Liberia's two civil wars killed nearly 250,000 people and pitted tribe against tribe, neighbor against neighbor and child soldier against parent. When the war officially ended and dictator Charles Taylor fled the country, Liberians began a long and painful process of reconciliation.
Agnes Fallah Kamara-Umunna found a way to help: She hosted a radio program in the capital, Monrovia, to promote reconciliation. On-air, former child soldiers apologized, women who were raped forgave their tormentors, and former warlords admitted crimes. She shares many of their stories, and her own, in her memoir, And Still Peace Did Not Come.
The stories of former child soldiers are especially poignant. Kamara-Umunna tells NPR's Neal Conan, that as a young woman, she witnessed the atrocities wrought by child soldiers firsthand. She followed her father, a doctor, to Tubmanburg Junction, north of Monrovia. Child soldiers huddled there with civilians displaced by the fighting.
A pregnant woman ran up to the Jeep Kamara-Umunna was sitting in, and died as she gave birth in the mud. And all around her, boys — the child soldiers, young and teenage — loomed.
Years later, Kamara-Umunna met one of the boys who was at Tubmanburg Junction, named Fofee Fofana. He told her he turned away from the dying woman to give her privacy. "But Foffee," she said, "Boys like you are the ones who made her suffer." She says he doesn't have a good reason for why he turned his face from that situation, when he could stand there and kill people, or witness killings.
Fofana appeared on Kamara-Umunna's radio show to discuss what it was like to be a child solider — and a perpetrator of violence. She tried to understand what that scene meant to him as a fighter, and to her as a witness. "I tried to see what it means to him, when it comes to trauma and how he can reconcile his actions on that day."
It's a challenging process, she admits, but on her radio show she continually tried to see reconciliation from both the sides, that of the perpetrator and that of the victim.
Another former child soldier, George, admitted to her that he'd done terrible things, but that he wanted to turn his life around, go to school and become a carpenter. But at the school, he discovered one of the women he'd injured as a young man was a teacher.
"It's so hard for you to go back after the war, and you as a victim to see your perpetrator and say, 'Can I allow this person to be in my school? Or can I ... sit down and talk to this person?' ... It's a difficult spot." So on her show, she sometimes tries to ask the perpetrator how he'd feel if the situation were reversed, or if the same atrocities had been committed against his sister or mother. "Sometimes," she says, "they bust out crying."
"Reconciliation is a huge word — people use it around the world, but everybody have a different meaning to it," she says. But to Kamara-Umunna, there's no one definition, or one way to bring it about. "We have to sit down and think about it within ourselves: What does it mean to me? And what does it mean to you?"
Child soldiers were often abducted, as young as two-years-old, and drugged. "You have to make people understand these boys are victims, and they became perpetrators," she says. "Are we just going to abandon them?" She brings everyone to the radio, she says, "to talk about these issues."