When I joined the Peace Corps in 1984, my 21-year-old eyes and heart were fully open. I was, as Pico Iyer wrote in his 2003 essay "Why We Travel," "eager to learn more about the world than our newspapers would accommodate."
We weren't yet an on/off, in/out internet culture that carried 24-hour cycles of news in our pockets. In that year of the very first Mac, when I was assigned to live for two years in Sierra Leone, none of us could have imagined calls across an ocean on a cell phone to say "hello," let alone to report a war or an epidemiological crisis such as Ebola, and certainly we never imagined the malevolent use of our phones as an aid to terrorism. The way we came to know the world then was to fully experience it first-hand.
I was a recent liberal arts college graduate assigned by the U.S. government as a "rice agriculture specialist," applying Green Revolution farming techniques (after a three-month training) in a country that had been devoted to the cultivation of rice for hundreds if not thousands of pre-Monsanto years. I had never seen a rice plant until I set foot in that country.
Even so, living in Sierra Leone gave me the awareness and adventure I was seeking. It also taught me a particularly chilling lesson: Any one of us can lose our humanity; especially children when they are made vulnerable.
When I lived in Sierra Leone, children in Tokpombu, a village populated by 40 families, had never seen a gun, fake or real, or a movie. They didn't play war games as American children do. Their machetes were used to help their mothers split wood or their fathers to clear the brush from swamps. They made slingshots to shoo birds at dawn during the time of harvest. All children were rice farmers like their ancestors who, 200 years earlier, were abducted by European slave traders paying a high cost for the expert rice growers who would make their owners a fortune in one of the most lucrative early American enterprises in South Carolina and Georgia. These village boys, like every young member of the community, had dreams about getting rich in the nearby diamond mines, the way we have dreams about winning the Powerball.
A democracy stillborn
One afternoon, I was sitting on the cracked cement stoop behind my house with a few boys playing pick-up-sticks. An explosive argument erupted between my neighbor, Pa Bindi, and his now destitute son-in-law, Tamba, a young man who, like many high school dropouts of his generation, felt the allure of the alluvial diamonds.
"Wai ren cam," Pa Bindi accused him in Krio, the lingua franca of this country. "Yu luk don, nohto up! Dis nohto ow wi de fam!" ("When it rains, you look up instead of down. This is not how we farm!")
Tamba had been lucky at first. Sifting through the mud with his bare hands, he'd found not one but two diamonds. After that, he built a house and got married. But two years later, 19-year-old Tamba had a son and a pregnant wife to feed and his money had run out.
My landlord KT Sonda stepped in to mediate their argument. He turned to me and said in English, the official language of Sierra Leone, "Most of us are illiterate farmers. We are not ready for - not trained for - these choices. No one has any idea of the true value of these stones. We are all misleading ourselves."
And then war came. Every hope for the future was deferred, as the one-party democracy in their post-colonial state imploded.
When I first arrived for my Peace Corps assignment, two primary school teachers who hadn't been paid their government salaries in over three months invited me to spend the day with them, visiting the oldest man in the chiefdom.
"If yu wan foh sabe wi country," they said, "yu foh mit dis man. E dohn si all tin!" ("If you want to know our country, you should know this man. He has lived through everything!")
The teachers were referring to Sierra Leone's transition from one hundred years of British colonial rule to the last 20 years of a one-party democracy.
One morning, five miles down a bush road that would later be used by those who were fleeing rebel soldiers, I was introduced to the old man - a village chief sitting cross-legged on a mat he was weaving. I looked down at the lines in the dirt floor of his hut and up at the lines on the old chief's face. He held his hands about a foot apart and recited a proverb, "Snake go uhlways born somtin wai langa, nohto so?" ("A snake will always give birth to something long, yes?")
Then he spoke about the ways in which family lands were sliced into districts and chiefdoms at the hands of the British and the problems this caused, "even until today."
"When you've lost the loyalty of your neighbors, freedom means nothing," he said in Krio. "Fighting among families who had long relationships with your grandparents and great grandparents is not our tradition."
He spread his arms wide, "Dat snake dae all abot." ("That snake is still crawling around our country.")
As we said goodbye, he took my hands and asked me why Bintu's baby died in Tokpombu village that morning. I found it surprising that what had happened in my Peace Corps village in the pre-dawn hours was already news in his village five miles away.
