NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.
Agnes Kamara-Umunna was just a teenager when civil war erupted in Liberia in 1989. She and her father, a medical doctor, fled to neighboring Sierra Leone, where she found it hard to believe reports of widespread atrocities by child soldiers who'd been abducted and drugged, and that thousands of women - many her own age and younger - were victims of systemic rape.
For 14 years, she moved around West Africa, back to Monrovia, Liberia's capital, to Sierra Leone again, to refugee camps in Nigeria. But she was one of the lucky ones: A quarter of a million people died in the fighting.
The country began a long and painful reconciliation process when rebel-leader-turned-dictator Charles Taylor finally left the country in 2003. Agnes Kamara-Umunna saw a way to help.
She started Straight from the Heart Radio in Monrovia, where she gave former victims, former child soldiers and former warlords all a chance to call in and share their stories and, in many cases, to apologize.
If you've been in a civil war - Liberia, Rwanda, Colombia - what does reconciliation mean to you? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. And you can join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
And joining us now from our bureau in New York is Agnes Fallah Kamara-Umunna. Her new memoir is titled: "And Still Peace Did Not Come."
And it's nice to have you on the program with us today.
Ms. AGNES FALLAH KAMARA-UMUNNA (Author, "And Still Peace Did Not Come"): Thank you very much.
CONAN: I want to begin by asking you about that foolish young girl you describe yourself as being, and an incident where you accompanied your doctor father to a place called Tubmanburg Junction.
Ms. KAMARA-UMUNNA: You know, I - as you said, I was foolish, but it's good sometimes for us to learn in the process of being foolish, you know. And I was so happy that I came back to Liberia for his birthday to follow him to Tubmanburg.
It was a terrible situation that day. I could not - you know, up to this day, I could not understand why I allowed myself to follow my dad. But I always say there is a reason for everything. You know, bad or good, there's a reason. So maybe that was my start for me to see a child soldier. Even though at that time, it was not in my mind to start working with the radio or to talk to victims or perpetrators. But that was a good reason, because when the civil war came, I had to reflect back to that day, when I saw child soldiers at Tubmanburg.
CONAN: And you saw the child soldiers, and you saw the consequences of their action: a young woman in the process of giving birth and in the process of dying.
Ms. KAMARA-UMUNNA: Yeah. And when I started the program, you know, that same thing I saw, a child shouldn't have saw, and that was one of my guests that came on the radio, as a perpetrator. You know, so I tried to understand what it meant to be as an ex-fighter, seeing that scene, and me as just an innocent girl to see that scene.
You know, I tried to see what it means to him, you know, when it comes to trauma and how he can reconcile his action to that day.
CONAN: And it was interesting. He said - you noticed that in the process of this, he had turned away his face as the young woman died.
Ms. KAMARA-UMUNNA: Yeah, he told me - you know, every day, anytime I see him, I ask him: Why did you turn? You know when you don't have a good reason for doing something? He did not have a good reason, if you asked him why he turned.
But just, you know, a child soldier killing people or opening women's stomach. And then a woman giving birth that day. And he had to turn his face away from that situation. I tried to think what was the reason, you know, putting myself in his position and say: Why did you do it? What was the reason for you to turn away when you can stand here and kill people, or you can be there when people are being killed?
CONAN: And the reasons are complicated, and the reasons will probably never be answered straight.
Ms. KAMARA-UMUNNA: Yes. You know, when it comes to reconciliation, nobody gives a good reason. You know, it's a challenging process. So, you know, up to this day, I try to ask myself: What does it mean to a perpetrator when it comes to reconciliation? And what does it mean to a victim when it comes to reconciliation?
CONAN: Your book is interspersed - your story, your memoir is interspersed with the recollections of some child soldiers and some of their victims, too. But there's a young man - I believe his name was George - who said: Yes, I was a child soldier, and yes, I did terrible things. But now I want to get my life straight. I want to be a carpenter. I want to go to school. Yet I applied to the school, and there was one of the women, as a teacher there, one of the women I had injured as a young man.
