Twenty years ago today, March 23, 1991, a violent attack by rebels of the Revolutionary United Front on the border village of Bomaru set in motion a devastating, decade long civil conflict. The “rebel war” as it is called today, left no Sierra Leonean untouched.
Student in Freetown. Educational opportunities were severely disrupted by the war. Photo by Pat Flood
Untold numbers of civilians were killed, abused, raped, and maimed; property was destroyed; development was impeded; and the soul of the nation was deeply scarred. Most people prefer not to talk about the war these days, but the ramifications of the rebel war will be felt for generations.
The Inter-religious Council of Sierra Leone (an association of Christians and Muslims working together) has declared today a “National Day of Fasting and Prayer.” At noon today, Sierra Leoneans were called to keep a minute of silence in remembrance of those who suffered and died, and tonight there will be solemn processions throughout the city, leading to an inter-religious prayer service at the National Stadium. Bishop Barnett will be offering the invocation. In our staff devotions at the ELCLS offices today, Bishop Barnett shared his thoughts that today is a day for self-examination and repentance, a day to remember the past for the sake of the future, and a day to commit to changing of hearts and minds for the sake of peace and new possibilities.
Oldest member of King of Glory Lutheran Church, Njala. Njala was destroyed during the war. Nearly ten years after the end of the war, rebuilding remains an ongoing process throughout the country. Photo by Jim Gonia.
The trip to Ngolahun this past weekend meant driving a road not normally traveled — by vehicles anyway. Ngolahun means “the forest” in Mende (and is one of many Mende words I have a difficult time pronouncing). The village is just about in the center of Sierra Leone, 12 miles off the main Freetown – Bo highway. I knew Ngolahun was nearly inaccessible in the rainy season, but until we turned off the main highway I hadn’t realized there wasn’t actually a road for a number of miles along the way. Travel for the villagers means walking along a well established footpath through the bush, crossing streams and grassy swamp land until the path widens into a dirt road connecting to the main highway where public transport is available. Supplies are physically carried in, and products to be sold are physically carried out from Ngolahun, and visitors also use the footpath to reach the village. But when Evangelist John Squire of St. John Lutheran Church learned that an ELCSL team would be visiting, he organized youth from the village to cut brush along the footpath to the village and to brace the banks of the largest stream with logs and branches. This work made it possible for our vehicle to enter the village.
The way to Ngolahun
This bridge allows travels to enter and leave the village with dry feet (and safely in the rainy season). I joined my traveling companions in walking across the bridge while the driver forded the stream in my car. In looking at the photos I took, I see that the young men of the village moved the logs from one side of the waterway to the other from Saturday to Sunday so that our vehicle could have traction up the embankment both entering and leaving the village.
When we arrived in Ngolahun on Saturday afternoon, the car was surrounded by a cheering crowd. We were greeted with high energy and joy. We were told that it was a historic occasion: no vehicle had ever before driven into Ngolahun.
St. John Lutheran Church was established in the village in 1989, and has been served all these years by Evangelist Squire. He started with 7 members and they now worship about 60 adults and 60 children on a Sunday morning, in addition to sponsoring 3 preaching points. St. John has also trained and sent lay evangelists to the two nearest ELCSL congregations in Mogbuama and Senehun. Under Squire’s leadership, the church runs a primary school which meets in the church building. They are dreaming of building a proper school with classrooms some day. Evangelist Squire (as well as the school teachers) serve without pay. He noted that he doesn’t have a cent in his pocket, but that the community provides what he needs in terms of food and accommodations. I was impressed at what he and the congregation have been able to accomplish with very limited resources in a challenging setting.
St. John Lutheran Church and Primary School. The zinc roofing for this structure was obtained sometime in the 1990's by bartering. During the war, the zinc was hidden in the forest so it wouldn't be looted by the rebels.
At the ELCSL assembly last Sept. Evangelist Squire had announced that a parsonage was under construction in his village, and he invited guests to visit. I was graciously housed in this parsonage, and the women of the community cooked a couple of special meals for me, including my first taste of Sierra Leonean style yams — with fish for an evening meal, and yams with ground nut stew for breakfast. Once again, I was blessed by gracious hospitality, and inspired by the commitment of the Ngolahun Lutherans.
We were given yams like this one to enjoy in Freetown.
Pastor Hotagua (visiting from Senehun) and Pastor Kobba (development officer). This was early in the morning and the light was poor. As is typical in the villages, individuals would bath/shower outdoors in the small structure behind the pastors.
It happens on a regular basis. In the midst of an ordinary conversation, a comment or a question prompts the sharing of stories that break the heart and cast down the soul. It happened again on Saturday. I was talking to a young man originally from a village in the eastern part of Sierra Leone. We were simply chatting and passing the time. We were talking about fishing and football and families, and then he paused, staring ahead without really seeing. He told me that he had watched as his grandfather was shot by rebels in his village, and had watched as the rebels shot eight other men. He told how he had fled from his village in fear and horror and ran into the bush that day with his younger brother. Terror stricken, separated from family, lost in the forest, this young man said he saw his grandfather’s ghost twice while running, and who am I to doubt what might be seen at such times? As he continued his story, what I heard is that this young man saw so much more: the worst that humans do to other humans in times of war. “We were always afraid” he said, “every day we were afraid.”
This conversation was on my mind and in my heart on Palm Sunday when I went to worship at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Calaba Town. I had been looking forward to joining the congregation in a processional through the streets of that neighborhood, and I had been looking forwared to seeing the congregation come together with their own, freshly picked palm branches and freshly made palm crosses. I had earlier explained to some of the women from St. Mark’s that American churches have to buy palms for Palm Sunday while they told me about cutting the palms from trees in their yards and neighborhoods.
The central symbol in worship on Palm Sunday at St. Mark’s was a palm-decorated cross. Our worship began down the hill and around the corner from the church sanctuary. The congregation followed the cross in procession, singing and giving a witness of faith all the way, past neighbors and shop owners and others going about their business. By the time we arrived at the church I was dripping with sweat, but the congregation was energized to worship with joy and thanksgiving — and drums once again – after the subdued tones of Lent.
This Holy Week, I will be thinking about the cross. I will be thinking about what it means that Jesus was crucified, died and was buried; what it means that God in Christ came down to earth and knows the worst that humans do to other humans. I will be thinking about the Good Friday horror story of suffering and death. I will be thinking of Jesus’s words from the cross: “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” (Did the rebels, the conscripted child soldiers, and all those who committed crimes of war in Sierra Leone know what they were doing?) I will be thinking of these things and holding fast to the promise of our faith that suffering and death are not the end of the story. I will be thinking of these things and the stories I have heard, grateful for the deep and mysterious truth: that the cross points beyond itself to reveal a holy love and power for life greater than we can imagine.