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Jewish Journal

Teshuva in Liberia: Moving from ruin to reconciliation

by Rabbi Sharon Brous

July 5, 2012 | 4:19 pm

Rabbi Sharon Brous with some of the women of WIPNET (Women in Peacebuilding Network) in Liberia. Photo courtesy of American Jewish World Service

Rabbi Sharon Brous with some of the women of WIPNET (Women in Peacebuilding Network) in Liberia. Photo courtesy of American Jewish World Service

Sometimes, when you visit a place that is full of so much pain, the stories — and days — begin to bleed into one another. 

The stories of the people of Liberia, whose ferocious civil war ended only nine years ago, reveal horrifying trends through 14 years of fighting. Scant memories are shared nowadays of life before the war (not easy, but peaceful at least), many more of the terror as waves of rebel forces pushed their way through the country, massacring thousands and displacing hundreds of thousands, many never to return. There are stories of families torn apart, stories of unthinkable brutality, the constant and consistent terror of violence unabated, the devastation of social structures (all schools and medical centers in the country shut down, the private sector evaporated completely) and desperate food shortages for far too many years. 

Yes, all war is devastating, but the war in the West African nation of Liberia was characterized by a particular brutality — perhaps because it was orchestrated by a man with a compulsion toward the obscene, specializing in vicious and pervasive rape of women and girls as young as 3 years old, perpetrated often by boys and young men not much older than their victims. When this war made it to the headlines of the Western press, it was generally because of this noxious detail: the small boys who were abducted and initiated into Charles Taylor’s army by being shot up with drugs and forced to commit heinous crimes against members of their own villages — often their own families. This ensured that they’d dedicate themselves wholly to the war effort, having eviscerated all hope of returning home. Later, this tactic was taken up by Taylor’s enemies as well — warlords who attacked the same tired population in their own effort to wrest power from the powerful in Monrovia.

Toward the end of my time in rabbinical school, in the late 1990s, I began to study human rights and conflict resolution in earnest. At the time, Charles Taylor had become president of Liberia and was presiding over the second deadly phase of civil war there, while perpetuating the war in neighboring resource-rich Sierra Leone. Over the course of that decade, two lush and promising African countries were crushed by waves of senseless violence perpetrated against civilians — murder, rape, torture and, especially in Sierra Leone, amputations: arms, legs, breasts, ears. (It was his criminal acts in Sierra Leone that earned Taylor his recent conviction in The Hague, sentencing him to 50 years in prison.) As the fighting raged in both countries, I’d run between Talmud classes to the School of International & Public Affairs at Columbia University to watch video clips of these boy soldiers — some 10 or 11 years old — riding around the countryside on the backs of beat-up pickup trucks with their rifles, cigarettes and sunglasses. They clearly had no comprehension of the devastation they were causing, no sense that the atrocities they were committing would take generations to heal. I found myself wondering what would happen to the boy soldiers and their families when the war ended. This question haunted me, and I set out to determine whether the vast Jewish literature on teshuvah — reconciliation and forgiveness — might offer any insight that could help bring healing once the fighting ceased.

After a decade and a half of fighting, the war that transformed Liberia’s beautiful countryside into a post-apocalyptic nightmare reached a triumphant denouement. In 2003, as the conflict reached a fevered pitch with Taylor’s enemies closing in on the capital city of Monrovia, thousands of women came together proclaiming the simple message: “We want peace. No more war.”  WIPNET (the Women in Peacebuilding Network), a group of extraordinary women led by Leymah Gbowee, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, wore white T-shirts and scarves and sat in the blazing sun and pouring rain, refusing to move until the men made peace. “We were not afraid,” one of the women of WIPNET told me. “Either we will die from war or we will die fighting to make peace.” The women stared down generals, warlords and soldiers. Gbowee stood before President Taylor and proclaimed:

“The women of Liberia are tired of war. We are tired of running. We are tired of begging for bulgur wheat. We are tired of our children being raped. We are now taking this stand to secure the future of our children.  Because we believe, as custodians of our society, that tomorrow our children will ask us, ‘Mama, what was your role during the crisis?’ ”

And the women prevailed, ultimately bringing down the Taylor regime and disarming the rebels and militias on all sides. In the first free election after the war, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Gbowee) was chosen to be the president of the new Liberia — a nation devastated by war and desperate for healing. 