Ms. KAMARA-UMUNNA: You know, it's so hard for you to go back after the war, and you, as a victim, to see a perpetrator and see: Can I allow this person to be in my school? Or can I allow to sit down and talk to this person that have done this wrong to me?
You know, it's a difficult spot, and I try, on my radio station, to see how victims felt in front of their perpetrators and how perpetrators felt in front of their victims.
And it's difficult for you to put somebody in somebody's situation. But sometimes, I ask the perpetrator: How would you feel if it was you that this thing was happened to? Or how would you feel if it was your mother or your sister that this thing happened to?
It's difficult for them to - sometimes they bust out crying, you know. It's just, as I said, reconciliation is a huge, huge word. You know, people use it around the world, but everybody have a different meaning to it - you know, victims and perpetrators.
But we have to sit down and think about it within ourselves: What does it mean to me? And what does it mean to you? You know, there is no definite standard when it comes to defining reconciliation.
CONAN: And, in a sense, the child soldiers who perpetrated some of the worst atrocities, they were the victims themselves, abducted as young as two years old, brought up in a - well, brainwashing seems too kind a word to use for it, and indeed, drugged.
Ms. KAMARA-UMUNNA: You know, when I started the radio program, people were looking at me that I was encouraging child soldiers to come on my radio program. But I saw myself into their position: What if I was them? What would my father have done? Or how would have my father accepted me to be a child soldier coming back home?
You know, so I tried to make people look at them, that they were victims. And they had to come into this process, to drug and to kill. So how are you going to look at them? You know, which angle are you looking at them?
Let's say this is your child, and you know he or she has committed this crime. Are you going to accept them? How are you going to de-traumatize them? You know, it's a huge thing that people have to really sit down and see: If it happened to me, how am I going to deal with it? Or if it was my son?
So, you know, I try to put myself into their position, or my son, you know. I have a 25-year-old son, and I ask myself: If he was one of them, carried as old as two, and being there for 14 years, what will I do? How am I going to encourage him? How am I going to cope with him?
You know, so you have to make people understand that victims, these boys, they are victims. And they became perpetrators. How are we going to accept them in Liberia? How are we going to accept them in our communities, in our villages? Are we going to just abandon them?
You know, these are the things I brought up on the radio to talk about these issues.
CONAN: We're talking with Agnes Kamara-Umunna. She's the author of a new memoir, "And Still Peace Did Not Come: A Memoir of Reconciliation," as she describes it, describing her own story of 14 years of civil war in Liberia, two different civil wars. The people there called them World War I and World War II, which gives you some idea of the scale.
And now, after the war, she began listening to stories on Monrovian radio and listening to people, former child soldiers, victims, former warlords, telling their stories and often apologizing.
We want to know, if you've been in a civil war, what reconciliation means to you. Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. And let's go to Foyo(ph), who's on the line with us from Columbus in Ohio.
FOYO (Caller): Yeah, my name is Foyo Kamara(ph).
FOYO: I came from Sierra Leone. And for me, reconciliation did not amount to anything. What does it do for the individual that were affected by the war? Because reconciliation is just a word. And I have been in the United States now, and I should say reconciliation helped me, but I'm still having nightmares, and I'm still going through some stuff. And I know the entire community is always going through the same kind of things I'm going through. So...
CONAN: And so, to you, reconciliation is just a word. It does not mean anything.
FOYO: It did not mean anything, because the aftereffects of the war still lingers, and people still suffer back home and here, as well. So...
CONAN: I wonder, Agnes...
Ms. KAMARA-UMUNNA: Well, I think to some people, for Foyo, it's like -to some people, reconciliation is a long process. You know, some people will say atonement, then forgiveness and reconciliation, and then bygones be bygones.
But how many people in our villages in Sierra Leone and in Liberia have really thought about the process of reconciliation? How can you, in America, go back to the villages, in your village, in your counties, in your district, to talk about reconciliation? You know, sit down and talk to the people. What is the process? What do you think we can do about reconciliation?
