The Alchemy of Forgiveness

Wednesday, April 4th, 2012

By Robert C. Koehler

“Fifteen men beat us and raped us,” the young woman said. “I was 12. There was one man I knew. My uncle. That man I still see around — whenever I see him I feel afraid.”

This was during Sierra Leone’s civil war, 11 years of hell that ended in 2002 but in point of fact hasn’t really ended, because the survivors, their culture shattered, their sense of community broken, were left in a state of seemingly unbridgeable mistrust of one another. More than 50,000 people died in the war. Many more were crippled and disfigured; thousands of children were abducted and turned, on pain of death, into child soldiers — into murderers. This was the war that popularized the term “blood diamond.”

When the truce between government and rebels was signed, part of the agreement was amnesty. Those who took part in the brutality simply went home. So did those who had fled to refugee camps. The tension and mistrust, as victims and killers rebuilt their lives next to each other, were simply buried. But the vital communities built on sharing and storytelling, which thrived in Sierra Leone’s villages before the war, seemed to be gone forever.

Western justice — a Special Court established to prosecute the worst perpetrators of violence, and even a Truth and Reconciliation Commission — barely scratched the surface of the matter. But human-rights activist John Caulker was convinced that within the broken traditions of his native country — the culture of vital connection, of truth-telling and forgiveness — lay the seeds of reconciliation. He knew that virtually everyone in Sierra Leone longed for reconciliation. But his idea of bringing the truth commission into the bush was rebuffed by the U.N.’s experts on such matters. It’s never been done that way, they said. It will never work.

So Caulker founded an organization called Fambul Tok, which means, in Krio, “Family Talk.” In its first two years, it has conducted 55 healing ceremonies in villages throughout Sierra Leone — some of which are the subject of a searing documentary called Fambul Tok, one of the entries this year in Chicago’s Peace on Earth Film Festival. As I watched it, I knew I had to write about it — seldom have I seen such disturbing subject matter transformed by the alchemy of forgiveness.

Director Sara Terry says on her website that, as she began following Caulker and the Fambul Tok volunteers around the country, she made the decision to keep Western incredulity and skepticism out of the narrative:

“My standpoint as a filmmaker would be to take their standpoint, to let their words, their stories, their lives show me, show all of us, why forgiveness was possible for them. Because maybe then, we might begin to learn why forgiveness is possible for the rest of us.”

“Fifteen men beat us and raped us . . .”

Fambul Tok begins here, at a bonfire. It’s nighttime. The fire blazes. Dozens or maybe hundreds of villagers are sitting around the fire, drumming, chanting. The woman steps out of the crowd and tells her story.

When she’s finished, a man steps reluctantly forward. “He is the man,” she says.

He looks at her: “To begin,” he says, “I apologize. It was not my intention to do it. They hit me and said if I didn’t join them I’d be killed. I ask Esther to forgive me. From now on I will do anything she wants. Anything she asks of me I will do for her. Please forgive me.”

He falls to his knees. “I forgive him,” she says. Someone asks if she really means it. She repeats:”Yes, I forgive him.”

Then they do a sort of forgiveness dance — a dance that’s repeated throughout the film, as the circle of truth-telling and reconciliation travels from village to village. They hold hands and sway back and forth. The crowd joins them. There’s chanting and drumming.

As the film progresses, the stories of violence and horror intensify. Two former best friends speak. They were little boys when the rebels came into their village. One of the boys, on pain of death, beat the other one; then he stabbed the boy’s father with a knife he was given. Before carrying this out, he himself had been wounded. Both boys tell their stories. The killer is forgiven. They hug. They do the forgiveness dance.

A large part of the film revolves around the search for a man named Tamba Joe, a villager who joined the rebels and was responsible for some of the most gruesome violence imaginable. He came back to his old village and led a massacre of former neighbors and friends, including their children. One villager tells of witnessing Tamba Joe murder — and, my God, behead — 17 members of his family. The horror of his story is almost beyond reckoning, but he speaks only with a gentle sadness. He wants reconciliation. He wants Tamba Joe to return to Foendor and face his victims; he wants to forgive him.

Tamba Joe is never found, but his three sisters, whose lives have also been shattered by the killings — who are bereft at the broken connections to their former home — participate in a Fambul Tok circle and receive forgiveness on their brother’s behalf. One of them later videotapes a message for her brother: “Don’t be afraid,” she pleads. “Anything can happen for us. And everything has an end. I believe you are forgiven.”

By the film’s end, Tamba Joe remains in hiding, or perhaps he has died, but his former rebel commander, notorious for his brutality, breaks down in tears as he listens to the message. The commander opens up to John Caulker and begins speaking truthfully, for the first time, about what he did in the war. And so the reconciliation process continues, and Sierra Leone slowly rebuilds itself.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at or visit his website at