War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothin’!
I rode my bike through the surrounding jungle and small villages leading to a river on the outskirts of Lunsar. An idyllic day, the hot sun blazed above, tempered thankfully by the occasional magnificent white puffy clouds which look like cotton ships floating overhead. As the rainy season comes to a close it gets hotter, and the 12 hour days seem that much longer when not broken up by a torrential downpour. The mud on the potholed roads is starting to give way to a sandier surface in places, or big dried cakes of mud in others, but some of the bigger sink holes filled with water probably breeding the mosquitoes happily spreading malaria throughout the area, seem to keep their levels up. The night rains haven’t fully stopped, but even in the last few days have subsided. When they do come in full force I am surprised in the morning that we don’t have to wade out from the front door. The cool water falling out of the sky seems to be relentless and the thunder rumbles slowly across the tropical night sky sounding like a large UFO just hovering close overhead, the lightning streaks adding the final part of the spectacular natural show. The falling rains are such a tease, as it’s the only coolness at the moment coming from above.
My companions on the ride were Dave the director of the project, Jann my Dutch med student roommate, and Richard our bike shop owner and importer of the bikes from Freetown, with his 2 kids Rica and Frank. They are 7 & 11 yrs old. The same age spread as my children just sitting less than a 5 hour airplane flight from here but in a whole different world.
The ‘roads’ are a beautiful orange colour which is wonderful and so rich to look at. It almost makes you salivate because of the deep dark lovely feeling you are encapsulated with, strangely akin to ordering a wonderful dessert at a good restaurant. The surrounding greens are so diverse and vibrant that I surely feel the local languages must have far more than the one word green to describe the diversity, much like Inuits with snow, or the Irish with rain.
Richard was telling his story amidst all the beauty and friendly faces greeting us along the way. That story I will now share with all of you.
Richard’s short but muscular body is just one of the many bodies here in Sierra Leone that a gym in NYC or elsewhere would proudly display on their adverts laying claim to every strong abdomen muscle or bicep, but no, the bodies down here don’t come from gyms, they come from a diet which is lean at best, and work which is hard and quite physical. The few scars that mark his arms might make you think in his youth he spent a lot of time on the wrong side of the tracks, he did, but not because he wanted to. When the war broke out Richard was neither rebel nor combatant. He was young and didn’t want any part of the brutal civil war ripping apart his country. Many tell the same story, but the bloodlust grew into a frenzy, and the war devastated village after village, and sometimes pitted family against family as it spiraled out of control. The diamonds and minerals made a small portion of people rich and powerful, for the lack of desire to share the wealth, and possibly turn Sierra Leone into a nation to look up to rather than somewhere to forget for a decade as it maimed itself into the new millennium while its youth were becoming child soldiers, and its infrastructure was being blown back to the last century. Untold thousands were dying from diseases, bullets, machetes, or whatever other brutality could be found to keep the blood flowing but the diamonds were still making it to the jewelry shops on the high streets in the west.
Richard was young and tried to make it to the border of Guinea rather than die for no reason in his home country. At the border someone mistakingly accused him of being a rebel which landed him in a prison in Guinea for 31 days with a handful of rice and some water to drink. With no use of a toilet for the duration and thinking himself close to death several times an odd opportunity for escape presented itself so he took it. Now his body scarred from torture and abuse in the prison where he many times contemplated suicide. Roughly tied up and transported like cargo, not the human beings they all were, the dignity and reason for living and escaping the war in the first place no longer held meaning. In Guinea he fortunately met someone he knew on the street and also a western woman doing some humanitarian work, and with their help, and being able to clothe himself, he started the long process of trying to repatriate in his own country again, and put together some semblance of a life. A few menial jobs in Guinea, and the brutal war in Sierra Leone coming to an end he made his way back to Freetown, and opened a small bike shop where eventually in 2009 synchronicity brought him and David together where the relationship with VBP eventually began afterwards.
Richard is a lovely guy with a bright smile and full laugh that goes right up to his eyes. His conversion to a Christian religion helped him find forgiveness, and he said to me after the ride, “Without forgiveness, how can we find love? Without love where is the hope for the world?” A powerful statement from a man who was stripped of his humanity, nearly of his life, others around him were killed or died from various other brutalities of war. He now has 2 young children and his story is only one of many I have heard since I have been here. Another friend had to live in the bush, cross rivers, sleep out at night, and all of that he did with his newborn child and young wife and elderly mother. Richard said he has only just been able to recount his story without crying, but I detected a welling up in his eyes yesterday, and how could you not? There we were with his children having a nice day on our bikes, and he has a small budding business in Freetown now, but if not for the help of others, and the final ending of the war in SL, his story could have been much different, or an early end to what is now a fulfilling life.
That reality of war is happening right now in too many other places, right here on the continent I stand and not far away from us all. If humanity wants to go forward into a future we need to find a different path than war, because it may solve a short term problem, but in the long run, the scars are deep, and unfortunately the path to forgiveness a long hard one. I am thankful Sierra Leone has found that path to forgiveness, and its humanity, that was once nearly stolen, is back, and although it is suffering through the wounds and healing slowly, we are all part of the process, we are all potentially that woman in Guinea who saved Richard from another life, or certain death. Can we all find that forgiveness and move on? My short month here has humbled me as a human being, and the life which is lived out in the streets, although not perfect, is a wonderful testament to the human spirit and its resilience. Thank you Richard, thank you Dave, thank you unknown woman in Guinea, a big thanks to everyone who is trying to make that difference. For anyone who thinks war is inevitable I think I can find nearly 5.5 million people in the 27,000 square miles surrounding me now who just might disagree.