It's a difficult process, and it's a very long process. We don't need to force people to reconcile with their perpetrators, or perpetrators to reconcile with their victims. But we have to really sit down and talk about it in our communities, to see - is it difficult in our community to see what does it mean? How can we move on, to go into another places, we're reconciling each other?
FOYO: I understand. My point is: My community, we don't even want to talk about what happened during the war. So I'm kind of thinking: How are we going to reconcile with ourselves, our neighbors, if we can't even talk about the war? Because we said, oh, it's a past thing. We can't even talk about it. And that's why...
Ms. KAMARA-UMUNNA: Don't you think if we talk about it, it make a big impact on us? Like, you know, I always go back to my father. I have done so many things bad to my father. But, you know, when I started doing this work, I ask myself: If I'm asking a victim and a perpetrator to sit down and reconcile between themselves, okay, I'm a victim. Or no, I'm offender to my father.
Can I sit down and talk to my father? Let me tell him the truth, what really happened between us, and see. And I did it. And it worked. You know, sometimes, there's a need for us to sit down and tell people that this is what I have done wrong. This is what I have done.
Then you listen to the victim and see how he or she will look at you, you know, especially when you tell the truth. It's a long process, especially when a perpetrator wants to tell a victim, like, I killed your sister. But it heals the wound a little bit.
CONAN: A little bit. It will never heal it all.
Ms. KAMARA-UMUNNA: A little bit.
CONAN: Foyo, thank you very much for your call.
FOYO: All right, thank you guys. I appreciate it.
CONAN: We're talking with Agnes Kamara-Umunna. Her book is titled "And Still Peace Did Not Come." In a moment, we'll talk more about her radio program, which brought together victims of brutal violence and perpetrators. And we'll hear one of the stories that aired.
Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.
Agnes Fallah Kamara-Umunna returned to Liberia, to her home, after the civil wars and launched, helped launch, Straight from the Heart, a radio program that gave Liberians a chance to confront the violence of their past: the child soldiers, the killings, the systemic rape and to apologize and sometimes to forgive.
Among the callers to her program was a survivor named Mary(ph), who remembered when rebels hit the capital, Monrovia, in 1990.
(Soundbite of radio program)
MARY: I was 15 years, and she was, like, 14 years of age. We were left in this house all by ourselves. They did whatever they could do to us. They took away our pride. They took away our womanhood. We were dead.
And then from there...
(Soundbite of crying)
MARY: And then from there, we were asked to come downstairs, and it's this man, I can't call name, but this person - he's here. He's right -he's - in Liberia. He holds a high position, that I see him in papers. I watch him on TV. I hear him talk on radio. How can I forgive and forget that face, that man, for what he did to me?
It's hard. Inasmuch as we all want to reconcile, we want to put the past behind us, he took something away that can never be given back to me.
CONAN: One of the many callers to Agnes Kamara-Umunna's radio program in Liberia. In her new memoir, "And Still Peace Did Not Come," she shares some of the stories she collected over those years.
If you've been in a civil war - Liberia, Rwanda, Colombia - what does reconciliation mean to you? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Let's go next to Samuel, Samuel with us from Oakland.
SAMUEL (Caller): Yeah, thank you, Neal. I love your show.
CONAN: Thank you.
SAMUEL: My name is Samuel Sonda(ph) from Liberia. I was a victim of the war there. And I want to state that we cannot have reconciliation unless there is accountability. The child soldiers that have been spoken about were innocent people that were taken advantage of, and the perpetrators of the war, most of them are still around in a high position today.
And therefore, the issue of reconciliation becomes a facade because those who perpetrated the war are still in power.
CONAN: Agnes Fallah Kamara-Umunna, what do you think?
Ms. KAMARA-UMUNNA: You know, there is a big challenge when it comes to peace and justice, you know? I tried to ask myself so many times: What are the options for fostering peace and justice?
