WASHINGTON –– Ishmeal Alfred Charles will always remember the day the helicopters saved his life.
It was sometime in 1998, in the midst of Sierra Leone’s civil war, and Charles, then 15, was standing in line with a group of 10 teenagers, facing mutilation at the hands of a savage band of rebels that had ravaged much of the West Africa nation for seven years and counting.
Charles, like dozens of other teens, had been kidnapped by Revolutionary United Front rebels months earlier. They managed to flee once in a chaotic moment after lugging weapons and supplies for the rebels and committing atrocities on their behalf as they ravaged community after community for weeks on end on the way to overtake the capital of Freetown.
The teenagers, including Charles, had been captured by the rebels again and now faced punishment for fleeing into the bush earlier. One by one the teens were losing a hand or an arm as the rebels asked the one-time child soldiers whether they wanted a “short sleeve or long sleeve.” Not all survived the mutilation.
Charles was second in line when the government helicopters swooped in, sending the rebel camp into pandemonium and the teens fleeing again into the thick forest.
The arrival of the helicopters was a miracle orchestrated by God, Charles told Catholic News Service Oct. 24 in an interview with Washington during a two-week U.S. visit coordinated through the Healy International Relief Foundation of Lumberton, N.J.
Those events set the stage for Charles to be reunited with his mother and siblings in their hometown of Wellington, near Freetown. And it set Charles on a path to assist his fellow Sierra Leoneans reconcile with each other and overcome the dire poverty that set in following the 11-year conflict that ended in 2002.
Today, Charles works as programs manager at Caritas Freetown, the development office in the Archdiocese of Freetown and Bo.
Born a Muslim, Charles, 29 converted to Catholicism after attending a Catholic school and being immersed in the church’s culture and rituals. He said he believes God called him to a life of service to help rebuild lives after the war.
Charles assists Caritas staffers running programs such as the Fatima House of Light, which works with former prostitutes and at-risk girls in teaching them skills such as hair dressing and auto mechanics. There also is the Disabled Street Children’s program which provides kids mutilated in the war with training and education; the Youth Readiness Intervention Project that helps war victims deal with psychological challenges; and the Intergenerational Impact of the War Project which helps former fighters learn how to channel anger into nonviolent responses in family and personal conflicts.
Caritas Freetown also maintains close ties with the Catholic-run Serabu Hospital in Bo in the southern part of the country.
“What I went through didn’t determine what I was going to be in the future,” Charles said. “What I went through … actually motivated me to be what I am today. What I try to do very much is to make sure that my past does not hold me back.”
He credits his mother, Aminata, for supporting all of his decisions, including the one that found him converting to Catholicism at an early age. She also has become Christian but is not Catholic.
After the war Charles enrolled in the University of Sierra Leone and studied peace and conflict studies. He said he chose the field to be able to share his
experiences with others in the hope of transforming his homeland.
“The rebels were very strong in their own way because they wanted to get people to support them. I was trained to shoot a gun, but that was not my desire. I didn’t want to kill people,” he said.
Charles recalled being beaten at least once and tortured by the rebels. Food was scarce and illness was rampant. He remembered fighting alongside the rebels carrying out indescribable acts against innocent victims.
“I have been through a lot. I know what it means when you are hungry and cannot find food. I know what it means when cannot find cloth to wear. I know what it means when you are depressed and what it means when you are happy. I can better bring in those experiences that I have had into my job,” he said.
Poverty and economic inequality remain major challenges for the vast majority of Sierra Leone’s 5.8 million people, Charles said. He called for wider distribution of the wealth that foreign companies provide as they mine the country’s vast diamond reserves as well as bauxite, iron ore, titanium ore, gold and chromite.
“The problem is the misappropriation of resources,” he explained. “You hear about a lot of politicians buying very expensive houses in other countries and they tend to make more people poor because when you use resources meant for a whole nation to buy something for your own personal use, then that’s corruption. That continues to make people impoverished.”
The Healy International Relief Foundation supports Serabu Hospital, Caritas Freetown and local parishes and priests. Msgr. Daniel Sullivan, foundation executive director, said one major effort involves seeking donations of no longer used Mass vessels, altar linens and vestments from U.S. parishes for the priests serving the 500,000 Catholic Sierra Leoneans.
The Catholic Church, Charles said remains respected throughout the country as people realize that many of the social services being delivered are Catholic in origin.
However, Charles added, priests continue to struggle to have their basic needs met. Collections taken at Mass are small, leading to meager priest stipends, and clergy do not always have access to dependable transportation to reach outlying communities, he said.