Between Ghana, Liberia and Sierra Leone lies a place very close to hell. It’s a place where they’ll tell you even God gave up and there is ‘ no language adequate to convey the horror. Here is where blood diamonds were mined, adolescent killers were created and where rape became a weapon of war. Here is where rebels hacked off the hands of twenty thousand villagers to keep them from voting. But ending the cycle of atrocity and rekindling the decency in every human being across Western Africa is Human Rights Field Director Tim Bowles. As a crusading attorney for the Church of Scientology in the late 1980s, Tim learned early what it means to safeguard human rights. While acting as a legal advisor for the Youth for Human Rights World Tour of 2005, he organized the conferences for India’s dispossessed. It was on that global trek that he came to Western Africa. The experience was profound, and Tim officially signed on as Field Director for the Church of Scientology’s worldwide human rights initiative.
Returning to Africa, Tim met up with Jay Yarsiah whom he’d met at Ghana’s Human Trafficking Conference in 2005. Jay wanted to step on board, but first had a story to tell. He told Tim how he’d fled Liberia in 1990 and lost contact with his mother just shy of Sierra Leone. He spoke of a 12-year old “General” who inspected the ranks of refugees, and maybe because Jay was only eleven, the General finally let him go, but was forced to watch as they mowed down the others with AK-47s. He spoke of bodies piled up like cords of wood in Monrovian streets and 40,000 refugees wasting away from malaria in camps across Ghana. The point was, he wanted Tim to know what he was getting into.
Next to join the team was 29-year old war zone mediator Sammy Jacobs Abby, director of Ghana’s Center for Conflict Resolution and Human Rights Analysis. He was also known for fact-finding missions in the Congo, Zimbabwe, Uganda and Darfur and held United Nations volunteer status.
Jay suggested Buduburam Refugee Camp to Tim as the perfect testing ground for the Youth for Human Rights instructional materials. They communicated to kids across first world nations, but what about a former child soldier who had fed grenade launchers that wiped out entire villages? Or, conversely, the ones who had lost everything including their hands?
When they arrived, Tim was warned not to meet the eyes of the twenty-somethings as those were the ones who had most likely seen action in the small boy brigades. Waiting in the courtyard were thirty camp leaders who had obviously lost faith in everything. They used a hand-cranked generator to play the PSAs, and then Tim began his discourse on the Universal Declaration: how it came to be, how it superseded all laws, politics and even the power of their AK-47s. He told them these were the inalienable rights of man and with them one could rise to higher states despite all reasons to hate.
The first young man to respond said he had done horrible things, too horrible to tell, but now he wanted to make a confession. Others followed suit, their voices flat and matter-of-fact, their faces tracked with tears. And when it was over, no one had ever seen anything like it. No one had even imagined it possible. These former child soldiers, these embittered amputees, these long time combatants from West African wars were literally now standing for universal human rights.
Seeing that the Universal Declaration contained enough truth that just discovering it brought about real change in people, Tim set out to create a way to bring it to everyone in the region, including Liberia and Sierra Leone. He named it the African Human Rights Leadership Project and described it as “role reversal.” Instead of youth becoming child soldiers, he would channel them into brigades of human rights advocates and train them to activate others. They would become fact-finders to pinpoint and publicize human rights abuses. He launched the program in the still shell-hocked Liberian capital of Monrovia. Sammy Jacobs Abby scheduled forums with a hundred students from regional schools, then another 80 from the upper schools and the central university. It spread out across the provinces where half the students had been orphaned in the war.
It wasn’t until Tim received the first actual field reports from the students did anyone realize just what he had unleashed. The first was entitled “A Summary on Rape and Sexual Violence” and documented 196 cases in the space of two months, with proportionate failures to prosecute—another legacy of the war. The news broke in the Liberian papers and was headlined on an All-African network. It ricocheted up to the Ministries of Education and Justice and then to the desk of the Liberian Vice President himself. Twelve teams from fifty schools had seemingly risen from nowhere to spotlight abuses, both past and present. Not only were they West Africa’s new voice for human rights, they were also now its conscience.
The next step was to take the program country wide, and that meant going to the still traumatized rural areas—known as “up country,” where the civil wars begin. Tim and his team started in Liberia’s outlands, beyond which lay the diamond fields of Sierra Leone. The towns are still pockmarked from mortar fire and everyone still keeps stand-by Kalishnikov rifles in the bush. But between returned refugees from the border camps and tho; who had laid low during the war, Tim was soon signing on 60 and youth at a time. Fact-finding teams in Freetown’s secondary schools and youth groups documented amputee accounts from the Blood Diamond zones. More than 80 human rights chapters formed along the cape and across up-country villages.
The program was suddenly self-generating with no less than 2,000 human rights leaders on the ground to spot abuses for international human rights groups, coordinating with human rights tribunals and special courts, while better than a hundred non-government organizations lent support.
It was indigenous. It was real. Ministries of Justice, Youth and Education officially mandated human rights forums across Ghana, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
And from the former killing grounds have risen 9,000 human rights activists, 12 million advocates and another 20 million bearing witness to the fact that human rights are at last alive in West Africa.
The Vice President of Liberia said of Tim, “He has an interest that goes beyond just work. He’s a person who feels that his is somewhat like a calling to render services to humanity in a special way. And that makes a big difference.”1