The following is a reflection on our visit to “Peacetown,” a village outside of Makeni we visited on January 19th. The story was a part of our presentation at the Monterey Institute on April 6, 2010.
Our bus arrived at a community outside of Makeni that had been renamed “Peacetown” in recognition of its role as the site of a signing of a peace accord between the RUF rebels and the Sierra Leonian government. It was apparently somewhat of a hotbed of activity in the 1990s, the site of a UN brokered peace treaty, and as the large monument in the center of town indicates, “Peace Was Born Here.” Curious children gradually surrounded us, and we posed for pictures in front of the Peacetown monument, the children flashing the peace sign. It was a light moment, one that was tempered by the rest of our visit in Peacetown.
Some of us lingered with the children that had surrounded us, passing out stickers and fake tatoos. A boy gestured towards the bottle water I was carrying, I couldn’t resist and handed it over. A younger man, the community spokesperson I assumed because he could speak English, ushered us over to some shade under a few trees. Adults gathered around us, the children pushed to the side, though quick with a sneaky wink everytime I glanced down.
We heard from the village residents the story of Peacetown. It was long established settlement, significant as a thoroughfare to and from a nearby barge for a river crossing. The village had been targeted by the RUF rebels during the war. It was attacked and burned to the ground, the surviving inhabitants forced to flee into the jungle or across the river. We heard stories of the community members returning to their village, participating in its reconstruction, and most remarkably hosting the signing of a peace accord.
But since then Peace Town has been befallen by government neglect. We heard from the community a great sense of impatience and distrust directed at the Sierra Leonian government. We heard what had become a common sentiment; that this is a place that had been neglected and left isolated in the aftermath of the conflict. That other groups and communities, most egregiously former RUF rebel fighters, had received more attention and aid from the government and the international community. It was not such a different story than that which we had heard from the residents of the amputee and war wounded camps, and what we would later hear from the miners in Tongo.
I remember listening to their testimonies, and looking up to catch, seemingly on cue, one of the ubiquitous white NGO SUVs drive through Peacetown on its way to another community. Its back seat was overflowing with boxes containing computers.
We listened for awhile to their testimonies of inaccessible schools and health facilities. Poor roads, and lack of electricity and drinkable water. Taking in our surroundings, Peace Town certainly seemed to be every bit the impoverished place that was described to us. Not that different from any other community we would visit in Sierra Leone for that matter, but it seemed that the community’s designation as “Peace Town,” and its monument declaring that “Peace was Born Here,” had left a particularly strong set of expectations here. And I can understand why. There have been high profile reconciliation and peacebuilding initiatives undertaken in Sierra Leone; the TRC and the Special Court perhaps most famously. The sentiments we heard expressed from people in Peacetown was in part frustration that interventions such as these, had brought little change to the well-being of people.
We eventually filed onto the bus and took the short drive from the center of Peace Town to the river crossing. We got off the bus and stood on the river bank, watching the barge slowly make its way across the murky river. Our guide pointed to the tree limbs perhaps 40 feet above us and told us during the rainy season the river swells to reach these limbs.
I walked with our guide back to the bus, I asked what he thought of the TRC process, did he feel any reconciliation? Had it translated to village and the residents of Peace Town? I figured him to be a likely candidate to confirm my skepticism as to the effectiveness of the TRC. He said simply that it was a good process. Watching him, and observing his thousand mile stare, I wasn’t convinced.