GUEST WRITER: A Visit to Sierra Leone’s Peace Museum

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By Lans Gberie

  • Sierra Leone’s Peace Museum, housed in the sprawling compound of the Residual Special Court of Sierra Leone at New England in Freetown, is one of the barely noticed, largely unacknowledged treasures of Freetown. Visiting there one February afternoon upon the invitation of the veteran Registrar of the Court, Mrs. Binta Mansaray, I missed its entrance: my car drove towards the first, well-guarded, gate. It led to the high security prison in the court’s compound. Just over a couple of months ago, armed assailants attempting a putsch had freed some high-valued detainees there. Seeing no obvious signs of forced entry, I asked the armed security who opened the gate how that had happened. He looked at me sternly, as at a meddling stranger and a fool, and said brusquely “They didn’t break in; they were let in.” He asked me to try the adjacent gate: he didn’t seem to know about the Peace Museum. Or that the forces behind the prison break-in outraged its very essence.
  • Mrs. Mansaray was waiting. I had long admired the purity of her dedication to the work of the court; she is now devoting significant time to building up the museum. The effort, as I found, is worthy of national support.
  • This wasn’t my first visit – that happened years ago – but it was my first properly guided tour. It made a difference: I saw more clearly, Mrs. Mansaray’s expert commentary drawing attention to details I could have glossed over.
  • My first discovery was of an arresting relief just outside the Peace Hall, whose walls are adorned with framed photographs of war crime scenes, former judges of the Special Court, Commissioners of the TRC, Secretaries General of the UN, and Presidents of Sierra Leone; curiously missing is the photograph of perhaps the most consequential personality that was involved with the court – David Crane, its controversial first chief prosecutor.
  • The relief is captioned “Identifying those Who Bear the Greatest Responsibility”. It was sculpted by the Marco Touch Academy – one of the great legacies of Sierra Leone’s greatest sculptor, the late Samuel Marco – for the Special Court.
  • At quick glance, in its light or fading ochre, the relief looks like an antique enigma. A closer look shows something much more sombre and profound: from the top, it sports five men all exuding a sense of power but their taut frowning faces suggesting that this is now restrained. The first man from the left is elegantly suited and bespectacled, the face slightly pneumatic, a Charles Taylor lookalike; there is one with a distinctly military bearing, erect and stern-faced; and another, muscular and somewhat morose, is wearing a simple African sleeveless top. Below them are far less robust looking men and women (one of whom is carrying a child) and a young girl: they are pointing up at the men, though one of them with only the stumps of his amputated hands. There is a policeman standing on their side, suggesting protection and a sense of justice. The relief depicts the pathos of the war at its most affecting: the pathos of shabby and greedy men trampling the poor down and despoiling their land, and then of nemesis – almost mythical – catching up with them. Such is the subtlety of the artist, however, that to this impression is added an accretion of complexity: the victims depicted are not passive: they are actively pointing accusing hands at the perpetrators as bearing the greatest responsibility for horrendous crimes of the war.  Justice was now being meted for those enormities.
  • A spacious room adjacent to the Peace Hall houses the archives of the Special Court and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission: boxes of reports, victim testimonies, statements, judgments, and other documentations telling the grim stories of the war that ravaged the country for over a decade. The gruesome details of that war – mass killings of civilians, widespread rape and forced ‘bush marriages’, arson, maiming and mutilations, the RUF’s signature terror act – do not come much alive from the displays at the museum: they are mostly frozen in the documents. I expected to see piles of the machetes the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) used to inflict their brand, as you’ll find at the genocide museum in Rwanda. One example: grim memorials of the scene of one massacre in a Rwandese village and inside a church there are faithfully preserved: the bones and clothes of the victims who had been cut down by the genocidaires’ machetes remaining in the place where they fell, the fatal long knives still embedded into some skulls.
  • Mrs. Mansaray walked me to a wall overlooking the Peace Garden. On it are expertly carved out the names of hundreds of victims, again the work of the Marco Touch Academy. The names were all taken from the documents of the TRC, the dates and places of murder carefully indicated. The museum aims to collect the names of around 50,000 victims and have them similarly memorialised, a daunting, expensive but very important task. To go through the names on the wall, to recognise the name of a relative or friend, is to relive the horror in some form but also to be satisfied that the victims had not been simply forgotten, that they are memorialised in concrete form. Adorning the grounds of the Peace Garden are white concrete slabs representing all the districts of Sierra Leone: I stood before one with the words “In Memory of the War Dead Bo District” neatly cut out in black. I was suddenly gripped by the urge to pour libation on it, as is the custom in Bo, my home district. Though many thousands of people who were murdered during the war remained unnamed, these memorials give a sense of satisfaction that are they being remembered and honoured.
