11 December 2014
Two sets of wars in Sierra Leone have left our generation of young people in utter pain, suffering, fear and often despair. The civil war that raged from 1991 to 2002 and now the Ebola onslaught have torn apart families and deeply affected children and youth.
Sierra Leone, like its neighbours, struggled hard to recover from the bloodshed and violence of its civil war, which left more than 50,000 people dead. When the civil war ended, many youth were left homeless and aimless. The government, NGOs, religious bodies, and many individual actors helped the young war survivors throughout post-civil war years. These institutions and individuals sought resources everywhere to provide survivors with the psycho-social care and support that was crucial to reintegration. In recent years, it seemed like things were settling down for the generation of young people, but alas, another abominable war broke out - the silent war of Ebola, which is sending an even louder message in the media, far louder than the bullets of the civil war.
During the civil conflict, many children and their parents died in the war. Those children who survived were looked after by other people. When the war with guns became a distant memory to millions and the psychological and emotional scars of the conflict gradually dampened through steadfast interventions, the Ebola war reared its ugly head and immediately brought an unappetizing and odd reminder of what many children and families faced and endured during the brutal civil conflicts.
This health emergency has demanded an urgent attention to the plight of thousands of victims. Whereas the the civil war in Sierra Leone dragged on for many years before it gained the attention of internationl media and actors, today's new technology and faster-paced media feeds have given nearly instantaneous attention to the plight of Ebola victims.
Still, actions to intervene have been too slow to keep pace with the deadly virus, much to the chagrin of the affected populations who are calling out for assistance.
The Ebola casualties are still being counted, and hundreds of young people are being left as orphans. An estimated 4,000 now face orphan-hood within the three countries of Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea. During the war years, children saw their parents dying from bullets and were powerless to save them. The same is true of the current Ebola crisis where children watch helplessly as their dying parents are carted away by masked men clad in white apparel. Health workers are marshaling away sick or dying people into ambulances, some of them never to be seen again by loved ones.
These horrid experiences of the Ebola outbreak will, like the civil war, remain ingrained in the minds of this young generation. You can imagine how gruesome it is for many of these young folks who have seen both wars.
Even those who escaped or missed the civil war years, and only read about its dismal effect in books, or watch it in the 'Blood Diamond' movies, or hear from parents what seems like a fairy tale now, will not go unscathed in this generation of recurrent crises. In Ebola, they now face a new type of horror, equally torturing to the mind, body and soul.
And it doesn't help that Ebola is wrongly considered by many to be a West African malaise. History about Ebola tells us this is untrue, but also the nature of the outbreak and the means by which it is spreading belie the erroneous perception by those who single out West Africa in a way that seems painfully discriminatory.
During the civil wars, schools and universities remained closed for a very long time and mobility around the country was hampered. As a university student at the time, I recall being flown (what could have been my first flight) with many other students in a military helicopter from the second city of Bo after a National Student Union meeting. The call for a helicopter was reasonable enough, as students never wanted to brave it again, face-to-face with gun-totting rebels who were masters of the road and enforcing spontaneous ambushes.
During those years of civil war, as it is now, the economy floundered and government became weakened to act. The disruption of schools and the educational system during this awful Ebola crisis has, very much like during the civil war, become one of the immediate targets. Although the physical structures of schools are not destroyed as was the case in the civil war, there are other signs that the impact is the same measure. Teachers and students are conditioned to stay at home for fear of the spread of the virus, and so it was during the civil war when we were forced to discontinue lectures for an entire year. It is very sad to see that the disruption of the educational system is re-emerging as a casualty of the Ebola crisis.
In the face of such a chaotic battle against a mysterious and unseen Ebola enemy, Sierra Leone has lost many doctors and nurses too good to go so soon. We pray their sacrifices and patriotic efforts will not go in vain, much as we pray for other international doctors and nurses who have fallen prey to Ebola. They fought hard in their field to restore the country to a healthy footing, to defeat Ebola, to see the country wake up to normal life, where all schools reopen. They envisioned the young going to school again, uninterrupted in their development, and in the development of the country as a whole.
The resilience of our country in the face of this new war is again being brutally tested. And even when Ebola is vanquished, if children and youth continue to miss out on their education, it will be a Pyrrhic victory.
Photo credits: Andrew Benson Greene