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JCFJ in Sierra Leone

Sierra LeoneWalt Kilroy, a staff member of the Centre for Faith and Justice and a PhD student at Dublin City University, has just returned from four weeks of field research in Sierra Leone. In this very poor, war-torn country he was looking at a programme to deal with former fighters, called Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR), It is regarded internationally as one of the best-run schemes of its kind. Walt took the photo here of members of the Children’s Forum Network in Makeni, whose involvement in promoting children’s rights is a positive example of empowerment and participation. The activists, all still in school, are (L to R): Suleyman Yahkubb Conteh, Abubakar Barrie, Jonah Amadu, Israel Conteh, Zainab Kallon, and Alidu Sillah.

Sierra Leone’s post war experience: something we can learn from

Walt Kilroy

Six years after Sierra Leone’s brutal civil war came to an end, how is the country faring? And what has happened to the rebels and soldiers who inflicted such suffering on its civilian population?

There are no easy answers to these questions, in any sense of the word. Demobilising former fighters and trying to reintegrate them into civilian life did help to underpin the peace process. But it might not seem very just to those who suffered at their hands. Then again, the perpetrators could themselves be victims in many ways – especially the children, who were often forcibly recruited.

This West African country is exactly the same size as the Republic of Ireland, and it has a population of six million. In the aftermath of the war, it is one of the poorest places in the world, lying at the bottom of the list of 177 countries included in the UN’s Human Development Index. Unemployment is generally put at 70 to 80 per cent. The number of people engaged in street trading is testament to how hard people have worked to scrape a living – carrying their wares through the hot streets all day long, in the hope of selling anything from foodstuffs to school books. Life expectancy is 42 years – a figure which is dragged down by one of the highest levels of infant mortality in the world.

But the fact that the country is now at peace is a huge achievement. Its Christian and Muslim communities co-exist easily, providing an example which most other countries cannot live up to, even in relations within the same faith. Its elections last year were a model of democracy: there was a peaceful handover of power when the opposition won the presidency, and the vote itself was endorsed by international observers. The new president, Ernest Bai Koroma, has committed himself to tackling corruption. The country has a mountain to climb in terms of establishing good governance after years of bad practices. The government is also promising to make mains electricity regularly available in the capital soon.

The programme to deal with former fighters, called Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR), is regarded internationally as one of the best-run schemes of its kind. More than 72,000 ex-fighters went through the system. They were supposed to be provided with vocational training to help them find a livelihood, while children could return to education.

But how well did it really work? Supported by the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice, I have just spent four weeks in Sierra Leone, talking to the people who were supposed to benefit. I was looking to see just how ‘participatory’ the process was, to use a key concept from the world of development. Were those involved really consulted about what would happen, and did they have any ownership of it?

The impression I got is that despite the positive image of DDR internationally, most participants felt they did not get much out of it. Despite the training they received, most of them have no job, along with the majority of their fellow citizens. In terms of involving stakeholders, the best examples seem to come from those working with children. Local community members were sometimes closely involved with helping to accept back former child combatants and reintegrate them back into society.

For Sierra Leone, the post-war window of opportunity is open for now, while there can still be hope that real change is coming. For the rest of the world, there is also an important opportunity to learn from the country’s experience about reintegrating former fighters at the end of a war, so that it can be done better elsewhere.