Sierra Leone – Barefoot Soldiers for Social Justice, Food Security and Peace
It took me two attempts until I finally reached Yoni Chiefdom also known as Mile 91, which is 2 and a half hours car drive away from Freetown. Rainy season was just about to start in early July 2011 and my poor knowledge of local travel connections taught me the unforgettable lesson that it is certainly cheaper, but not advisable, to travel outside Freetown by motorbike – despite the ongoing road constructions.
When I at last reach Mile 91, a well-spoken, middle-aged man receives me: Mr. Ahmed Muckson Sessay, Director of OPARD-SL (Organization for Peace, Reconciliation and Development – Sierra Leone). That I had to reschedule our interview three times does not prevent him from welcoming me warmheartedly.
OPARD-SL started off as a voluntary organization in 1999 initiated by local farmers to help promote peace during the decade long vicious civil war in Sierra Leone. The need to do so was very pressing indeed: Between 1994 and 2000 the rebels attacked Mile 91 in total 19 times and soon the region (in particular the nearby town Masiaka) became a strategic junction which (in BBC’s correspondent Mark Doyle’s words) ‘changed hands between the various armed factions countless times.’
Given that a few community members knew some of the rebels, OPARD-SL was able to initiate early talks with the RUF (Revolutionary United Front). Later, the organization would also serve as a mediator amongst all warring parties. ‘We were barefoot soldiers trying to negotiate peace’ – said Mr. Muckson Sessay.
While talking about the current work of his organization, he ensures that I get a copy of a letter dating back to 10 January 2001, written by UNAMSIL’s (United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone) then Commanding Officer Colonel Khushal Thakur. Although an official document, Colonel Thakur addresses Mr. Muckson Sessay amicably and in handwritten script as My dear Bro. Muckson – a subtle indication of the unique interpersonal ties that are only built in situations of the highest distress and emergency.
In his letter, Colonel Thakur then expresses his sincere gratitude for Mr. Muckson Sessay’s: ‘[…] active mediation and indulgence [which] reinvigorated and revitalized the sagging relationship between the RUF and UNAMSIL. This subsequently facilitated in strengthening the ties and retrieval of UN equipment captured by RUF in May 2000.’
The colonel’s letter is an example of the probably darkest hours in the history of UNAMSIL when the RUF broke the Lomé deal and, amongst other incidents, took around 500 UN peacekeepers hostage. The events could not have been more embarrassing – instead of the UN disarming the rebels, the rebels disarmed the UN. This was eventually resolved through a massive international intervention (most notably the British backing and reinforcing of UNAMSIL troops). But, this often leaves one major aspect overlooked: Pacifying Sierra Leone was preceded and constantly influenced by a series of civil society initiatives. Mile 91, is just one out of many examples where ordinary Sierra Leonean’s proved their courage and their restless convictions for peace.
According to Mr. Muckson Sessay, OPARD-SL’s efforts during and after the conflict were never really acknowledged in official peace ceremonies. What reminds of OPARD-SL’s endeavors, however, is UNAMSIL’s letter in Muckson Sessay’s office and a peace monument an hour and half hours motorbike ride away from the village.
What has happened to Mile 91 and thus OPARD-SL ten years after the conflict?
For Mr. Muckson Sessay peacebuilding and development processes are intertwined and cannot be separated from each other. In the past few years OPARD-SL’s focus shifted (in a nutshell) to food security, environmental protection, organic farming, economic empowerment of women and youth, education for the underprivileged, water sanitation and health care. In the long road from destruction to reconstruction OPARD-SL received inter alia funds from the U.S., Canada or the UNPBF (United Nations Peacebuilding Fund). Yet, in 2011 the organization is unsure how to further sustain itself. He wishes that his community had the faculties to create better incentives to keep the youth in town but also increase their interest in farming.
The core challenge for small towns and villages is certainly the rural-urban migration flow. In the UNHABITAT report ‘The State of African Cities 2010’ it is indicated that 38.40 percent of all Sierra Leoneans live in urban areas (most notably Freetown). UNHABITAT further estimates that by 2050 this figure will change to 62.44 percent.
Mr. Muckson Sessay is not alone when stressing that this trend undermines not only food security in rural areas but also leaves the old and aged without any care behind. The Sierra Leonean journalist Madieu Jalloh further holds: ‘(…) to say that agriculture is vital to Sierra Leone’s economic growth is an understatement’.
Ten years after the conflict and despite widespread support from the international community, Sierra Leone remains one of the poorest countries worldwide. Looking at UNICEF’s statistics, every fourth child under the age of 5 is underweight, in other words, 40% of all deaths amongst children in Sierra Leone are caused by malnutrition.
After my long conversation with Mr. Muckson Sessay I am rushing to my next interview with a local civil society organization called ‘Women’s Partnership for Justice and Peace’ (WPJP, based in Bo). Without mentioning my Mile 91 impressions a WPJP staff member immediately refers to the problem of food shortage in rural areas and concludes: ‘Peace is food, you cannot have peace when you are hungry.’