I traveled to the region with Ruth Messinger of American Jewish World Service and a small cohort of Jewish thought leaders and philanthropists to see the country in the aftermath of conflict and disarmament. We set out to meet the architects of peace and the leaders of NGOs working toward women’s empowerment, social and economic justice, and sustainable development, and to hear perspectives on the possibility of reconciliation. A few years ago, Liberia began a truth and reconciliation process, but it was aborted midcourse when it became clear that high-ranking government officials would be implicated for wartime actions. As a result, talks of reconciliation have stalled, and while Gbowee and some others continue to plead for a reinvigorated reconciliation process, the people I spoke with talked mainly of moving on. “You must forget about it,” a young woman whose little brother was shot as he stood by her side, told me through tears. “Otherwise you’ll never be able to move on with your life.”

“Forgive and forget. It’s the only way to start living again,” a member of the hotel staff told me.

“We just want peace,” our driver, Mike, said. “Who did what, who didn’t do what — it doesn’t matter. As long as they’re willing to lay down their arms, that’s all that I care about.” 

Forgive and forget? Move on? These words made me tremble every time I heard them. Perhaps it is because of my Jewish bias for justice. The fact is, there can be no justice without, well, justice — which is why I see a reconciliation process as both a spiritual and political necessity. How can a society be rebuilt when the man in the market stall next to you killed your child or raped your sister? And even if it’s possible to forgive and forget, is that really a social value? 

A true reconciliation process in Liberia presents some serious challenges, not the least of which is the absurdity many perceive in investing money and resources into a lengthy reconciliation process at a time when the country is starving for basic services. Liberia’s heath systems were utterly destroyed in war, and there are now only a few dozen doctors serving a population of nearly 4 million people in decrepit and under-resourced hospitals and clinics. Maternal and infant mortality rates are among the world’s highest, and children commonly die for lack of basic medical care. (We saw a young girl walking around with an infected open sore on her leg, something that would have been treated easily in the United States. I shudder to think what will happen as that infection inevitably spreads and she loses her ability to walk.)  Because all of the schools were shuttered for 14 years, there is now an entire population of 8- to 30-year-olds who do not know how to read or write. The private sector remains virtually nonexistent, and foreign economic investment is often spent to the detriment of the Liberian people, as multinational corporations reap extraordinary profit from the land and sea and share little with the population. Only 2 percent of the country is on the electrical grid, and even in our very lovely hotel in the capital, there was no electricity or running water for much of our stay. And, as President Sirleaf shared with our group, rape remains a blight on the nation — she identifies it as one of the three greatest challenges the country faces. Teenage pregnancy is among the highest in the world; women have little access to contraceptives and therefore tend to have six to 10 children, etc., etc., etc.

And yet, I continue to wonder what chance this country — or any, really — has for recovery if it does not deal responsibly with its past. 

It is true that healing takes time, and it may be that in another five to 10 years people will be ready for a reconciliation effort that interests few today. Whether it is implemented now or in a decade, it is clear to me that, for people to recover from the devastation of war, a sincere and robust national reconciliation effort is essential. The rush to move on as soon as arms are put down is understandable, but it fails to adequately address people’s deepest wounds, thereby threatening to undermine an already fragile peace. Placing reconciliation, even forgiveness, in the heart of the political arena and making it a national priority can create space for the possibility of healing and rebuilding.

Every conflict is unique, and as a result, there can be no one formula for an effective reconciliation process. What worked in South Africa would not have been successful in Guatemala, Sri Lanka or Northern Ireland. Specific cultural and religious assumptions must be central to the construction of any postwar effort. Nevertheless, there are several elements of teshuvah, the Jewish process of return and reconciliation, that I believe could offer a framework for healing in Liberia and other post-conflict regions. The first is the presumption that transformation is possible, both for an individual and for a society: Who you were in your darkest moment, high on drugs and war, is not who you must forever be. Second, one can choose to engage the enemy with empathy and compassion without diminishing one’s own pain or letting the perpetrator off the hook. War is the ultimate in dehumanization; reconciliation is about people beginning to see humanity in one another again. Third, there are certain crimes that are beyond the scope of full teshuvah — complete return — including rape and murder, trademarks of this war, like most. Nevertheless, some things can be done to restore social harmony and help rebuild a country’s infrastructure at the same time.


Rabbi Sharon Brous is the founding rabbi of IKAR (www.ikar-la.org), an L.A.-based Jewish community working to reanimate Jewish life by fusing spiritual practice and social justice, tradition and soul, piety and chutzpah. This year, she was noted as the No. 5 rabbi in the country by Newsweek/ Daily Beast, and she was listed among the Forward’s 50 most influential American Jews three years in a row.

A group of Liberian children. Photo by Rabbi Sharon Brous

What does all of that mean from a programmatic standpoint? Jewish wisdom suggests a threefold strategy for communal or national reconciliation: truth, accountability and memory. 

