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How Should War-Torn Countries Go About the Reconciliation Process?

A study in Sierra Leone finds reconciliation events boost trust and community, but it comes at a psychological cost.

By Nathan Collins


Vendors walk on the beach as they head to collect fish on a beach in Freetown, Sierra Leone. (Photo: Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images)

Following a war—especially the kind of war that pits neighbor against neighbor—it would seem like the best thing for members of both sides to do is to sit down and hash their problems out—say “sorry,” offer forgiveness, maybe have a big bonfire. But while reconciliation efforts can help a nation heal in some important ways, according to a new study, they can also do some damage in other, more private ways.

The context for the new study, published in Science, is Sierra Leone’s decade-long civil war, which killed more than 50,000 people between 1991 and 2002. “Thousands more were raped and had limbs amputated,” write Jacobus Cilliers, Oeindrilla Dube, and Bilal Siddiqi, “and 2.6 million people—more than half the population of ~4 million people—were displaced as part of the Revolutionary United Front rebel group’s campaign of terror against the population.”

If ever there was a country in need of healing, even a decade and a half later, it’s Sierra Leone. It remains unclear, however, whether reconciliation efforts are really working as hoped, according to Cilliers, Dube, and Siddiqi. To find out what effects those efforts actually have, the researchers worked with Fambul Tok, an organization that incorporates traditional conflict resolution methods, including truth-telling ceremonies held around bonfires, to deal with the civil war’s aftermath. (The organization was also the subject of a fairly glowing 2011 documentary.)

If ever there was a country in need of healing, it’s Sierra Leone.

When Fambul Tok expanded in 2011, Cilliers, Dube, and Siddiqi worked with them to randomize where in the country they’d work next, creating a kind of experiment. The question is, how would communities where Fambul Tok held reconciliations fare compared with others?

Based on surveys of 2,383 people in 200 villages, the researchers found that reconciliation ceremonies had powerful, but not entirely positive, effects on the people who took part. Reconciliation “led to greater forgiveness of perpetrators and strengthened social capital: Social networks were larger, and people contributed more to public goods” in villages where Fambul Tok held events.

“However, these benefits came at a substantial cost: The reconciliation treatment also worsened psychological health, increasing depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder in these same villages.” For example, there was on average an increase of five percent in the number of people individuals would turn to for advice or help after taking part in the ceremony. At the same time, clinical signs of post-traumatic stress disorder increased after the ceremonies, from about eight percent in control groups to 11 percent among those who’d participated in the ceremonies. Both the positive and negative effects persisted in follow-up surveys nine months and 31 months later.

“Our findings suggest that policy makers need to restructure reconciliation processes in ways that reduce their negative psychological costs while retaining their positive societal benefits,” the authors write.