Women & War in Sierra Leone

Against the Current, No. 110, May/June 2004

Jan Haaken

WHILE I WAS doing research in Guinea in the summer of 1999, a village woman informed me of a legend told throughout West Africa. “It is not good to send your children to America,” she said, “for in America, they bury Africans in shallow graves.”

Through an interpreter, the woman explained her worry about youth mesmerized by the idea of America. The fantasy of America as an Edenic place of unlimited freedom was enormously seductive for many youth, even as this same fantasy generated anxiety for many of the elders.

Long after returning to the United States, this image of Africans buried in shallow graves haunted me. As a metaphor the image evoked American loss of memory over slavery and colonial exploitation–the refusal to make reparation over America’s part in the massive suffering of African peoples.

After returning home with my videotaped interviews of women in refugee camps, I was caught between the impulse to forget and a moral mandate to find a means of representing the experiences of women who had entrusted me with their stories.

The documentary film that resulted from this research project was an extension of my earlier work on women, gender violence and trauma. Titled “Diamonds, Guns and Rice: Sierra Leone and the Women’s Peace Movement,” the film was co-produced with my son, Caley Haaken-Heymann, who also did most of the camera work.

The production of the film was carried out in collaboration with Sierra Leonean peace activists in West Africa and the United States, who also participated in the development of a curriculum book for classroom use of the film. Through this project, we wanted to cast women not only as victims of war, but also as actively engaged in analyzing the causes of war and conditions for peace.

In this essay, I make use of psychoanalytic theory in describing some of the dilemmas that emerged in the making of the documentary. My approach also draws on psychoanalytic clinical practices, particularly in attending to what may be described as the “countertransference” side of political projects.

Although countertransference refers to the responses of a therapist to a client, particularly responses shaped by significant experiences in the past, this concept may be extended to encounters that carry potential for solidarity as well as for suffering. Left traditions within psychoanalytic social theory focus on group processes, bringing together social structural and historical factors, on the one hand, and psychological dynamics–particularly unconscious fantasy and defenses–on the other. Psychoanalytic social theory centers primarily on collectively organized fantasies and defenses, in this case as they relate to representing women’s experiences with war.

My work across cultural borders also is grounded in Marxism, feminism, and post-colonial theory, perspectives that hold important implications for building political alliances as well as for theorizing peace projects.

Background to the Civil War

Sierra Leone is a small country along the coast of West Africa, bounded in the north by Guinea and by Liberia in the south. It also is a nation with deep historical connections to the United States.

During the 1700s, thousands of Sierra Leoneans were brought to South Carolina and Georgia during the Atlantic slave trade.
Captured and exiled to the United States, they were prized by Southern plantation owners because they possessed advanced technical skills as farmers.

Having grown rice for thousands of years, Sierra Leoneans were experts at cultivating crops in conditions much like the semi-tropical marshlands of the American South.

Sierra Leone gained independence from the British in 1961. As in other African countries, the legacy of colonialism did not end with the formal defeat of the colonial powers. Sierra Leone continues to possess vast mineral resources–particularly diamonds–that are heavily controlled by outside investors. Throughout the post-colonial period, foreign extraction of resources has kept Sierra Leone in chronic underdevelopment and poverty.

What began in 1991 as a popular resistance to Sierra Leone’s corrupt leadership, escalated by the mid-1990s into a bloodbath that nearly destroyed the country. Disaffected boys and young men, as well as some girls and women, provided ready recruits into the Revolutionary United Front, a violent militia that waged a campaign of terror across the country in its bid for power.

By the time a peace treaty was brokered in 1999, much of Sierra Leone was in ruin. [See Mark Brenner’s article in this issue of ATC for more background–ed.]

Women and Organizing

In representing situations of violence and trauma, there is always a risk of minimizing the suffering victims are forced to endure. This may take the form of a manic flight into testimonials of “resilience” or embracing upbeat stories of the indomitable spirits of survivors. While minimization of trauma is one defensive tendency, so too is there a risk of fixating on psychic or social devastation.