And, you know, if you talk to people from the grassroots, it means, like, you have to make people be punished before you get peace. Then from the higher ranking, you have to - they will tell you differently because they were perpetrators. They were warlords, and they became -they are now in the government, as what he's saying.
But, you see, we have to sit down in our communities to look at the challenges of peace and justice. It does not just come in a short time. It's a long process.
But then how can we look at warlords, just like Prince Johnson then, Roland Duo, "Peanut Butter" then - as representative in the government. And you look at victims now that don't even have anything for them to see I was victimized. What can we sit down - how can we sit down in Liberia and talk about these issues?
We really have to talk about it. We just don't have to say we cannot talk about it because it's a difficult process. Well, we have to sit down and talk about it.
CONAN: Yes, but has anybody been held accountable? Has anybody been thrown in jail for a very long time?
Ms. KAMARA-UMUNNA: Well, the Truth Commission just finished with their reports, and there are so many controversies about their report. And as I said, I don't want to talk about politics right now because if I start talking about - I'm a human rights activist. If I start talking about politics right now, people will not like me. Because if the president of Liberia, Ellen, stood at the launch of the Truth Commission and say: Whoever had committed this crime in Liberia can be punished.
And now the Truth Commission has finished with their report, and nobody have implemented it. How do you think the victims would think about the warlords? So that means they victimize them. They are in the government.
You know, I don't know...
SAMUEL: Neal, if I would interject here: So what she's espousing creates a vicious circle that even as we speak, there is war going on in neighboring Ivory Coast, and it is alleged that perpetrators of the Liberia wars there are part of what is going on now in Ivory Coast.
So when you don't prosecute these people, when you don't take up actions that would serve as a deterrent, then we become victims of these people perpetually. And this is what we are watching in West Africa.
Ms. KAMARA-UMUNNA: Can you go - can we go to Liberia and do a peace march and say all the warlords in government should be removed? Can you follow me to do that? Nobody don't want to do it, nobody in Liberia. As a Liberian, you don't want to do it. But just go and get this victims.
SAMUEL: ...I've been in Liberia twice. My life was threatened, and that's why I left Liberia as a result of war. But the international community, inasmuch as it can intervene in Libya and other places, the onus is on them too to protect the innocent victims in West Africa...
Ms. KAMARA-UMUNNA: How can you do to protect victims - how can you do to protect victims in Liberia? What can you do?
SAMUEL: The criminal court, Mr. Taylor is the only one that has been taken to the criminal court.
Ms. KAMARA-UMUNNA: Well, they did not take Charles Taylor to the court because of Liberian crisis. If we can just do it piecemeal so that it can just implement the Truth Commission report, then we can start from somewhere.
CONAN: All right. We're not going to agree with you, Samuel, and so -but we thank you very much for your call.
SAMUEL: Thank you, Neal. Thank you so much.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in. This is Tiop(ph) - and I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly - calling us from Tucson.
TIOP (Caller): Yes, my name is Tiop Anjoiue(ph), and I'm calling from Tucson. I was born in Southern Sudan, and I was a child soldier at age 10, and I stayed there until I was 16. Now the war in Sudan has stopped, and there is still in place, but there has never been a formal truth and reconciliation commission formed.
Now, when it comes to reconciliation, as a child soldier and all other victims of war in South Sudan, it has come to a personal level. The war in Sudan is pretty much hatred between the North and the South. And to me personally, it has come to a point where I say, where I said: If I keep hating the North as they hate me, we are just - we will be at a standstill. There is no going forward.
And so if they hate me, I would rather not hate them. I would rather forgive everything they have done to me. And at some point, they are going to give up and just leave me alone. And that's where I stand right now.
CONAN: Tiop, tell us a little bit more about your experience, though, as a child. You said you were a child soldier from 10 until 16. Did you join voluntarily? Were you abducted? Were you recruited? How did it happen?
