Saturday, May 09, 2015

Reminders of War

     From 1991-2002, Sierra Leone was involved in a brutal civil war that was waged partly for control of the diamond mines that are in the eastern part of the country. Sierra Leoneans were used as pawns in the power struggle between the government and rebel forces and were forced to work in the diamond mines. The diamonds were then sold and the money was used to purchase weapons and finance the civil war. None of the workers ever reaped the benefits of finding a diamond themselves and many of them were killed or expelled from their homes in the process. As a result, diamonds from Sierra Leone became known as blood diamonds. As a nation, we don’t learn very much about Africa in school. When I read “King Leopold’s Ghost” last summer I thought it was fiction for quite some time, although the “Belgians in the Congo” line from “We Didn’t Start the Fire” probably should have clued me in to the fact that something terrible happened when the Belgians were in the Congo. The point is, only a very limited portion of African history is taught to us. We start with the Egyptians (because I don’t buy the nonsense that Egypt is part of the Middle East and not Africa…it’s on the African continent! It’s in Africa!) and end with Apartheid and get pretty much nothing in between. Actually, I’m not even sure I ever discussed Apartheid in school. I think my knowledge of Apartheid came mostly from that Disney Channel Original Movie "The Color of Friendship" which pretty much no kid (other than Nick because he's quite the oddball) liked...give me Brink or Zenon any day. So it's probably not too surprising that I had never heard about this war in Sierra Leone until it was immortalized in the movie “Blood Diamond” which, as I’m sure you know, features the somehow still Oscar-less Leonardo DiCaprio. I recently watched Blood Diamond again and it was a very strange experience. Oddly enough, the journalist in the movie mentions how she’d been in Sierra Leone for three months which is how long I’ve been here now as well. It was funny to hear the common Krio greeting “How di bodi?” and “Di bodi fine” as dialogue. It was odd to hear them talk about Port Loko and Waterloo which are places I go to or pass through quite often. It was a little too real to watch it while sitting in my room in the Sierra Leonean capital and to think that 15-20 years ago some of my national colleagues who are my age could have been child soldiers. I was ten years old in the waning years of the conflict and certainly wasn’t thinking about war, blood diamonds or kids my own age who were being brainwashed and ordered to kill innocent people at the command of the adults who should have been protecting them.
     Over the course of my first week or so in Sierra Leone, as I started to take in my surroundings, I began to notice something peculiar. I saw a lot of people without hands on the streets of Freetown. I’m not the most observant when it comes to physical appearances (there have been multiple instances of unnoticed haircuts in my life) and at first I didn’t think much of it. But pretty soon it started to dawn on me that I had seen quite a lot of people who were missing limbs, particularly hands. And then it hit me. These people couldn't ALL have been born like that or had some wound that required amputation. And I knew that they had most likely had their hands chopped off during the civil war. It was a shocking realization. This isn’t a movie. This is real life. There are people all around me who have witnessed such horrific things. Things that we can’t even begin to imagine or understand. There are people who have systematically had their hands cut off by their fellow countrymen. According to the movie, the rationale behind this cruel act perpetrated during the war was that because the government wanted the people to vote, the rebels would chop off peoples’ hands so that they couldn’t vote. In real life, I honestly don't know the exact motivations behind this act (and my internet is not working well enough for me to feel like looking it up), but what I do know is that there are no real provisions for people with disabilities here and all of the people that I have seen without hands have been begging on the street. Despite this fact, it’s actually incredible to see how far Sierra Leone has come in the past 15 years. I wish I had been able to visit here before Ebola because the country had really started to see economic growth. The people have learned from the war and it's something nobody ever wants to experience again. Pre-Ebola, Sierra Leone's future looked bright. Now the situation is grim. Poverty has dramatically increased. Ebola survivors face stigma and persecution. In a lot of places in the world, religion is the great divider. In a country in which a Muslims and Christians coexist so peacefully, it’s sad to see the people be separated and torn apart by the after effects of Ebola, something over which they have no control. The war they are fighting now isn’t one that can be won with guns or machetes. Fighting a disease is much different than fighting a person. But if Sierra Leoneans can come together, I know we can beat Ebola. It will happen eventually and when it does, it will be wonderful.

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