After the Fighting: Civil Conflict Through the Eyes of Non-Combatants

After the Fighting: Civil Conflict Through the Eyes of Non-Combatants

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Sierra Leonean and Scottish writer Aminatta Forna divides her time among London, Sierra Leone (where she established a village school and a farming project) and Williams College in Massachusetts (where she’s a visiting professor). A Global Council member of the International Museum of Women, based in San Francisco, she is the author of “The Hired Man” (2013 Bloomsbury). She was interviewed by NAM reporter Anna Challet.

Aminatta Forna is speaking at Book Passage in Corte Madera on Saturday, Oct.12 at 1:00 pm. See her
website for more information.

Your books have focused on places that have experienced civil conflict – from Sierra Leone in your memoir of your father, ‘The Devil That Danced on the Water’ to Croatia after the breakup of Yugoslavia in your recent novel, ‘The Hired Man.’ What are the origins of your focus on civil conflict?

My interest in civil conflict began because of my family’s experience in Sierra Leone. My father was a political dissident and he was killed when I was 11. He had foreseen exactly what was going to happen in the country, and left a letter to that effect, saying that we would end in war if we carried on going down the path to dictatorship. And of course he was opposing the dictatorship, which was why he was killed. So I never could get rid of that thought, that if one person had foreseen it, why couldn’t we all foresee it?

I’ve always been interested in the experience of the non-combatants. What happens in civil conflict is that after the actual fighting has ended, you are left with the people who did this thing to you, or to whom you did this thing, and that has a very particular resonance and it goes on for years.

I have spoken about my books in different countries, in Sierra Leone, in Sri Lanka, in Colombia, in Spain – I’m talking about countries where there’s been civil conflict – and there’s very strong connection to these stories. It’s something to do with – it sounds like a cliché – but it’s an absolute loss forever of innocence about what human beings are capable of.

Why do you focus on non-combatants?

Typically that’s the female experience of war, and of rape as a weapon of war, which is one of the parallels between the former Yugoslavia and Sierra Leone. [Women’s] bodies become the actual battleground. The International Museum of Women has used the Internet to its greatest effect in giving a voice to regular young women in countries that are what I call ‘outside the center,’ not Western countries. The IMOW consistently gives access to thousands of young women who subscribe and submit writing and artwork.

You were a journalist for the BBC in the 1990s. What was it like to experience Sierra Leone’s war from outside the country while your family was there?

All my family was caught up in [the war]. The one who told me most about it was my cousin, of fleeing through the streets. He himself was twice put up against a wall to be shot. He used to teach English and one of the soldiers was his former English student, and so they called off the execution.

The first time the war really came to Freetown, my stepmother (who is Sierra Leonean and who I regard as my mother as well) was in Freetown with her husband. They had to flee their house because they’d been threatened several times by militia. They were hiding and so we had to get them out, my sister and brother and I, and eventually we did. They got out first on an American airlift and then they were put on a boat and got to Britain. My sister went to the airport and my mom had nothing, just the clothes she left the house in. People had just fled their houses. She saw friends of ours with blood on them. [My stepmother] stayed with us in London for a year and then we, believing the Sierra Leonean government, deduced it was safe enough for her to go home. And we sent her home. This is November 1998. [So] she was there for the worst of the fighting.

What made you want to write about Croatia?

I became very interested in the differences and similarities between the war in Sierra Leone and the war in the former Yugoslavia. I alighted on Croatia specifically because I came across an advertisement in a British newspaper for holiday homes in Croatia and I thought: That takes a very particular kind of willful blindness to go to a country where there’s a sudden boom in cheap housing and potentially to buy an abandoned house without asking -- when there has been ethnic cleansing -- why that house is empty. I find that tremendously shocking.

How has Sierra Leone recovered from its civil conflict differently from the former Yugoslavia?

Crucially, our war did not go along ethnic lines. This made something possible which hasn’t happened in the former Yugoslavia, and that is that Sierra Leoneans have committed collectively the greatest act of forgiveness that I think I will ever witness. They really have got to the end of a terrible war and forgiven their neighbors. I think it does have a lot to do with the culture of the country. We have a great culture of forgiveness in the country. I think it’s quite true of small-scale cultures, where things still operate very much at village level – trying to find compromise, persuading someone to ask for forgiveness. I’m often asked, Have I forgiven the people who killed my father? In Sierra Leone, it would be the opposite way around, they would be asked to come and ask me for forgiveness.

Our war did not go along ethnic lines. So there was no ‘other’-ing. There was no ‘they did this,’ ‘that’s what they are like.’ Because we didn’t have any ethnic cleansing, you’re still living with the people who you fought with and therefore everyone had to find a way forward.