two arms, or to their war widows.

Most days, his arm, that arm, hurts. “Whenever I feel pain, I just think bad things,” he says about his life, about himself, but mostly about the man who left him this way. “My heart spoils.”

So he has never talked about what happened; but his body tells a story everyone knows on sight. That story starts with Fallah Sakila.

Mr. Sakila is from a village just over the Liberian border, about a mile away. He was 20 when the Liberian rebel army, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), kidnapped him and forced him to become a soldier. When the war in Liberia spilled into Sierra Leone, his unit tried to abduct Kekura, who resisted. Sakila was told to cut off Kekura’s arm as punishment.

“The commander told me, ‘Even you, you joined us by force. If you fail to take this order, we’ll kill you right here,’ ” Sakila remembers. “So I said, ‘My dear friend, forgive me.’ And I took the hand, laid it on a stick, and I cut it off.”

If Kekura remembers the “dear friend” part, he doesn’t tell. What he will tell, for the first time, is the story that unites him with Sakila. Sakila has come to apologize, and Kekura says he will forgive. “When somebody kills your relatives and apologizes to you, [and] you forgive a person, there will be peace,” Kekura says. “So I accept to forgive this man.”

The bitter irony of war here is that, years after it ended, perpetrators and victims still need each other. Here, in this small village and across the Sierra Leonean countryside, forgiveness requires public space for ritual and acknowledgment. “You cannot,” says a woman raped and beaten in the bush here, “forgive someone you do not see.”

Making that space is the job of John Caulker, founder of Fambul Tok. The Krio (Sierra Leonean creole) phrase means “family talk,” but it’s bigger than its translation implies: It’s the old way of resolving disputes, creating community, and reestablishing peace.

The world has ways for dealing with legacies of war in postconflict countries: truth commissions and tribunals, demobilization programs and training workshops, and aid. There is a complex infrastructure for trying to make peace permanent.

But the people here say they just want a chicken. They need a sacrifice for the ancestors, as penance for the violence wrought on their lands. Then, they say, the harvests will improve. Whatever else reconciliation brings – the kind of closure Sierra Leoneans talk about as a “cool heart” – villagers here are looking for things more urgent: food for their families and the chance to make a living again.

But first, the ancestors must be appeased. So tonight, John Caulker has come with a chicken.

From his rural childhood, Caulker remembers nightly gatherings around a bonfire to gossip, joke, and recount the past. He remembers visits to sacred sites where the spirits of the ancestors lived. Caulker has taken this promise of a useful past to dozens of villages. He comes with Fambul Tok.

In Gpaingbankordu, it starts and ends with dancing. Women shake hips wrapped in bright African fabrics; men pound the dirt with their feet, dusting up their shoes. Three musicians bang dumda bendaa, long drums. The dance traditionally marks the death of a chief or the return of a war hero. Between songs, they gather around a bonfire and tell, often for the first time, what happened to them during the war:

They took my baby from my back and put him in the river.

I met [the rebels], and they did what they wanted to do.

He hit me with a gun on my ear, and I am still feeling the pain; even today, I cannot [carry] water on my head.

The men who committed these crimes wedge through the crowd, stand before their victims and, atoning, touch the ground with one hand. They, too, tell their stories:

The commander told me, “Take the child.” I could’ve been killed. So I took the child. It’s not my fault.

They told me, “If you refuse then we will kill you right here.” So then I must cut you, even though you are my friend.

We were given matches to burn down the houses. That was my job anywhere we go.

One by one, victims are heard and perpetrators forgiven, so that they might dance and make peace with the ancestors. Then, they say, the harvest will be good for the first time since the war. ­ And then, they think about moving forward.

“If you are hungry,” says Sia Falloh, the woman who can’t carry water on her head, “you will not forget.”

The next morning, a spiritual leader, wearing a dangling headband of animal fur, cleanses every corner of the village, dipping fistfuls of leaves into a bucket of water and sprinkling doors, footpaths, faces. Men walk single file through the jungle, to a stone, covered and secret, where the ancestors reside. There, they slaughter a chicken, intone prayers, plead for bountiful harvests.

Tradition says this will return peace to the village and fertility to the land; that, now, everything will be fine. Provided that tradition, too, was not a casualty of war.

“The war drove us [from the village],” says John Tombatemba, “and our ancestors, too. So we don’t know whether they are here…. Even if they come back, they are strangers. Like us.”

• • •

Caulker has initiated 35 ceremonies in as many villages over, roughly, four months; his program expands in the fall, and he expects to reach 800 villages by the end of the year. The rituals are as varied as the number of ceremonies, he says, ­ though the intended outcome, of course, is universal.

He’s not the only person to see a need for grass-roots reconciliation in Sierra Leone and his approach is not without limitations.

“We have to be careful about putting African traditions up on a pedestal, because they’re also a construct,” says Andy Carl, executive director of Conciliation Services, which supports local peace-building initiatives. “They’re being reinvented all the time, and part of the war in Sierra Leone was about the failure of traditional institutions.”

But Caulker and others still have faith in the old ways. “Through our tradition, if you own up to what you did … and you ask for forgiveness, it’s almost a guarantee that the person will forgive you,” Caulker says.

Villagers pledge precisely that, but even after the owning up and the accepting, some things don’t change. After the fambul tok, Kekura and Sakila sit next to – but not near – each other on a wooden bench. “I am sitting as God made me,” Sakila says, “but this man has a problem.”

Kekura has been ready to forgive, but at the ceremony, he made Sakila beg – three times. He finally forgave – not because his heart is big or his spirit generous, but because it is the only kind of power he still has. “There is nothing I can do,” he says. “Only to have peace.”

In the course of an hour-long interview, neither man looks at the other. Three people could sit in the space between them. But Sakila offers Kekura help in his garden, and Kekura says Sakila is free to visit the village.

Perhaps, then, what has happened here isn’t really about something as high-minded as forgiveness or reconciliation. Perhaps, rather, it is about ritual – the simple finality of an act still considered sacred enough to wash away what’s gone wrong in the world.

Perhaps this is what Kekura means when he says, “It has happened,” he says. “It is finished in my heart.”