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Sierra Leone's 'family talk' heals scars of war

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Caulker wants to put those values on that checklist. For months, he has been traveling from village to village, reviving fambul tok – family talk in Krio (an English creole). It's a tradition with a long history – before the war; before, even, the white man – and a range of meanings. Villagers sat around nightly bonfires, telling jokes and recounting the day's events. Sometimes, fambul tok resolved disputes, adjudicating everything from petty theft to matrimonial discord. The practice made villagers more than neighbors; it united them as a fambul.

Caulker thinks these old ways may be Sierra Leone's best method for dealing with its newest problem: reconciling rural communities after a war felt most brutally in these villages he says fell through the gaps of the postwar checklist. Here, former soldiers live again alongside the women they raped or whose husbands they killed, or the men whose hands they cut off. They didn't apologize; didn't acknowledge the past. They just, Caulker says, moved back in.

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Reuniting the fambul is more than theory for Caulker. Before the war, he lived with his mother, Annie Rosaline Caulker, in Songo, outside of Freetown. At first, his village was sheltered from the brutality of a war that started, in the east, as somebody else's fight. The Revolutionary United Front (RUF), notorious for looting Liberia's diamond riches and terrorizing its people, brought its battle across the border in 1991, in search of neighboring Sierra Leone's mineral wealth. The instability eventually led to a coup d'état and the splintering of fighting forces, who competed for political power and control of the country's diamond mines. As the war dragged on, the list of military groups – and war atrocities – grew.

In 1995, the rebels reached Songo and forced Caulker's family to flee to his aunts' home in Freetown, which had been sheltered enough, on Africa's western coast, that the atrocities seemed mere rumor.

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