Truth and reconciliation programs have become a common approach for rebuilding social ties and promoting healing among communities in the aftermath of war, but little is known about these programs’ effectiveness. In Sierra Leone, researchers partnered with the local NGO Fambul Tok to evaluate the impact of a community-based reconciliation program. They found that while the program led to greater forgiveness of perpetrators and strengthened social capital, it also worsened psychological health.
Wars destroy more than human lives and property—they also damage social ties, especially in cases where neighbors take up arms against each other. Recovering from civil war therefore involves repairing social ties, which has led many post-conflict countries to hold truth and reconciliation processes. These programs provide forums for victims to talk about war atrocities and for perpetrators to confess to their war crimes. Proponents of this approach suggest that the process can be cathartic and provide psychological relief, but others believe exposure to traumatic events can worsen psychological wellbeing. Little rigorous evidence is available on whether and how reconciliation efforts help communities and individuals heal from conflict.
Sierra Leone experienced a devastating civil war from 1991 to 2002. More than 50,000 people were killed and over the half the population was displaced. Much of the violence took place within communities, with members from the same villages fighting each other. Following the conflict, the Sierra Leonean government and international community created a Special Court to try the most high-profile perpetrators and set up a national Truth and Reconciliation Commission,1 but the commission only had the capacity to cover a small fraction of all the atrocities that happened during the war. Very few rural Sierra Leoneans were able to participate, so large swaths of the population were left out of the reconciliation process. To address this gap, the Sierra Leone NGO Fambul Tok (“Family Talk” in Krio) was founded in 2007 to address wartime grievances and facilitate local-level reconciliation in rural communities. It currently operates in five of 13 districts in Sierra Leone.