I started my Good Friday with an early trip to Lumley Beach in Freetown. I ran a wavy line along the soft, white sand, dodging the waves as they lapped up to my feet. Then I cooled-down with a quick swim in the Atlantic. There was no one else in the sea for maybe two kilometres in either direction. Not a bad start to the day.
As I made my way home, I saw what I thought was a child lying in a ditch. On closer inspection, it was just a pair of trousers, stuffed with rags.
Then, just before I got to my house, I saw the same thing. This time a complete stuffed dummy, the size of a ten-year-old kid, lying the street. A disturbing sight in a country with a recent history like that of Sierra Leone.
The civil war here in 1990s started as an offshoot to the conflict in Liberia. It descended into pure chaos, with a number of coups and mindless, unspeakable violence, funded by blood diamonds. Everyone here, apart from children, can still remember the war.
While stuck in traffic a few weeks ago, I asked my taxi driver Masa Mara about his experience of the war. “No one knew why they were fighting. They were just fighting,” he said. Masa is normally softly spoken, but his voice rose gradually, as his talked about that time. ”For what? For what?” he shouted.
Masa remembered a close call when a soldier demanded him to account for himself. There was no way to tell who was a rebel and who was not. Soldiers were nervous and trigger-happy. If you couldn’t prove you were not a rebel, you could be shot dead in the street. His religion made no difference to the solider, for bad or for good. A Muslim soldier would kill a Muslim rebel as quickly as he’d kill a Christian rebel.
By the end of the conflict, tens of thousands had died. Thousands more were maimed, raped or traumatised. The war had no religious favourites.
As I stood over the dummy on my street, the local kids came running towards me. “Hey, Mister Red, Mister Red!” (I always introduce myself as Red, but that is how everyone addresses me in the neighbourhood). I asked them what was going on. “It’s Judas Iscariot. The bad man,” they said.
It’s a Good Friday tradition here for kids to place a Judas effigy in the street, and ask for some money. Their Judas had a lime cooler/alco-pop between his legs. Bad Judas indeed, I thought. I gave them 1,600 Leones (40¢).
When I was done I noticed the eldest kid had a fresh scar on his temple – a right of passage for adolescents in certain tribes, meaning he is probably a Muslim. He told me all of the kids here are Muslims.
An older man was watching us and corrected him. “This child is Christian,” he said. The others didn’t know, or didn’t care. Happy to involve their Christian buddy in their peacetime tradition.