One issue we talked about in the process of making the film was the problematic side of relying too heavily on violent imagery in educating and raising consciousness about the war. Mutilations were the signature mode of violence in the civil war, but Sierra Leonean peace activists also found that these dramatic images of violence served to break through the wall of indifference in the West.

In discussing the use of footage for the film, I argued that extensive focus on mutilated civilians may arouse a sense of the extremity of the situation, but may as readily create a sense of hopelessness. If the country and its people appear so utterly destroyed, calls for assistance are less compelling.

As we worked together on the documentary, some of this urgency subsided, as the project developed into a more long-term peace education effort.

The Sierra Leonean women who participated in the project taught me a great deal about traumatic memory, as well as the psychology of hope. In interviews of refugee and immigrant women, there was a rhythmic moving in and out of disturbing imagery, a vacillation between the “good objects” and the “bad objects” in the traumatic past.

Their Own Stories

Musu Kanu, a Sierra Leonean refugee who came to the United States after the rebel assault of 1999, helped me understand this dynamic interplay. After describing the atrocities that took place on the day her village was burned down by the rebels, she drifted off, murmuring “I don’t even want to think about it.”

We sat for a while and I asked her what she ate in the bush to survive. As we talked about these very tangible aspects of survival, Kanu went on to describe how she and the other women would gather to pray.

A devout Christian, Kanu drew on her faith to sustain her. But so, too, did she find strength in her female companions who fled with her to the bush, sometimes grabbing whatever children were within reach. “We stood tall, as women, because, you know, when you fall, your husband will not be by your side.”

In telling the story of the civil war, I wanted to create some holding space within the text of the film–some meaningful representations of “good objects” in a world of overwhelming destruction–that could help viewers contain the disturbing material presented in the film.

On a political level, representations of ravaged Africans, stripped of their full humanity, serve to rationalize paternalistic interventions. As sociologist Merema Toure described it, the Western discourse on “tragic Africa” is as potent a tool in post-colonial domination as is the image of out-of-control Africans. Whether depressed or acting out, Africa is portrayed as the perpetual adolescent, in need of European guidance until it “matures” into Western style democracy.

The film makes use of music, poetry and dance, just as do women in many of the refugee camps, to create a space for psychically absorbing traumatic imagery. Some of the women discussed this movement between the tolerable and intolerable aspects of their situation.

Bondu Mani, secretary for the women’s center in the Massakondou camp, on the border between Guinea and Sierra Leone, stressed the necessity of bringing the community together around projects. “We have to be engaged,” she insisted, “in order to put it at our backs. Otherwise, the trauma will never leave you.”

By creating a community garden, for example, the group builds a sense of collective strength and restorative capacity. Yet Sister Catherine Dauda, director of a center for child soldiers, insisted that “we have to remember and understand what has happened to us. Otherwise, it will come up again and again. The elders have failed the youth, so they took up guns and went into the Bush.”

Sister Catherine organized theater groups in the refugee camps that incorporated child soldiers in scenes re-enacting the war, including the mutilations. While seemingly contradictory approaches to trauma recovery, these two perspectives were part of a necessary dynamic of moving between the present and the past.

Who’s Responsible?

Sister Catherine’s framework for incorporating acts of violence included socially distributing responsibility for the violence so that young rebels did not carry the entire burden.

Understanding the influence of colonialism and neocolonialism provides an additional holding ground for working through the trauma of the war. In looking for photos and video clips to use in the film, I came across early 20th century photos of African workers who had been similarly mutilated by British bosses.

These mutilations were carried out to warn workers, who labored under slave-like conditions, of the severe penalties of resistance. In the documentary, we introduce these photo images–eerily similar to the mutilations carried out by rebels–to suggest how the war reenacts the trauma of the colonial past.

This is not to suggest that there is a direct causal connection between mutilations Africans suffered at the hands of colonial powers and current expressions of violence. Rather, these images are introduced to interrupt the defensive distance created through Western moral outrage.

It is not so difficult to recognize the RUF rebels as a source of villainy. It is more difficult, however, to bring into focus the more distant players who benefit from the war–those with no visible blood on their hands.