He answered the question himself: "We no get clinic foh bellyuman." ("We don't have a clinic for our pregnant mothers.")
"Our democracy is stillborn, like Bintu's baby."
Children of war
In 1991, four years after I left, Sierra Leone was devastated by a horrific "diamond" war that was far more brutal than anything depicted in Hollywood's Blood Diamond.
The country's mineral wealth, like oil and other precious metals elsewhere in the world, had become something the government allowed to flow out of the county - at the expense and welfare of its own people, just as the old man had said. Rebel leaders were easily able to arm themselves by trading diamonds in an eager foreign market of guns and drugs because the path that had been created by those outflows was already well worn. The greed and corruption of the Sierra Leone government and of the traditional chiefdom rulers, often with Western educations and in collusion with the diamond industry, didn't extract only the buried wealth of the country; it also undermined the loyalty between the generations.
The disgruntled youth of this war no longer trusted the leaders who had exploited them. They knew who among the ranks were culpable and they systematically went after them viciously, setting fires to their property and the surrounding homes.
Sadly, in Tokpombu, the elders - the wisdom keepers of the village who had kept their ancient traditions - were the first to die. They couldn't run. And the youth, with no parents and no grandparents, left to fend for themselves, joined the army for their safety, and for food. Ma Sando, my best friend while I lived there and also the woman who cooked for me, later described unimaginable acts of torture and mutilation of her people - all people I had known.
She told me how children were kidnapped and recruited on both sides of this war, and even switched sides if that's where the next meal came from."With two meals a day you could work either side. Holding a gun retrofitted for a child ensured you got what you needed to survive."
How does a child or anyone let go of a foreign gun once they have crossed that threshold, seen so much carnage and death, if everyone they love is dead or on the run, grieving or hungry.
The hard way
I returned to Sierra Leone in 2013. The war had been over for as long as it had lasted. It was the time when, in some circles, Sierra Leone's rebound from the previous decade's war was lauded as a success story. Ebola and ISIS weren't on anyone's radar then. My daughter Lilly, my friend Lisa and I spent our first few days at the coastal capital of Freetown, 250 miles from the village where I once lived.
One of the first things my daughter noticed were several men in long white robes rolling up their prayer mats, vendors taking a pause for their five times daily prayers. The driver and passengers of a lorry bearing the slogan "God is One" smiled and greeted the three of us as we jumped out of the way.
I felt relief in witnessing this country as I'd once understood it - a place that welcomes strangers, a place where Christians and Muslims and 14 different ethnic groups lived together peacefully, if not completely harmoniously.
Even as we were surrounded by the abject poverty of a city engulfed by a population explosion of 300 percent, refugees who remained after the war ended, and too many abandoned, burned-out buildings to count, you could feel the deep acknowledgement of what had happened. Their civil conflict was never about religion or tribe. It was invariably about the tensions that arise between those who want to continue the old corrupt way of doings things and those who want new approaches - the same kinds of tensions that are erupting all over the world in the names of religion, tribe or country.
Lisa, Lilly and I bounced our way along a formidable eight-hour drive through densely populated towns, half-deserted villages, families selling peanuts and oranges along the side of the road. We were stopped at several military checkpoints en route that required we exit the car as they registered our names, the soldiers flinging machine guns over their shoulders in the luxuriant, casual way that adolescent girls toss their ponytails.
We continued along roads pitted with potholes bigger than your mother's sofa, and finally down the 12-mile homestretch through a last police checkpoint and the heavy canopy of the northern Gola Forest, a road that now seemed a tunnel through time and space. We made our way, finally, to the village, a thing so small and diminished it was barely recognizable.
When our driver hit the brakes in Tokpombu, we were met with the same exuberant welcome I remembered from 28 years earlier. I felt and smelled the place as I remembered it, even though it was now overgrown and nearly all of its original buildings had been burned to the ground. The only evidence of the home where I had lived for two years was a cement slab and iron railing.
Tokpombu was the same, but not the same.
Some members of the village spoke candidly about their war experiences, and how they knew the ones in their community who were responsible for the brutality: rape, torture, amputations, murder. They also knew that the guns and the drugs supplied to these kidnapped, brainwashed boys didn't come from inside their communities.
