Rival ethnic groups smoke peace pipe in Liberia's Lofa county

Returning from exile, the Lorma and Mandingo tribes of Lofa county are finding out that to begin a new life in the face of so much destruction, they must first reconcile their differences before they can rebuild their shattered lives and communities together.

Preparing to slaughter a cow for the traditional cleansing ritual to reconcile the ethnic Lormas and Madingoes of Bakedu town in Lofa county.   © UNHCR/S.Brownell

VOINJAMA, Liberia, July 20 (UNHCR) - The sound of drums fills the air from the slender tower of the mosque at the entrance of Bakedu town. Women, men and children stream to the Bakedu Mosque to converge for special prayers marking the beginning of the traditional cleansing ceremony in this hilltop Mandingo chiefdom located some 15 km north-east of Voinjama city in Lofa county, Liberia.

This cultural practice of the people of Lofa is a ritual to ask the forgiveness of their ancestors. On a sunny afternoon last Friday, it was celebrated to forge reconciliation between the Mandingo and Lorma ethnic groups - who, since the start of civil war in Liberia, have been blaming each other for atrocities meted out on kinsmen and desecration of holy places.

In major Lorma and Mandingo towns and chiefdoms, traditional leaders will be carrying out cleansing ceremonies for a month to sanctify places that were desecrated during the conflict, a first step towards healing and reconciliation in their belief.

"We are traditional people and believe in our culture and it is binding on us to respect our word. What peace we start today must continue to spread to everyone," said Forkpa Boakai, the spokesman for the Lorma chiefs, at the ceremony last week.

The traditional cleansing ritual started with prayers at the Bakedu Mosque before a jubilant congregation proceeded to the centre of town to slaughter a cow as a sign of covenant for reconciliation. Singing, dancing and speeches followed at the newly-renovated Town Hall.

"This is a historic place to start reconciliation as many of our kinsmen died here," said Bakedu town's chief Imam, Alhaji Mamadee, noting that reconciliation is a major concern for both the Lormas and Mandingoes.

Just over 2,000 of the 10,000 pre-war population of Bakedu town have returned since the 14-year Liberian conflict officially ended in August 2003. Mamadee Dukuly, who left Guinea's Kouankan refugee camp for Bakedu last year, said he had been afraid to make the decision to return home because of the existing tensions between his tribe and the Lormas.

"My uncle encouraged me. Now I am back, there is free movement and everyone is busy trying to rebuild their lives," he said.

The traditional cleansing is the first of its kind since efforts to reconcile the two groups started in 1997 when the civil war had momentarily ended. This time, however, hopes are high that true reconciliation will be achieved.

"Good things will not happen for us if we continue to be divided," said Andrew Ballah, Town Chief of Vornema town in Lofa county, adding that the communities need to show respect for one another's culture.

With 88,707 km2 of fertile land, Lofa county was Liberia's breadbasket before the war. But this area was the hardest-hit in the fighting, in terms of population displacement and destruction of infrastructure.

Since returns to the county became possible in mid-February this year, UNHCR has assisted the repatriation of some 15,000 Lofa refugees from neighbouring countries, mainly from Guinea and Sierra Leone. The agency has also helped 58,000 internally displaced Liberians to return to Lofa under the inter-agency collaboration approach.

The return programme is supported by community empowerment projects that involve repairs of schools, clinics, bridges and roads, as well as other basic services and facilities contributing to the county's recovery. Agriculture and skills training are also emphasized under these projects.

UNHCR relies on the community to identify these projects and participate in their implementation as well as maintenance. Unity among the residents is therefore necessary to sustain the community projects.

The women of Bakedu town lead a procession to the town centre.  © UNHCR/S.Brownell

Rejoicing in the long-awaited reconciliation, returnees like Mamadee Dukuly and his family of 10 participated in the traditional cleansing ceremony. Dressed in a white-laced African suit, Dukuly happily went through the ritual: "This is just the beginning. There will be eating, dancing and traditional musical performances all night long."

The traditional ceremony has been initiated by the traditional leaders themselves, following a series of meetings. The event is expected to end on August 5, followed by a Peace Festival in Voinjama city at a later date.

By Sarah Brownell
UNHCR Liberia