Liberia's two civil wars killed nearly 250,000 people and pitted tribe against tribe, neighbor against neighbor and child soldier against parent. When the war officially ended and dictator Charles Taylor fled the country, Liberians began a long and painful process of reconciliation.
Agnes Fallah Kamara-Umunna found a way to help: She hosted a radio program in the capital, Monrovia, to promote reconciliation. On-air, former child soldiers apologized, women who were raped forgave their tormentors, and former warlords admitted crimes. She shares many of their stories, and her own, in her memoir, And Still Peace Did Not Come.
The stories of former child soldiers are especially poignant. Kamara-Umunna tells NPR's Neal Conan, that as a young woman, she witnessed the atrocities wrought by child soldiers firsthand. She followed her father, a doctor, to Tubmanburg Junction, north of Monrovia. Child soldiers huddled there with civilians displaced by the fighting.
A pregnant woman ran up to the Jeep Kamara-Umunna was sitting in, and died as she gave birth in the mud. And all around her, boys — the child soldiers, young and teenage — loomed.
Years later, Kamara-Umunna met one of the boys who was at Tubmanburg Junction, named Fofee Fofana. He told her he turned away from the dying woman to give her privacy. "But Foffee," she said, "Boys like you are the ones who made her suffer." She says he doesn't have a good reason for why he turned his face from that situation, when he could stand there and kill people, or witness killings.
Fofana appeared on Kamara-Umunna's radio show to discuss what it was like to be a child solider — and a perpetrator of violence. She tried to understand what that scene meant to him as a fighter, and to her as a witness. "I tried to see what it means to him, when it comes to trauma and how he can reconcile his actions on that day."
It's a challenging process, she admits, but on her radio show she continually tried to see reconciliation from both the sides, that of the perpetrator and that of the victim.
Another former child soldier, George, admitted to her that he'd done terrible things, but that he wanted to turn his life around, go to school and become a carpenter. But at the school, he discovered one of the women he'd injured as a young man was a teacher.
hide captionAgnes Fallah Kamara-Umunna lives in New York City, where she records the stories of Liberians living in the U.S.
Alusine Reginald Turay
Agnes Fallah Kamara-Umunna lives in New York City, where she records the stories of Liberians living in the U.S.
Alusine Reginald Turay
"It's so hard for you to go back after the war, and you as a victim to see your perpetrator and say, 'Can I allow this person to be in my school? Or can I ... sit down and talk to this person?' ... It's a difficult spot." So on her show, she sometimes tries to ask the perpetrator how he'd feel if the situation were reversed, or if the same atrocities had been committed against his sister or mother. "Sometimes," she says, "they bust out crying."
"Reconciliation is a huge word — people use it around the world, but everybody have a different meaning to it," she says. But to Kamara-Umunna, there's no one definition, or one way to bring it about. "We have to sit down and think about it within ourselves: What does it mean to me? And what does it mean to you?"
Child soldiers were often abducted, as young as two-years-old, and drugged. "You have to make people understand these boys are victims, and they became perpetrators," she says. "Are we just going to abandon them?" She brings everyone to the radio, she says, "to talk about these issues."
Excerpt: 'And Still Peace Did Not Come'
by Agnes Fallah Kamara-Umunna and Emily Holland
And Still Peace Did Not Come: A Memoir Of Reconciliation By Agnes Fallah Kamara-Umunna and Emily Holland Hardcover, 320 pages Hyperion List price: $22.99
My family is Gio. We lived in Monrovia when the soldiers started hunting people from our tribe. I was two years old and lived with my auntie. When the soldiers came, my parents ran to the church and we were going to run with them, but my auntie said we should wait. While we were waiting, we heard on the news that they were carrying on a massacre at the church. Everyone was being slaughtered. My mother, my father, my little sister! When this happened, my auntie screamed, "I am a Gio woman! See what they did to your mother, your father, and your little sister? If the people come and find out we are Gio, they will kill us, too!"
We could not stay there any longer. We ran to Nimba, which is where the revolution started and where my family comes from. My auntie thought we would be safe there. But she was an old woman, and when we got to Nimba she could not take the gunshots anymore. As soon as we got to our village, she died.
I remember crying, crying, my auntie dead and wondering who would take care of a little boy like me? People were running into the forest, so I followed them. I didn't know nobody, nobody know me. Suddenly, one of Charles Taylor's leaders jerked his thumb in my direction. He said I should follow him. He said he loved me because I was a bright child and had high-headed ways. He would promote me to the Small Boys Unit, which is what they called "The Marines" back then. And you know, as a child, you don't have any sense, so I ran with that group until I was four or five years old.
At seven years, he gave me gun. I didn't even know about guns, but he taught me to shoot and I did some things I still regret. Once, I was standing there and my commander and one of his deputies starting arguing. They made a bet about a pregnant woman — and if anybody is related to that woman, please forgive me. The rebel leader said the woman had a boy child in her stomach. His deputy said she had a girl child. They bet two hundred U.S. dollars.
Then my commander called me over. He said, "Jefferson!" I said, "Sir chief?" He say, "Open that woman! I want to see which child is in her stomach!" She was screaming. Crying "Lord, Lord, Lord." But because we were all on drugs, we didn't do things normally. I opened that woman raw to see what sex she was having. And the child was a male child, so my commander was happy. He got two hundred dollars U.S. for his trouble. And the woman died. And her baby died. And after I cleaned up the operation my commander said, "You are good to go."
People thought it was Judgment Day. The end of the world. Suddenly everything we heard would happen if we didn't live more righteously — Turn to God! Before it's too late! — was raining down on our tiny African nation. Brother killed brother. Sons were forced to rape their mothers. Fathers were forced to sleep with their daughters just to save their lives. Children were sacrificed. Those who weren't sacrificed or kidnapped stayed close to their parents. It was too dangerous for them to play outdoors. The beaches, the jungle, even the schoolyards, were full of bullets. For fourteen years, it was like the last day on earth.
Why God had chosen to start with Liberia was a mystery. So far as we knew we had done little and mattered less in the world's eyes. We had waged no wars, built no nuclear weapons. The average Liberian's salary would make you shake your heads in piteous disbelief. Still, we looked for answers: Would this be happening if I had worked harder? Been kinder to my loved ones? It took a long time for us to understand that the darkness swallowing our country had been building for a long time. We were demanding answers for actions that went back decades and, in some cases, centuries.
If you do not know Liberia, you are not alone. Most people can't point to it on a map or know about the nightmare that for fourteen years tore our country apart. The few who do often lump it together with Africa's other fifty-two countries and island nations and dismiss us. In telling you this story, I hope to change that perception, but not for the reasons you might think. What's done can never be undone. We are responsible for our sorrow, and it is up to us, the Liberian people, to look back, look past, and move on. No one can do that for us. Still, everyone knows history's talent for repeating itself. I am an optimist, but we live in a world where terrible things can and do recur. While I hope with all my heart that what happened to us never happens to you, we can learn from Liberia's tragedy. If we don't, someday our grief could be yours.
Excerpted from And Still Peace Did Not Come by Agnes Fallah Kamara-Umunna and Emily Holland. Copyright 2011 Agnes Fallah Kamara-Umunna and Emily Holland. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of Hyperion.