Clearly these farmers, still isolated from the rest of the world, understood how a world beyond their borders was complicit, and that while they stood back, the demand for diamonds remained as steady as the pestles they thumped into mortars, separating pearls of rice from chaff. And yet, because the people of Sierra Leone, still mostly rice farmers, had lived through the horror, they understood better than you or I that, "Pawsin wae snake dohn bet wae si rope e go tin say nar snake." ("Once you have been bitten by a snake, if you see a rope, you will think it is a snake.")
It's hard to chase the fear away.
"Dis no bin easy foh learn, but nar so foh du." ("We have learned this the hard way, but we must.") Everyone said this. "Nar so foh du."
The smiles, the songs, the almost 100 people surrounded us as we walked toward the center of town. The joy was in stark contrast to the wreckage of the town before us, the remains of dark waves of violence that had swept through.
They welcomed me "home" and thanked me for bringing my daughter and a teacher. The village leaders recited Christian and Muslim prayers. I offered cola nuts, which are given to an elder to show respect and in recognition of the ancient reconciliation process that is taking place in this county. Called "family talk" survivors of the war gather at evening bonfires where victims share their memories and perpetrators acknowledge and beg forgiveness for their crimes against community members. These ceremonies, alongside the work of both Christian and Muslim faith leaders, are the only chance they have to rebuild their future together.
Looking out over the sea of children in neatly starched and ironed school uniforms seated on termite infested benches, the oldest teacher remarked, "Bad bush no de foh trow away bad pikin?" ("There's no bad forest where you can throw away a bad child.") he said, using a Krio proverb I remembered from my time here so long ago.
He wasn't referring to children who simply weren't cooperative with their teachers. He was talking about accepting children who committed unthinkable human rights abuses in their own communities, child soldiers recruited for war by the Revolutionary United Front, a strategy of war everywhere in the world.
"We are all living inside a spider's web," he said holding out his palms. "And even though our children came and broke strands of this web by committing atrocities, we cannot mend the web if we alienate them."
He shook his head.
We've all watched the horrors unfold in Egypt, Paris, Beirut and San Bernardino. We saw Jihadi John's mask and the knife he wielded. I thought of the boys in my Peace Corps village and how they had been turned into child soldiers capable of committing atrocities such as this one - how every home in the village where I lived was set on fire, how people fled for their lives or were killed, their heads paraded on sticks by soldiers high on cocaine, gunpowder and Rambo movies.
When I think of young recruits anywhere, who came of age during a war - innocent children on the fringes of the last two decades who grew up witnessing violence: guns and bombs killing their parents, grandparents, siblings and maiming their neighbors. I think about the diamond war that erupted in Sierra Leone.
Children of ISIS
Children of war are the most innocent victims. Most are confused and terrified, not fully able to understand what they know or believe or who to trust. Children in many parts of the world (even including here in the U.S. in "disadvantaged" communities) often are the providers for their families, shouldering the burdens of adulthood long before their minds and hearts have grown into the task. Sierra Leone's peace is fragile. Though history has taught us that the memories of war can fade, the boys living there now are more vulnerable than the ones I knew.
I spent a few years as the executive director of a nonprofit devoted to helping children marginalized by war. We provided safe havens and a chance to learn for school-age boys who spent their days on the streets of Basra selling drugs - and whatever else they could find to sell at prices that undercut the rate set by the older boys who dominated the streets. In spite of efforts like these, children are still being used as weapons of war.
Tens of thousands of children are now being recruited to the front lines of ISIS, some under the noses of their own wary parents. Clearly, ISIS wants children - children whose family members have been affected by all of our wars in the failed states that we've helped to create.
Ten thousand children - unaccompanied minors fleeing war and poverty - have also gone missing in Europe. Is 10,000 too big a number for us to hold in our hearts? Through our actions at home and abroad we may have, as the old chief said, "given birth to something long."
"If you plant rice, you get rice," he said.
I knew this meant that if you plant fear, you get fear. If you plant hate, you get hate. We reap what we sow.
Then he said, "And so, we forgive. E no easy. But it is the only road to peace. Don't we all want to survive?"
This blog post previously appeared in the Concord Monitor, March 6, 2016