Portrait: Agnes Fallah Kamara-Umunna

“I try not to only be a journalist,” she said.  “I am a journalist, yes, but I am an activist first.”

~Agnes Fallah Kamara-Umunna

It was raining when we entered the Barnes and Nobles in Union Square and Agnes Fallah Kamara-Umunna headed straight to the checkout counter.

“Do you have And Still Peace Did Not Come?’” she asked a young and somewhat perplexed cashier who seemed to have a rough time understanding her accent.

“I’m sorry?” the girl asked with raised eyebrows.  I reached in my purse for Agnes’ book and handed it to the girl.  “Oh yes, yes!” she said and led us to a shelf with the newest non-fiction books.  Agnes’ book was at the bottom of the wooden display and the clerk quickly retrieved one.

“Open it up,” Agnes demanded with a proud smile.

The girl opened the back cover where an unassuming Agnes grinned at her from the book jacket.

“It’s you!” the girl said.

Agnes laughed and agreed to autograph all of the displayed books, which the clerk then placed on the entry table with other more popular and recognizable titles.  I admired her bravery and the pride she showed in her work, something that I had already become somewhat familiar with by reading her stories in And Still Peace Did Not Come—A Memoir of Reconciliation.

“So you see,” she continued an earlier conversation with me as we stepped onto the escalator. “You cannot judge these boys for what most of them had no choice in doing.”

“These boys” she referenced were the child soldiers of the fourteen-year Liberian Civil War guilty of heinous crimes that resulted in the deaths of 250,000 of their countrymen.

“No choice?!” I asked, shocked that she would defend these (now) men who after mercilessly killing, raping, butchering, drugging, stealing from and even disemboweling thousands, still roam the streets of Monrovia with the victims of their atrocities.

“No choice.  Look,” Agnes explained, “imagine if you did not have your father or grandmother to save you—if God-forbid they were killed during the war and you and your sisters were captured by rebels.”

The thought made me sick.

“You were only 5-years-old and those rebels would have raped you, given you cocaine or opium and an AK-47 to fight.  You wouldn’t know the difference, and you wouldn’t know this American life. Now imagine after the war you are 19, 20—and people begin to judge you for what you were forced to do. That is why I defend them. That is why they deserve a voice.”

Far removed from the possibility of that outcome, I shook my head and was revisited by a familiar anger and the confusion I feel when I think of my grandfather and so many others whose lives were unfairly stolen by “those boys.” However, I knew and have always understood that our escape from the war was nothing short of a miracle and that Agnes may have been right; my life—the job and education and American dream—could in fact have been one of theirs; and their lives—the violence and loss and stunted childhoods—could have been mine.

She had my full attention.

Reconciliation

For three years after the second Liberian civil war in 2003, Agnes Fallah Kamara-Umunna hosted Straight From the Heart from a UN sponsored radio station in the capital city of Monrovia.  The show allowed Kamara-Umunna, then newly relocated from Sierra Leone, to interview and air the testimonies of victims and survivors of the unrelenting conflict.  One day, her editor told her to visit the Liberian ghettos to find former child soldiers so that she could interview them as well.  A reluctant Kamara-Umunna visited the popular ghetto with a coworker and found a shanty with 14 former child soldiers.  Alone, she convinced the young men to visit her station and give their sides of the painful story.  She has not looked back ever since.  And Still Peace Did Not Come is Kamara-Umunna’s first book and interweaves her personal life and history with the testimonies of many of the child soldiers who eventually begin to call her their “Ol’ Ma,” for her startling interest in their lives and well-being.

“Obviously, I got threats,” Kamara-Umunna wrote. “Some people called to congratulate Jefferson or Willis or Momo for finding the courage to admit what he had done.  But others wanted to grab and choke my boys and they wrote me nasty letters, or telephoned the station directly.”

Although she had been airing war testimonies of victims for some time, it was not until the former child soldiers were interviewed and their crimes and histories aired that Liberians finally faced the great tragedy of forced reconciliation and the fact that despite post-war sensitivities, Liberia was a country where the man who raped a woman or killed her parents would probably never be tried for his crimes, and more mind-blowing, could live right next door to her.

In thirty page-turning chapters, the reader acquaints compelling real-life characters like George, a former child soldier who is refused enrollment at his local school because once induced by drugs, he beat up and intimidated members of the head teacher’s family; Varlee, the former child-soldier who at nine-years old joined a rebel army in exchange for his grandmother’s life, only to return fourteen years later to a grandmother who wanted nothing to do with him or his disreputable crimes; as well as a younger, dangerously curious and ambitious Kamara-Umunna, who despite the death threats and disapproval she received from a shocked audience, made it her business to tell the stories of these boys and their stolen childhoods.

“I wanted to talk about reconciliation,” she told me once we found our seats beneath a half-empty bookshelf in the back of the store.  “I had my show and I knew it was important to talk about the relationship with reconciliation.”

What is most interesting, however, is not the fact that Kamara-Umunna used Straight From The Heart as a platform to share the ignored backstories of the men and women who fueled the brutal war.   What is most interesting is that Kamara-Umunna was able to use these backstories in a tense post-war climate as a way to advocate for peace.

