October 5, 2011

Caught Between Two Extremes (Day 75 - October 5, 2011)

Front cover of The National Post, May 8, 2000
In early May 2000, I was in war torn Sierra Leone, West Africa.  I was on a reconnaissance mission as part of preparation to launch a program I created called Peace Theatre, which was designed to teach conflict resolution skills to former child soldiers being re-integrated back into the community.  It was a trip that changed the course of my life, and I experienced feelings that have not since been replicated . . . until now.

Through the 1990's Sierra Leone suffered a decade long terrible internal conflict as a result of rebels intent on causing and maintaining mayhem.  Ostensibly, the rebels claimed they wanted to take over the country, but their actions spoke differently.  They actually wanted to control the diamond mining operations, and in order to do so they needed the general population to be too terrified and too weak to do anything about it.  Accordingly, they levelled villages, maliciously enlisted children into their "army" by force, and committed atrocities against the population that included rape, murder, and vicious amputations of legs, arms, and, strangely enough, ears.  It was as if someone had taken a giant stick and stirred up the whole country - displacing millions, wreaking havoc with infrastructure (roads, schools, water wells, and homes were destroyed), and killing and maiming hundreds of thousands of people.  As a result, by the time of my visit, Sierra Leone had dropped to last place on the Human Development Index, i.e. the poorest and worst place to live in the world.

Near the end of the 90's the international community was finally able to contain the rebels and Sierra Leone, although devastated, was on the road to peace.  When I arrived in the country at the beginning of May 2000, the rebels were still active in the north of the country but West African peacekeeping forces were protecting the rest of the country.  However, on Wednesday May 3rd the UN peacekeeping forces replaced their West African counterparts.  Unfortunately, the UN mandate was not nearly as aggressive as the West African mandate, and the rebel forces in the north had no respect for, nor fear of, the UN forces.  When asked what he thought of the UN forces, rebel leader Foday Sankoh stated, "An impotent man cannot impregnate a woman."  Accordingly, on Thursday May 4th, the rebels started advancing rapidly towards the capital city of Freetown.

I have never known fear like I did in the middle of the night on that Thursday and Friday.  Having been every day to the Displaced Persons and Amputees Camp in Freetown, I saw first hand the result of the rebels' brutality.  Further, we had no idea where the rebels were.  Unlike Canada, where I expect that we would have a thousand ways of knowing exactly where the enemy lay should such arise, it felt as if we were blind while we awaited the hourly BBC radio report.  The rebels could be one kilometre away or 100, we just had no way of knowing.  So those nights I lay in bed jumping at every sound, while fearing not death but rather having my arms amputated and never being able to hug my family again.

On the Saturday, we received word that the rebels were on the outskirts of Freetown, and arrangements were being made for as many Ex-Pats as possible to leave the city (i.e. expatriates - people from outside the country).  Two large UN helicopters, one of them being in the photo above, were shuttling people from Freetown north to Conakry, Guinea.  My travel companion and I were whisked by local national staff to the tarmac to await the shuttle.  Unfortunately for us the policy was "women and children first", which I wholeheartedly agree with except that it separated some families and, being a man, was not thrilled at the prospect of still being in the city when the rebels arrived.  Thankfully, my colleague and I were eventually selected for the last shuttle of the day and they crammed 26 of us into the 20 passenger helicopter along with a whack of stuff (including boxes of medical supplies that were being removed so as to not fall into rebel hands).  (SEE ABOVE PHOTO)  Just before take off, which was a difficult thing given how heavy laden we were, I glanced out the window feeling incredible joy that I was in one piece and would soon be reunited with my family . . . and then I saw Theresa.

Theresa is a Sierra Leonean nurse who at the time was overseeing a health project for CAUSE Canada, the organization with which I was also working.  In the previous decade, Theresa had fled barefoot through the jungle fleeing rebels and ultimately ended up in a refugee camp in Guinea before being repatriated to Sierra Leone.  She had also previously witnessed the gruesome sacking of Freetown by rebels in which the rebel motto was "Leave no living thing."  Theresa is a true survivor and one of the strongest people I have ever met.  At the moment I saw her standing on the tarmac, Theresa had a huge smile on her face because she was so happy her Canadian friends were getting out safely.  And, within my incredible joy I felt absolutely devastated.

While deliriously happy on one hand, full of relief and the joy I described above, I knew that Theresa and my other Sierra Leone friends would have to endure whatever was to come.  Thus, I simultaneously felt a great heaviness and pain in my heart unlike anything I had felt before or since.  Well, until this week, that is.  This week is the closest I have felt to that same emotional tug of war between two opposite extremes.  Part of me wants to do the "happy dance" knowing that this project phase in the tent, which has been difficult for me at times, is about to end.  At the same time, I know that the millions and millions of people who are really homeless will not be gettin a home this weekend.  This contrast leaves me feeling relieved and at the same time raw . . . happy yet horrified. 

I pray for an end to poverty and homelessness similar to what ultimately happened in Sierra Leone.  Freetown was spared because the British brought in a destroyer and a contingent of highly trained marines that stopped the rebels in their tracks.  That marked the beginning of the end for the rebel forces, and a fresh start for the Sierra Leone people.  My understanding is that the country today, while still relatively poor, is recovering nicely . . . new roads, new wells, new schools and a resilient people determined to overcome the challenge in front of them.

Likewise, I pray that WE can stop poverty in its tracks.  Like the British facing the rebels in Sierra Leone, WE have the resources and ability to push back against poverty until it is no more.  WE can ensure that everyone has their human rights protected in having access to food/water, shelter, education, access to health care, and freedom from fear.  WE just have to make it a priority and decide to do it . . . each of us doing a little bit more and all of us telling our leaders that WE care.

(By the way, I did return to Sierra Leone a few months later and implemented Peace Theatre with former child soldiers.  I also returned three more times to Sierra Leone, and subsequently had the honour of being part of  designing an education focused child sponsorship program called CAUSE Kids in 2005/2006 that now benefits over 4,500 kids thanks to the incredible people implementing it - www.causekids.ca.  This is mentioned not to brag but rather to demonstrate that I and many others never gave up on Sierra Leone; and WE shall not give up on poverty and homelessness either.)

Hey!! I'm That Poverty Guy . . . let's make a world of difference together.

Click Here to Sign . . . A Declaration to World Leaders

Click Here to See WACHOOKANDU.


  1. As sad as parts if this post are....i see joy and hope in it as well. i can feel the devastating guilt leaving your nurse friend behind in SL.... but the example of her love of god shining through as u took off- it just warms my heart.....thats the kind of heart that is rare...and that is how WE can love one another. in our pain...we can still reach out. and in our wealth...we MUST reach out!!!

  2. You know what when thinking of that time I was so self absorbed in my own feelings, I have not taken the time to fully examine what you have pointed out. While I always recognized Theresa's bravery and selflessness, I haven't expressed the incredible example of love and compassion she presented. Thanks!