  • War-related museums are, in some countries, part of state building or regime consolidation efforts; they are created and promoted as a matter of state policy. Our Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommended the creation of a museum as one of the key memorials of the atrocious civil war: as a reminder and a warning. On the wall of the Peace Hall is a large, laminated paper featuring the causes of the war in Sierra Leone – bad governance, injustice, political intimidation, political violence, illiteracy, corruption etc… State or public support for the museum, however, has been fitful: the museum attracts almost no attention. The contrast with Rwanda is stark; so is it with Ethiopia, whose “Red Terror Martyrs” Museum at Meskel Square in Addis Ababa, though less resonant or noticed than Rwanda’s genocide memorials, enjoys a reverence and grandeur that Freetown’s Peace Museum cannot anticipate. (I used to visit this museum from time to time – it was close to the place I worked – first attracted by the bronze cast of three very sad girls placed prominently at the front of the solid building with the resonant inscription “Never Again”; and then by the burly official guide, who I found to be correct and helpful but oddly sinister, like the museum itself: revealing as much as hiding things: I thought that the museum mainly served a propaganda purpose.)
  • Though few, there are some remarkable memorials of the war across the country. The TRC designated around 100 sites of mass graves, some of which are adorned with memorials, even if makeshift, to the victims. The writer and transitional justice advocate Joseph Kaifalla, who founded the Centre for Memory and Reparations, has done important work on mapping massacre sites, building on the work of the TRC. He has also erected memorials, one of which, at Lungi, of remarkable artistic and symbolic value. I was introduced to Mr. Kaifalla’s work by the Liberian academic and transitional justice expert Aaron Weah, who has been mapping memorial sites in Liberia and Sierra Leone.
  • One of the first mass grave site to gain notoriety was the one at Tombodou in Kono district: David Crane visited there in 2002 shortly after arriving in Sierra Leone to take post as the Special Court’s chief prosecutor. Crane was taken to a pond where an Armed Forces Ruling Council (AFRC) staff sergeant named Alhaji Bayoh and his gang were said to have deposited the bodies over 1000 people they had murdered. Crane declared the place a crime scene and had it sealed off. (The Special Court’s transcripts record a witness recounting how “Staff Alhaji” locked up many people he “had no use of” – he was then presiding over a large slave labour diamond mine – in houses and then burnt them to ashes, among countless other horrific crimes. “Staff Alhaji” had been “retrained” and reabsorbed in the army by the time the court began its work…). Another famous massacre site is at Tihun in Bonthe district: Mr. Kaifalla’s research put the number of those killed by the RUF in that small village at 600, with around 1,200 others killed in the area. A memorial in “loving memory of the over 2000 inhabitants of Tihun and its surroundings”, unveiled years ago by Michael Cohen of The Charity Service UK in the village, conveys a grim reminder of the catastrophe that befell the community.
  • Established in 2013, the Peace Museum is an attempt to provide an accessible and distinctive memorial and home for artifacts from the war. But its collection is, at present, rather parlous.
  • On my way out after looking at the Peace Bridge, which looked rather desolate and fragile, I stopped to take a closer look at the artifact collection, mostly housed close to the Peace Hall. Notable are the battle gears of the Kamajors and other traditional fighters, some of their ancient artisanal weapons (though, for much of fighting, they used modern guns), and the wheelchair used by Chief Hinga Norman after a botched operation on his leg in Senegal disabled it while in detention of the court. Norman used the wheelchair until his death in the court’s detention facility. His fabled walking stick – sensationalised by the court’s prosecutors as a totem fashioned out of unspoken rituals – is nowhere to be found in the collection: it was never tendered into court, though the prosecutors and witnesses went into a fever describing it in fiercely exact detail. Perhaps it never existed and was as fictive as the dreaded knives of the invented cannibals the British tried and killed in West Africa in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But abbreviating memory is also part of the function of museums, of history.
  • And so perhaps I am carping. The museum, even in its present limited state, strongly satisfies one’s most visceral need: to reflect back on a time of deep personal and national pain, to remind us of what grievous deeds we had done to ourselves, and to induce in us a determination that our country should never again slide into such wilful horrors. 

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