TIOP: I was not abducted. I was not recruited by force. I joined voluntarily. I come from an area that is extreme north of South Sudan, and it's closer to the northern states. And so the fighters from the North, when they come, they hit my village first, and they would kill everybody who can't run, whether you are blind or crippled or whatever.
They even came to a point of putting people in houses and burning them alive. And so when I left, they had killed my father and my four uncles. And so I had to walk - me and like 500 other people had to walk for four months to go to Ethiopia, to go and get AK-47s.
And when I was in Ethiopia, at 10, I said: Well, what else to do? I saw my father killed. I saw many other people in the villages killed. The only thing to do at this point is to get a gun and go fight. And that's what I went for.
CONAN: And do you now regret some of the things that you subsequently did?
TIOP: Well, no, I do not. I do not. Actually, while the Southern army, which was a rebel army, I think, was more humanitarian than the government itself. We captured a lot of Northern fighters, and we kept them alive, and they had access to the Red Cross.
We never tortured - well, maybe we tortured a few here and there, but the Northern government, by the time we made peace, they had zero of our men alive. They did not keep anybody alive at all. But pretty much, the Southern army, it was bad, but we were not killing the people we captured.
TIOP: I have a question for your guest, though.
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
TIOP: Yeah. As - in West Africa, the Sierra Leone and the Liberian war, how do you tell that - who to victimize or who could be your next victim, assuming that everybody speaks the same language or comes from pretty much tribal, tribes that are related?
In the case of Sudan, it was mostly between the Arabs and the Africans. And you know who you are fighting.
Ms. KAMARA-UMUNNA: I think in Liberia, it was - it started with the tribe. You know, the Gio and the Manos in Nimba County, because that's where Charles Taylor came from. Then Doe in the government of the Krahn. So first it started with the tribes, with the Mandingos.
So it started with tribes. Then it went into, like, different reasons why people we e fighting.
But in Liberia, you know up to this day for the Krahn and the Gios and the Manos to reconcile is a very difficulty - and the Mandingos. So you can say the Gio and the Manos and the Mandingos were fighting in between themselves with the Krahn people when it started.
TIOP: Actually, thank you.
CONAN: Thank you for the call, Tiop.
TIOP: Sure. No problem.
CONAN: And let's go next to - this is Harry(ph), Harry with us from Lafayette in California.
HARRY (Caller): Yeah. Hi. This is Harry. I'm a Sri Lankan origin, living in Lafayette, California. I'm a Christian. I attend an Episcopal church here with my wife, and she's from Sri Lanka, too. My comment is more on the scale of Sri Lanka and living in exile. A lot of people - and a lot of them chose to be in America for economic reasons - but there's two tribal groups that fought in Sri Lanka almost from the time of independence in '47. And there was a violent war from 1983, which ended in 2009.
But my comment is, we had in 2010, that is this last Easter, a service at home and our local pastor came and officiated and did a sermon. And there's a ritual in the service where you - every time that you - you just say peace to the next person standing next to you. You go around and do that. And while he was doing the service - this is - we had at home, mostly Sri Lankans and mostly Christian and there was a few other religious people too. And he asked me permission during the service if it is okay to say peace.
HARRY: And then it dawned on me this, none of these people have experienced any direct violence but know of the Sri Lankan history? And they're deeply embittered, you know, embittered by their experience. And wouldn't talk about the issue. Deny a lot of that issue. And the highlight of that was these are Christians, majority, and forgiveness is their main doctrine.
HARRY: And they find it hard to talk to each other. They're all English-speaking. There's not been - when I hear the story of child soldiers and war - and this was blamed even in Sri Lanka of - you know, recruiting child soldiers. I don't think it's easy. It's - to me, it looks almost an impossible task, this - given my background and the story here...
HARRY: ...of Sri Lankan exiles, refugees, transplants, whatever you want to call them, they belong to the two main tribes that fought in Sri Lanka in civil - I mean, unresolved.
CONAN: Harry, thank you very much for your story. It's very interesting.
HARRY: Thank you.
