[Originally published in The Washington Post, May 18, 2012.]
Last month a court in The Hague found former Liberian president Charles Taylor guilty of 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role in fueling a 10-year, bloody conflict in Sierra Leone. The verdict capped a trial that itself had dragged on for years and had been punctuated by moments of sensationalism, such as Wikileaks revelations and the testimonies of supermodel Naomi Campbell and actress Mia Farrow.
With all of this spectacle, it can be easy to forget what the trial was really about: thousands of people like me, and the forgiveness that makes life bearable.
I’m from Sierra Leone, the country whose conflict Taylor was convicted of helping to finance. My life has taken me to Europe and to Uganda, but I’ve never forgotten my home: an impoverished, remote village.
My family could afford to send only one of their seven children to school, and as the oldest boy I was the lucky one. I became a teacher. Many of my students were bright and ambitious, but they struggled against the pull of poverty and hopelessness. One little boy, whom I’ll call Vandie, stands out in my mind. About two decades ago, Vandie abruptly stopped going to school. When I visited his home to find out why, he tearfully admitted that other kids had been making fun of his old, beat-up pants and lack of shoes. I bought Vandie some clothes and shoes and he returned to school, still poor but proud.
Life began to unravel in 1991, when the Revolutionary United Front started its campaign to topple the government and Sierra Leone descended into war.
Rebels invaded my small village in December 1998, burning it to the ground and killing hundreds. My younger sisters, my brother-in-law and my grandmother were brutally murdered right in front of me. I witnessed and was forced to do unspeakable things.
One day, a sudden diversion of bomber jets overhead saved me. I escaped to the countryside behind rebel lines, where I lived in constant terror, eating whatever I could forage. After seven months my hunger eclipsed my fear, and I fled to a village to search for food. I was captured again by rebels, interrogated, tortured and accused of being a spy. The order was given: I would be executed.
One of the rebel soldiers — a youth with his face covered — eagerly stepped up to play the role of executioner. Child soldiers in Sierra Leone were tragically common. These boys — brainwashed, drugged and without hope — were manipulated into committing acts of terror. Countless young lives were ravaged in this way during the war.
The boy led me out of sight of the group to the execution spot under several banana trees. My heart was pounding. My mind was fixed on death. “Teacher, do you remember me?” the boy asked. “I will not kill you. You are a good man. Do you remember that you bought me shoes and pants so I could go to school?”
I watched in amazement as the young man removed the cover from his head, revealing familiar eyes and a tear-soaked face. Vandie drew a rough map with charcoal to the nearest village held by peacekeepers. That’s how I crawled to safety and, eventually, returned to my family.
I found Vandie after the war and asked how I could repay him for saving my life. An orphan and a dropout, Vandie wanted to go back to school. I supported him financially and emotionally as he returned to school and earned high school and university degrees. He now has a successful career, and we maintain a special bond.
In the ensuing years I have devoted my life to building peace in Africa’s fragile post-conflict environments. Recently I worked in Karamoja, a remote expanse in northeastern Uganda where poverty and violence are endemic among warring tribal factions of cattle herders. I take great joy in bringing people together to build a common future: planting crops and trees, building dams and markets, and sometimes just talking, connecting and celebrating. I see every day that former enemies — especially young people — can forgive and move forward.
One could argue that the conviction of Charles Taylor closes an important chapter in Sierra Leone’s history; some may even call it justice. But court decisions won’t rebuild Sierra Leone or other countries where former perpetrators and victims live alongside each other. Rebuilding can start only with a purposeful, daily decision to forgive and forge a common future. It is possible — just ask my former student.