Family Talk

From the horror of war to peace, 'Fambul Tok' shows the power of forgiveness

‘They cut off the heads of all these people and put them in the bag.” The soft-spoken woman fidgets nervously with her fingernails as she recalls the horrific events that transpired that day.

“They tied the bag and they told me to take those heads. I thought they were going to kill me. Then the boss asked me, ‘Can you identify your children among those heads?’ So I looked at the heads, I said, ‘They are my people.’ And then they dumped the heads in the water.” Her husband quietly at her side, rocks their young child in his arms. Nearby, the sister of the man who killed this woman’s family sits alone in an open field, guilty by proxy.

The 2011 documentary Fambul Tok is hard to watch, but it offers a powerful message. Peace and reconciliation are possible in even the most savage of civil wars like that of Sierra Leone’s. These kinds of stories resonate throughout the tiny villages that populate the war-torn country. The fact that victim and perpetrator live in such close proximity is a constant reminder of the brutality.

Journalist and filmmaker Sara Terry read a story about a Sierra Leone village that resolved conflict through communication and forgiveness rather than punishment and incarceration, and it inspired her to make this documentary. The impetus for Fambul Tok (Krio for “family talk”) was not the legacy of the war itself, but the direct, guileless and ultimately effective way that these communities resolve their issues.

When undertaking the project, Terry decided to tell the story not through her eyes, but through the eyes of the people who experienced the atrocities of the war firsthand. “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,” she says in a director’s statement. “Because maybe then we might begin to learn why forgiveness is possible for the rest of us.”

Between 1991 and 2002, Sierra Leone experienced one of Africa’s most brutal civil wars. The conflict became notorious for the use of “blood diamonds,” sold to purchase arms that fueled the fighting. Tens of thousands of women in these tight-knit communities were raped, children were forced to fight as soldiers, 2 million people were displaced and more than 50,000 people were killed. The war tore the country and its culture apart.

John Caulker worked as a human rights activist during the conflict in Sierra Leone. As a resident of one of the brutalized villages (Songo), Caulker was familiar with the oral traditions of these communities and their venerable methods of conflict resolution. He believed that these traditions could be implemented to heal the wounds left behind by this brutal war. In 2007, Caulker founded Fambul Tok International as “a grassroots reconciliation program based in Sierra Leonean tradition. . . . In Songo, we actually grew up as a family, knowing each other,” he says in the film. “It used to be quite lively.”

On Jan. 18, 2002, the war officially ended. Shortly thereafter, the United Nations approved the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL). The SCSL was constructed to “prosecute persons who bear the greatest responsibility for serious violation of international humanitarian law and Sierra Leonean law.” Just over a dozen men who were held most responsible for the war were indicted, and most were convicted. A blanket amnesty was given to all other offenders. They were integrated back into the communities, living side by side with their victims.

Fambul Tok offers a rare glimpse into actual tribunal ceremonies in which assailants go before victims and the community, and asks for forgiveness, which is not always immediately given. Sometimes the victims, imprisoned by their quiet rage, lash out at their perpetrators with words and emotions that can escalate into outright attacks.

At one particular “bonfire” ceremony in the film, a young woman confronts the man whom she knew as her “uncle” who beat and raped her at the age of 12. The man explains his actions with profound remorse and asks for forgiveness. The young woman gracefully accepts his apology and a modicum of peace is restored in the village.

Terry hopes that the principles of “family talk” can be applied in the United States too. “One act of forgiveness at a time,” she says in the film, “that’s how the world changes. You can start with the person who cuts you off in traffic. Forgive a family member, then change starts.”

Sonoma County Library