Sierra Leone: Remembering the Peace Bridge
By Ishmael Sallieu Koroma*
Many young Sierra Leoneans born after 2002 have no idea what it was like for those before them running helter-skelter for their lives, in fear of been killed, or to go for days without food, water and even shelter.
This was the experience of Sierra Leoneans during the country’s eleven years civil war. The war is considered among the most brutal civil unrests in history, as rival factions attacked civilians, maiming and killing them and destroying buildings.
In March 2002, the late president Ahmed Tejan Kabbah declared the war over, urging Sierra Leoneans to stay calm, embrace peace, and forgive one another. Peace was attained with the help of the international community. The war claimed thousands of lives, left many with lifelong injuries. Thousands of Sierra Leoneans were forced to flee as refugees to neighbouring countries, particularly Guinea and Liberia.
Years of building democracy have earned Sierra Leone a lot of admiration globally. The country has witnessed three successive elections since after Kabbah.
Besides the scars of the war which still remain with Sierra Leoneans, some people say it is important to remember the country’s past as that will keep the people informed and help them protect and defend its hard-earned peace. One way of doing this has been by renaming the Congo Cross Bridge to Peace Bridge. This bridge is renowned for been the place where rebels were halted by government forces and civil defense forces, preventing them from advancing further into the capital city on 6th January, the day the rebels entered the city for the first time since the commenced in 1991. It is a symbolic place that serves as a reminder of the legacy of Sierra Leone’s past. The bridge was renamed in accordance with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) recommendation for symbolic activities to be carried out, including the establishment of monuments on mass graves. The idea was that it could contribute in the promotion of post-war reconciliation.
However, today, hardly do citizens know the history associated with the Congo Cross Bridge. As a sign of negligence on the part of the authorities, there is not even a sign board to show its name – ‘’Peace Bridge”.
The Center for Memory and Reparations, headed by historian and lawyer, Joseph Kaifala, has tried to bridge the leadership gap and establish monuments, identifying mass graves and raising awareness on the civil war.
The aim of Kaifala and his team is to facilitate remembrance and collective narratives around the war from 1991- 2002, whilst also serving as a platform for justice, granting avenue to the voices and experiences of those who were most affected by the war and remain vulnerable in society.
Paragraph 3, Vol. 2, chapter 3 of the TRC report states that “The Commission is of the view that the adoption of its recommendations will assist the people of Sierra Leone to rise above the bitter conflicts of the past, which caused unspeakable violations of human rights and left a legacy of dehumanisation, hatred and fear.’’
For Dr. Peter A. Dumbuya, Professor of History, Department of History and African Studies, Fourah Bay College, it is incumbent upon Sierra Leoneans not only to preserve and protect historical materials, but also to make them available and accessible to the wider public. He said it’s part of the mandate of institutions of learning, including universities, colleges, and schools, to help preserve that memory through courses and other activities that teach the history of Sierra Leone.
‘’There is much forgetfulness, as you suggested, in matters that touch upon national symbols because our leaders themselves are not steeped in the history and material culture of the nation. Instead, they are engaged in the necessities of survival, what Jean Francois-Bayart describes in his book as ‘the Politics of the Belly.’ Furthermore, national and municipal authorities have turned a blind eye to the unchecked growth of slums especially in low-lying waterways including bridges,’’ he said.
According to Dr. Dumbuya, it should come as no surprise that the Congo Cross Bridge/Peace Bridge itself has become a symbol of slum dwelling right in the middle of Freetown, noting that people have precious little time for symbols because they are in a daily survival and subsistence mode, trying to eke out a living anywhere and everywhere they can.
When asked about the decline of students opting to read history and African studies in Sierra Leone’s premier university – , he replied: “FBC is not alone in experiencing a decline in the number of students studying history at the college and university levels. Even in the U.S., where I was a university professor for many years, I saw a decline in history majors to the point where universities and colleges began to discontinue history as a degree program.
Dr. Dumbuya revealed that the decline in enrolment for history majors can be ascribed to many factors which he said included the manner in which history is being taught as a subject that deals in dates and the names of important individuals and/or states; the rise of subjects in technology and related fields; career and pay issues; dwindling state funding for the social sciences and humanities, vis-à-vis a concomitant rise in funding for courses in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM); and poor teacher training.
‘’I am worried because legislators are not cognizant of the fact that a nation or society cannot create an educated population without the humanities and social sciences in the mix of university and college course offerings. Courses in the humanities and social sciences are just as important as those in the sciences and related fields. This message has to get out to the public in order to restore a semblance of normality in history and related courses in the humanities and social sciences,’’ he said.
For the nation not to forget the legacy of the war, the TRC recommended that a national peace day be established, during which reconciliation and solidarity with those who suffered during the war is promoted.
‘’This should be a national holiday. Activities on this day should take place at all levels, from community level to the national level. The Commission suggests that this be the 18th of January, which is the day on which the war was officially declared to be over in 2002 with the symbolic burning of 3000 weapons at Lungi,’’ the report reads in [art.
On 18th January 2022, the Center for Memory and Reparation commemorated the day in Lungi, where the war was officially declared over in the country, by lighting a flame of peace at the civil war memorial which was done by government’s spokesman Alhaji Alpha Kanu.
Lack of awareness of the history of the war and its aftermath means Sierra Leoneans like Mohamed Kamara know very little about certain aspects of efforts to memorializing it. He expressed shock when he learnt that the Congo Cross Bridge was renamed Peace Bridge, revealing that even though he has lived in Freetown for more than twenty years, he didn’t know that the name of that bridge and the meaning its carries .
‘’I only came to realize that the renaming of the Congo Cross bridge to Peace Bridge has a history behind it. These facts needed to be taught in schools, colleges and universities, so that us as students are aware about our past and where we are heading,’’ Kamara told me.
According to Kamara, history is so important that if the people don’t preserve their past, it would affect them. He therefore called on relevant institutions, like the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, to do more.
*This article was produced with support from the ATJLF Project on “Engaging the Media and Communities to Change the Narrative on Transitional Justice (TJ) Issues in Sierra Leone,” through the MRCG.