By John O’Brien, S.J.
One night, which happened to be Good Friday, I sat in a friend’s living room and listened to a man describe his trip to hell and back. Human suffering was never so visible as it was in the face of that smiling man.
Lansana is from Sierra Leone, a west African country founded by former American slaves. In 1991, armed rebels, frustrated by decades of tribal discrimination and the huge gap between the poor and diamond-swollen rich, launched a civil war. In ten years it displaced or killed nearly one third of the population. For Lansana, the son of a moderately successful plantation owner, the war meant a descent into Dante’s inferno.
As he spoke his story, I saw the lamplight catch in the dents and scars on his forehead. Lansana is still young, in his mid-thirties, but he has already lived many lifetimes. He wears tan clothing, in the simple but fashionable way of young Toronto males. The expression of his eyes varies from mirth to anguish, as he recounts the dark history of his recent past.
When he was 23 and a student, Lansana went to stay with his uncle who lived some distance away. One night, as he slept alongside his two cousins, armed men banged on the door of the home. Lansana’s uncle went to the door, and began to defend his home. Because he resisted, rebel soldiers shot him dead before Lansana’s eyes, then took him and his cousins into the forest. There they asked Lansana to join them. When he refused, they beat him savagely until he passed out. Lansana never saw his cousins again.
When he awoke, Lansana was deep in the mountains at a encampment. Every day his captors asked him to join their number. Every day he refused and was subjected to inhuman degradations.
English is the official language of Sierra Leone, which won its independence from the U.K. in 1961, and Lansana is articulate and expressive. But here on a spring evening, attempting to express his experiences to a group of Canadians, words sometimes fail him. His voice cracks and he weeps unashamed before us. We wait, until the story starts again.
For two months, Lansana was a prisoner. The rebels beat him daily, using bamboo whips that stripped the skin off most of his body. Whenever he was told to join them, he refused. They would hold him down and press their machetes blades upon his skin, always mocking his pain, saying, “Doesn’t that feel good, doesn’t it feel sweet?”
The heartbreaking side of this story is that most of Lansana’s tormentors were children, child-soldiers crazed on the drugs that were forcibly injected into them by their officers, and brainwashed into showing no softness or kindness.
Lansana pulls up his pant cuffs, and reveals his legs, which are covered with stripes of scar tissue.
“Every part of my body felt pain,” he says. “Every part.” He raises his cuffs higher and shows us his knees, which are gnarled blobs of flesh.
Lansana professes not to hate his torturers. He says he does not even blame them, for they did not know what they were doing. When I ask Lansana why he refused to join them, his eyes shine.
“It’s hard to explain,” he said. “But I knew I didn’t want to become like them. I didn’t want to be killers like them.”
A lasting feature of the civil war in Sierra Leone was the atrocities committed by the rebels, whose trademark act was to cut off the hands of their victims. But Lansana knew that to become a rebel would kill his soul.
During his long captivity, there were moments of despair. One day, his captors gave him a pistol and told him to shoot a fellow prisoner. This was to be his initiation by murder. Despondent, and not wanting to become a killer, he turned the gun on himself and pulled the trigger. But the gun was empty. His captors laughed and once more beat him unconscious.
Unbeknownst to Lansana, all this suffering was to have a purpose. One day, government troops attacked the mountain camp, and in the ensuing gun battle, every member of the rebel company was killed.
Lansana explains to us that even the child soldiers were not spared. Too often they served as lethal cover for their officers, or would cry wolf then shoot would-be-rescuers. Soldiers fired on everything that moved in the rebel camps. There would be no survivors. Yet when a government soldier burst in on Lansana's hut, he paused. Lansana says he happened to be a former classmate of his, and took him outside.
“I was so disfigured by this point,” he said, “that the government soldiers saw it was impossible that I was a rebel.” Lansana lifts up his shirt sleeves and reveals his arms, which like the rest of his body, are marked by scars.
“I was saved by a miracle,” he said emphatically. “If I had joined the rebels I would be a dead man today. Although I suffered like I never want my worst enemy to suffer, the suffering saved my life.”
After his release, Lansana went to Guinea, where he taught English, eventually saving up enough money to get him onto a cargo ship bound for America. His plan was to hide in the cabin of crewman, until the boat arrived in the U.S. But it turned out that the ship’s destination was Jamaica.
In Kingston, Jamaica, members of a church befriended him and helped secure his passage to Canada. He wanted a new start in a new country, far from the horrors back home.
Today, Lansana lives in Toronto, where he works on a construction crew, and is married to an African-Canadian nurse. Although raised a Moslem, Lansana says he has a huge respect for Christianity.
“It was always the Christians who were there for me, when nobody else was,” he said to our small group.
This was a poignant Good Friday. Sometimes the cross gets very real.