CONAN: Thank you very much. We're talking with Agnes Fallah Kamara-Umunna. She's the author of "And Still Peace Did Not Come." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And it's interesting, does a decision in a civil war - like there was in Sri Lanka, one side won and the other side lost - does that make a difference in reconciliation, do you think?
Ms. KAMARA-UMUNNA: I think there's a big difference when it comes to that in reconciliation, because like the tribes who don't want to reconcile with each other. Before, they were living peacefully. But now - you know, everybody just - you know, that ego inside them, nobody want to reconcile. And, you know, there must be a victim-offender reconciliation in any situation when there is a war. You know, transitional justice approaches, we really have to face it, you know, to see - because it's Liberians. It's not like Americans went to Liberia to fight the war. When after the war, the Americans would come back to America. But this is a Liberian situation wherein everybody is from the same county or the same neighbor as a county so...
CONAN: And am I right to think that if every one who committed an atrocity was put in jail for it, it would be an enormous percentage of the population?
Ms. KAMARA-UMUNNA: That's what I'm saying. Because in the Liberian war, everybody, one way or the other, is related to somebody either by intermarriages or relatives - somewhere, somehow, we are related somehow. But then, if you say because my father killed you, we are going to kill my father - my father have relatives and they want to revenge too. So if you revenge on my father, my father, too, have people that want to revenge. So we keep on revenging each other.
Are we going to say everybody that committed the crime in Liberia are going to be put into jail, how are we going to get peace in Liberia if we are going to do that? Because everybody - we say, okay. So if you put my father in jail, I'm going to bring another situation wherein your brother can go into jail, you know?
CONAN: Let me take you back to where we began, to Tubmanburg Junction and the boy you met that day, Fofi(ph) is his name. Where is he today?
Ms. KAMARA-UMUNNA: Fofi is in the police. He left the police when the U.N. came. They were trying to identify those that went, that are in the police and have committed war crimes. So they left him. Now he is back in the police and trying to see how best he can - and live with his family because he is from two tribes in Lofa County. He is from the Loma tribe and from the Mandingo tribe. His mother is Loma. His father is Mandingo. So these are the two people that he fought against, you know, because he was a Mandingo and he was with the Mandingo faction. Then his mother was a Loma.
So when the war finished, when he came back, he could not go to his mother's parents. They will say, oh, you're a Mandingo. When he comes to the Mandingo tribe, they say, oh, you're a Loma. So it was a difficult situation for him. But now, when he came on the radio program, I told him that you have to go to the community and talk to the people and acknowledge what you did, a honest acknowledgement.
You know, when you do a honest acknowledgement to whoever you have committed a crime against, the person will sit down and reason to himself if they want to forgive you or they want to reconcile with you. So he has done that and he's back in the police.
CONAN: He is back in the police...
Ms. KAMARA-UMUNNA: Yeah.
CONAN: ...a position of honor and distinction.
Ms. KAMARA-UMUNNA: Yeah.
CONAN: Some people would still have a hard time with that.
Ms. KAMARA-UMUNNA: Yeah, because he's - there are some boys that are really after him. When I went into Liberia this August, September, you know, he came back. He wanted us to go, because he went to the truth commission so that he can really go and carry the reports from the truth commission that he - his name was not just at the reports. The report, his name is not there. So it's like, you are fine. You have to feel free and do so - but he's still not comfortable with that. He just want, like, his name to go up in the air and say he did not do anything. So he's in the military - is in the police.
CONAN: Well, Agnes Fallah Kamara-Umunna, thank you very much for your time today. It's been a very interesting conversation.
Ms. KAMARA-UMUNNA: Thank you very much.
CONAN: Her new book is called "And Still Peace Did Not Come," and she joined us from our bureau in New York.
Up next, the alleged Tucson shooter awaits a mental health evaluation to gauge whether he is competent to stand trial. We'll talk about how those evaluations are done and what doctors look for.
If you're a mental health professional familiar with this process, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay with us.
I'm Neal Conan, TALK OF THE NATION, NPR News.