"The rebels captured three of us, on the 21st of November, 1992. And the day I was captured, it was the day I was amputated, both hands. The other two men, they cut off their heads. I was the last one. They decided, 'This man, not to cut off his head, let's amputate him.' And they cut off both my hands and they wrote a letter and tied it around my neck. It was a letter to the president, saying that the RUF [the Revolutionary United Front] was going to overcome him."
The day I met Ngaujah on the streets of Freetown, I'd already spent a month shooting in Sierra Leone for an NGO, and I'd been hearing about Ngaujah -- and the fact that he was the first amputee of Sierra Leone's 1991-2002 civil war -- from my driver, who was Ngaujah's cousin. During that month, I'd been puzzled by some of my encounters with locals who talked about the war and the cruelties that Sierra Leoneans had inflicted on each other. Often, people who had been victimized would speak about the fact that the war made neighbors do crazy things, things they never would have done in normal times.
I knew a lot about that war and the amputations and other brutalities that made for shocking headlines. But I didn't know a lot about the culture, and so I found these attitudes puzzling -- I thought they provided an easy out for offenders, who could shrug off responsibility for what they had done. And then I met Ngaujah, and I took the first step on a journey that would last years, one that constantly challenged my Western sensibilities and continually led me to new ways of seeing Africa.
“Revenge will do nothing,” Ngaujah said that day when we chatted briefly on a busy downtown street. “If I kill you, your children will kill my children, and my grandchildren will kill your grandchildren, and that is how generational conflict begins. We want peace. Forgiveness is the only way forward.”