When my phone lit up with a text message from my wife telling me that Charles Taylor was convicted of war crimes, my reaction was swift. I responded, somewhat childishly, by calling him names I’d rather not repeat here and ended the text with, “He deserves whatever he gets.” It wasn’t a particularly strong comment, but the more I thought about my gut reaction, the more I realized how vengeful it sounded.
I can”t pretend to speak for the people that lived through Taylor’s reign of terror, but I do know, from our limited experience working with the kids in Freetown, that I should be ashamed of my desire for vengeance–that’s not what they taught us.
If anyone had a right to seek revenge, it was the kids we met in Sierra Leone, the ones who really were affected by Taylor’s campaign of violence.
Emmanuel, one of the students who we grew very close with, became an orphan at Taylor’s hands. War came to Emmanuel as a toddler. He remembers his mother and father, standing inside, talking like any other day. When his mother went outside to cook, the rebel guns began to fire. His mother ran inside and scooped up a crying, scared Emmanuel. She fled, but the rebels caught her. The rebel commander claimed Emmanuel”s home as his own, then, proclaimed that he was going to rape Emmanuel’s mother. Emmanuel’s father protested, pleading with the commander to stop. The commander instead ordered a rebel to kill Emmanuel’s father. When Emmanuel’s mother saw her husband murdered, she became inconsolable. The rebel commander stabbed and killed her while she held Emmanuel in her arms. The rebels moved on, leaving the toddler lying on his mother’s body. He stayed there for three days, until a kind-hearted woman who would come to be his adopted mother picked him up and carried him to safety.
The rebels were carrying out the orders of Taylor’s infamous “Operation No Living Thing”, a campaign of rape and murder meant to terrorize people into submission. The bloodshed from that day still continues to affect generations of Sierra Leoneans like Emmanuel.
But Emmanuel, “E”, as we came to call him, had no hatred in his heart. Instead, when we asked him how Sierra Leone could heal, he responded:
“You have to forgive and forget everything that has happened to us. As for me, I have forgiven those who know that they are guilty (for the death) of my parents.”
Emmanuel was 14 when he told us that. He”s now 18 and moving into adulthood. Life hasn’t been easy for him, but he’s maintained his outlook. He still believes that Sierra Leone cannot move forward if its people hold onto the wrongs of the past. I don”t know whether or not his feelings are echoed throughout the country, but E’s lesson is one that continues to teach us to this day.