Not talking about atrocities

By Aaron Kaye, Kiva Fellow, Sierra Leone

I’ve been living in Sierra Leone for the past couple months and have never in my conversations with Sierra Leoneans broached the subject of the fighting and civilian atrocities that shook the country during the late 90s.  I discussed the topic only when friends or colleagues here brought it up.  Was this the right approach, or should I have discussed the topic, heeding US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’ advice that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants”?

The people of Sierra Leone suffered terrifying and unconscionable acts of violence at the hands of rebel fighters.  This included amputations, mutilation, rape, and forced conscription of youngsters, among other horrors.  The country today is recovering from the violence that ended less than a decade ago.  Fighters have been reincorporated into society and massive disarmament operations have occurred.

In coming to work here, I considered the complex question of how to address the very recent conflict that has affected so many lives here.  By all accounts everyone here knows someone who was touched in some way by the violence.  And when walking the streets of Freetown, the capital, I often wonder whether the men my age I pass on the street were once rebel fighters or soldiers-turned-rebels (referred to as sobels).

The national stadium and the center of Freetown from the hills above town.

I firmly believe that addressing the past is a necessary way to enable healing, to address today’s issues, and to explore any lingering factors that could lead to a return to violence.  Yet I feel it’s not my place to start this discussion.  Many of the people I meet have likely already told their stories to NGOs.  And I am not trained to counsel those affected nor would I be recording anything for posterity.  I am here to help make small loans, not to act as mediator.  But is this a poor excuse for remaining silent?  Am I somehow being complicit by not talking about this?  In instances where the subject did arise in conversation I was more than grateful to hear accounts of how my friends and their families were affected and moved by their stories.  But in my judgement, it would be selfish to go out of my way to ask these questions, essentially indulging my curiosity to hear stories of what transpired.

Is it wrong to take this route?  Am I allowing myself and the Sierra Leoneans I meet to hide from the past by not discussing it?

About the author

Aaron Kaye