Feminism, Psychoanalysis and War Trauma

Segments of a piece by the Nigerian poet, Ifi Amadiume, weave through the film as rhythmic relief from the film’s disturbing imagery. This use of the maternal voice as a comforting presence may be interpreted as problematic, however, in that it may bind women to a timeless, social symbolic universe outside of history.

Yet these same segments of soothing poetry also include biting commentary. She critically engages patriarchal disavowal of dependency on women, even as this critique is extended to Western repression of its exploitation of Africa.

The film concludes with this final passage of Amadiume’s Nok “Lady of Terracota”:

Weep not sister, you are not alone,
for you are just one branch of the tree–
The Tree of Life; The Tree of Africa;
stretched out across the black land
is that dark mysterious valley
between the legs of Great Mother Nile
the cradles of our birth
we dare not deny

Psychoanalytic feminist theorists often stress the defensive aspects of the gender divide and how male psychic development is built on the disavowal of dependency and a repression of the tie to the mother. Western political and economic dominance is built on similar forms of disavowal and repression.

Through the eyes of Western authorities and ruling class elites, Africa is cast in the role of disabled welfare recipient. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund dispense aid but require “discipline” and “responsibility” in the fiscal management of African countries in return.

Yet a large portion of the wealth of the West has been built on resource extraction in much of the Third World, including Africa. Prior to the industrial revolution, wealth in the United States was based on the slave labor of Africans. Today, as well, prosperity in the West is significantly based on extracting a surplus from the cheap labor of Third World immigrants and people of color.

My work as a feminist researcher served as my portal of entry into this project on gender violence, even as it opened up two areas of conflict. One area involved the question of how we understand differences in women’s experiences. The other concerned problems in representing male violence in situations where men suffer exploitation and are victims of racist forms of violence.

In telling the story of the Sierra Leonean civil war, I felt a responsibility to represent women’s experiences as victims, but also to place male violence in the context of colonial exploitation and the ravaging effects of the global economy.

The international movement against gender violence provides a framework for understanding commonalities in women’s experiences, but this sense of female commonality also may be used defensively. As important as it is to support Third World women in their struggles against patriarchal control, these efforts may easily take the form of assuming control or foreclosing on women’s struggles to identify on their own the sources of their suffering.

Let me illustrate with an example.

Before visiting the camps, I met with rescue workers who were assisting women refugees in identifying victims of gender violence. In the Massakondou camps, women were required to identify victims of rape and prostitution in order to receive aid for a community garden.

As important as this emphasis on gender violence was, I wondered about the foregrounding of sexual violence. Might this have been a more salient category of trauma for Western women?

When I spoke with women in the camps about their concerns, they did speak of girls being sexually violated and women exchanging sex for food with men who raided relief trucks. But sheer work exhaustion emerged as a more daily and chronic concern.

While male sexual violence was a real problem, male passivity and the sense of abandonment many women experienced were less apt to register in the Western lexicon of trauma as a source of female suffering.


Progressive researchers, therapists and rescue workers bring their own fantasies and defenses to the process of helping, even as they may contribute to a vital process of reparation and recovery.

Inevitably, however, some accounts are privileged over others. Sympathetic war victims are typically cast as physically and psychologically ravaged but not enraged. Indeed, some of my students who saw an early version of the documentary film expressed surprise that the women did not look and talk like war refugees.

Working across cultural borders is disturbing, but also enormously satisfying. The creation of strong working alliances beyond the narrow self-interest of national identities, alliances that point to possibilities for a more just world, has given me a greater sense of hope.

Mental health professionals have much to contribute in situations of armed conflict and mass trauma. But we must also be careful about how we export our theories to situations that require a deep understanding of the structural aspects of violence, especially as these contexts shape the specific setting where we are engaged in mental health work.

Psychological understandings of trauma and recovery must be combined with analyses of economic, political, and cultural forces that contribute to the systematic production of collective forms of psychic trauma.

ATC 110, May-June 2004