1. Truth. There is a certain irony in the insistence on truthtelling in the aftermath of violent conflict. Marc Gopin, director of the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University, and others who have worked to end intractable conflicts have argued that in order to sign peace agreements, the criminality of the enemy must often be temporarily suppressed. But for a country or community to ultimately heal, the events of the past must be actively uncovered. In a national act of loving validation, communities should come together to speak publicly about their losses and to hear one another’s stories. Gbowee writes about sacred exercises she began to hold during the war, called “Shedding the Weight.”  Small groups of women would gather by candlelight and share their stories of rape and assault, their terror and their dreams. Many people told their stories for the first time in this setting, and it seemed to create an opening not only for healing, but for empowerment and political activism. 

2. Justice. Systems must be devised in which perpetrators are held accountable for the acts they committed.  As Gbowee has said, boy (and even some girl) soldiers are “damaged children [who] have grown into damaged young people.” They need the help of their communities, their nation, to transition from soldiers to productive community members. Rwanda’s ambitious multifaceted reconciliation model distinguishes between the masterminds of the genocide (who have been or will be tried by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda) and the foot soldiers, who are tried either in criminal courts or in local gacaca (“on the grass”) courts set up around the country. Nearly 1.5 million people have been tried in these courts, designed to help victims learn the truth about the death of their family members and structured to give more lenient sentences to perpetrators who express remorse for what they have done. Safe arenas like these must be created, where perpetrators can hear of the pain they have caused and be guided by local religious and communal leaders toward taking responsibility and expressing regret for what they have done. In Rwanda, after acknowledging wrongdoing, perpetrators go to work draining swamplands and building roads, helping to repair the country they devastated.

3. Memory. Remembering is not about fueling resentment until the opportunity for retribution emerges. Memory — especially of pain inflicted upon our people — is central to Jewish liturgy and ritual; the assumption is that active preservation of memory not only honors those who suffered, but also transforms the consciousness of future generations. Many post-conflict regions have found a need for the creation of designated spaces (memorial structures) and times to remember (national days or rituals of remembrance, like National Sorry Day in Australia or Tisha b’Av and Yom HaShoah). 

I understand the challenges of investing time and resources in truthtelling, accountability and the preservation of memory when the people need jobs and food. As one woman from WIPNET said, “We fought for peace, but you can’t eat peace.” And yet it seems to me that the work of social transformation is essential to the rebuilding of a society, and only with attention to war wounds will a new communal consciousness be formed — one that guides the people in addressing basic problems of poverty, unemployment and education. This will surely take time — any authentic process that undertakes the challenge of social, political and spiritual transformation surely would.  There is no quick fix to violence and war — especially war this brutal and unforgiving. But dramatic social change is possible, as evidenced by the relationship between Germany and Israel, which most would have found unimaginable in the aftermath of the Holocaust. 

It’s true that when you hear so many stories of pain and loss, they tend to blend into one. And yet there are some that, once heard, live in you forever. They change you in some way, push you to rethink all previous assumptions. Cecilia, one of the powerful white-shirted women who made the peace, shared her story with a few of us.  She was working in some kind of informal intake set up by the women, hearing stories from men and children after the war. A man approached her and confessed to a brutal murder. Years earlier, Cecilia had been home with her sisters and parents when the rebels stormed their house. She was able to flee, but her sisters were forced at gunpoint to watch their father brutalized, dehumanized and ultimately murdered. She realized, as she now listened to the details pouring out of this young man, that the person he had tortured and killed was her own father. She burst into tears, whispered, “I forgive,” and ran away, sobbing. As she told us this story, we all wept and hugged. Afterward, I apologized, worried that we had unnecessarily provoked her to revisit her deepest trauma. “No,” she said. “It is through the tears that we begin to heal.”

I left Liberia profoundly moved by the strength of the people — especially the women — who continue to fight courageously for peace and the restoration of sanity and dignity in their country. I am proud of the work that AJWS supports on the ground — work that is actually helping to shape history — and touched that while most Liberian villagers have never before met Jews, they know of AJWS’ work and know that we are a people that has suffered terribly and has come out believing in the triumph of the human spirit. My prayer is that the spiritual and social needs of a devastated population can come to be seen as political priorities. I hope that Liberians will craft a system of accountability and justice in which truths are told, people called to take responsibility and given a chance to work toward the healing of the country. And I’d like for the mantra forgive and forget to be permanently replaced with reconcile and remember. But until then, at least we’ll have our shared tears.

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