Featuring hopeful yet sometimes wildly unbelievable recollections of unlikely reunions, opium-fueled massacres and the abject poverty of the war’s survivors, the Non-Governmental, Non-profit media program gave startling insight to the extent of the psychological rehabilitation that is needed throughout the nation for victims and perpetrators alike.

“Everybody needed help after the war.  I helped people when they could not help themselves,” Kamara-Umunna answered when asked if there was anyone she had interviewed who she hated for the crimes they committed during the war.  “To hate them would be wrong. Many were so young—as young as three and four when they were forced to fight.”

Kamara-Umunna’s show also enhanced the work of Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, or TRC.  The TRC was created in May 2005 with the two-year goal of investigating human rights violations that occurred in Liberia between January 1979 and October 2003.  “That’s two years to investigate not twenty-four days, not twenty-four weeks, but twenty-four years of atrocities,” Kamara-Umunna wrote in the memoir.  Committed to her belief that “perpetrators were also victims,” Kamara-Umunna gathered testimonies, interviewed victims and warlords, and even convinced some former child soldiers to testify at TRC hearings.

“At first the government thought I was only exposing people and using their stories to strengthen my show,” Kamara-Umunna says, “but in the end people saw and heard how these boys wanted help too, and how in many ways they were victims as well.”

Kamara-Umunna visited the boys frequently, sat and ate with them, smoked with them and slowly became acquainted with the human beings underneath the criminal exteriors—the  men they could have been had the war not ravaged Liberia as it did.  I imagined their bloodshot eyes and dirt sprinkled shirts, chapped lips, hanging heads and hunched shoulders that carried the epic burdens of their sins.

“I told them they were not alone,” she said. “That’s all they needed to hear to believe that they could change.”   Straight From The Heart was a catalyst for a center where the young former soldiers could go for food, shelter and assistance in finding education, technical training and employment after the war.  Today, The Straight From The Heart Organization serves as a psychosocial unit that offers accessible mental and physical health services to war affected persons and a shelter house for women who are often fleeing domestic violence or are victims of sexual abuse.  Kamara-Umunna’s next project is to expand the organization by creating a media and outreach unit that trains women to become local journalists. They are currently in the process of purchasing radio equipment and an FM station with donations.

“We have raised money toward it, but still need help,” she said. “I believe it can be done. I’m not worried.”  Kamara-Umunna hopes to put trained women on the air later this year.

The Writer/The Journalist

She was first person I had ever met who could confidently and successfully plead the case of Liberian rebels, and for this reason she intrigued me.  Agnes rested her back on the shelf in the shadow of unpurchased books and stretched her interlaced fingers.  Even silent she emanated an unbending strength—the result of hearing too much, seeing too much, and knowing too much of the world’s wickedness and what iniquities are possible when man’s obsession with power overwhelms his human rights.

With journalistic prowess and sexual politics comparable to that of Ida B. Wells, Kamara-Umunna gushed that if she could change anything about her life, it would be her teenage years—a decade complete with rebellion, familial instability and a teenage pregnancy.  Yet it was precisely these years that contributed to the courage and tenacity behind Straight From The Heart’s outreach to Liberia’s fugitive children.  “I was less serious then.  But I learned a lot from those years,” she confessed, though the details of that period were left out by the books editors and publisher.

“I was lucky—I don’t have many memories of the war,” she said, “I lived the war by putting myself into the storyteller’s position.”

The daughter of a well-known Sierra Leonean doctor, Kamara-Umunna was able to escape to Sierra Leone with her father when the first Liberian war began in 1990.  There she joined her mother, a Liberian nurse, and waited for the conflict to end.  When her father, an employee of the World Health Organization, returned to provide medical services to war victims; she followed him back to Monrovia several times during the war before later accepting a position at the radio station.

It was there that Kamara-Umunna gained the attention of the TRC, a relationship that resulted in her travel to the United States to study journalism and later take the testimonies of war survivors and perpetrators in the United States.  “They are here too, and they have trusted me with their stories; I would never expose them,” she said leaning close to me.  I winced, again staggered that some soldiers had perhaps managed to cross the ocean.  “They just want to live in peace. Just like you. They escaped the war too,” she gracefully defended them.  She laughed at my evident nerves.

There was a question I had wanted to ask since I sat down and finally comfortable with the familiarity of her presence, I asked:

“Who is this woman listed as your co-author?”

She shook her head.  I gathered that this woman, whose name is listed directly under Kamara-Umunna’s as an author, (and after researching and finding that her background would have given her little access to Liberia or the war), was a product of some in the literary industry’s tendency to exploit and sensationalize African war stories and unassuming African authors in America.  I accepted her testimony in confidence and wish her and all other writers with “war stories” and “survival stories” and “immigration stories” and “assimilation stories” great luck in navigating their art as it is introduced to the world of commerce.

Today Kamara-Umunna lives in New York and continues to take testimonies of Liberians living in the United States.  She plans to one day use her resources to own and operate radio stations throughout West Africa.  Although her memoir has been successful and her work has contributed to the continuous fight for the civil and human rights of citizens of post-war countries, her dream is to return to Africa and help build and sustain free and fair media.

“I want to go back and I want people to ask, ‘did you listen to Agnes today?’ she said smiling.  “I work in America and for America but I am not an American person.  Africa is where I can be chief.”

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