Finding a Path After War

October 17, 2012 2:24 pm Blogs & Columns

The author (left) with Richard and his kids.

Lehman alumnus Joe Diomede (B.A., ’83) has traveled from his home in France to Sierra Leone on the West African coast, a nation still recovering from a brutal decade-long civil war that ended in 2002. An avid cyclist, Diomede is working for the next three months with an organization called the Village Bicycle Project (villagebicycleproject.org) to repair and refurbish bicyles, a means of transportation that can dramatically improve both the lives and economic futures of those residing in villages far from the city center. He is sharing his experiences in a blog with the Lehman community.

October 17, 2012

War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothin’!

Today I rode my bike through the surrounding jungle and small villages to a river on the outskirts of Lunsar. An idyllic day, the hot sun blazed above, tempered thankfully by the occasional magnificent puffy white clouds like cotton ships floating overhead. As the rainy season comes to a close, it gets hotter and the twelve-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 sinkholes 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 as the thunder rumbles slowly across the tropical night sky like a large UFO 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.The ‘roads’ are a beautiful orange color, which is wonderful and so rich to look at. It almost makes you salivate because of the deep, dark, lovely feeling you are encapsulated by, 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 one word to describe the diversity, much like Inuits with snow, or the Irish with rain.

My companions on the ride were Dave, the director of the project, Jan, my Dutch med student roommate, and Richard, our bike shop owner and importer of the bikes from Freetown, with his two kids, Rica and Frank. They are 7 & 11 years old — almost the same ages as my children, sitting less than a five-hour airplane flight from here but in a whole different world. Along the way, as we were greeted by many smiling friendly faces, Richard told us his story. That story I would like to 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 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 that is lean at best, and work that is hard and physical. The few scars that mark his arms might make you think he spent a lot of his youth 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 that was ripping apart his country. Many tell the same story, but the bloodlust grew into a frenzy, and the war pitted village against village, and sometimes family against family, as it spiraled out of control. The diamonds and minerals made a small portion of people rich and powerful — the age-old story of the wealth being kept to a chosen few, while the rest of Sierra Leone spiralled downward into a decade of self-destruction. That decade brought in 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 any other brutality that 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 mistakenly 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, a chance opportunity for escape presented itself so he took it. Now his body is 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, as well as 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. Eventually in 2009 synchronicity brought him and David together where the relationship with VBP eventually began. He now has a small budding business.

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 — while others around him were killed or died from various other brutalities of war. He now has two young children, and his story is only one of many similar 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, 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? It was a day most of us would consider normal — a nice day bike riding with his children and a few friends — but if not for the help of others, and the final ending of the war in SL, his story could have been very different, or his now-fulfilling life could have easily been brought to an early end.

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 that of war. It may solve a short-term problem, but in the long run, the scars are deep, and unfortunately the path to forgiveness is often a long, hard one. I am thankful, though, that Sierra Leone has found that path, and its humanity, that was once nearly stolen, is back in force. It is suffering through the wounds but healing slowly, and 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 that 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, and 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 might just disagree.

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