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'Ancestor Stones:' Life and War in Sierra Leone

Aminatta Forna was just 11 when her father was hanged for treason in Sierra Leone. His real crime was being a popular leader of the opposition in a country sinking under one-man rule and headed for civil war.

Forna fled with her family to Britain, and from there she gazed back until she could return, as an adult, to write a memoir, The Devil That Danced on the Water. Her next book was a novel, Ancestor Stones, which tells the story of an unnamed country in West Africa, as seen through the lives of four sisters and spanning eight decades.

"The book is set in Sierra Leone," Forna tells Renee Montagne as part of a weeklong series of conversations on war and literature. "I chose not to name it when I wrote the novel because I simply wanted people to enter the stories and not overlay upon them what they thought they knew about Sierra Leone" — that is, a war-torn country of summary executions, amputees and child soldiers.

Forna, who spent a year in Sierra Leone researching Ancestor Stones, found that women have a distinctly different perspective of war.

"I spoke to a lot of women about their experiences of war .... The experience of war is different for women. Every woman in that country lived under the constant threat of rape and sexual assault. In my family's village, on a single day when the rebels invaded, every single woman was raped and some of them were taken away."

When men talked about the civil war, "it was very much about what they did and where they were. 'This area was taken over and then I went here.' Whereas the women talked much more about the emotional truths of war — what was really happening as opposed to what was simply happening in newsreel terms."

One scene vividly captures the desperate reality of war. It takes place in a camp where refugees have been waiting a long time for a shipment of food to arrive. But when the crates are opened, it becomes apparent that there has been a mix-up.

The boxes were full of lipsticks, hundreds of them, in their gold coloured cases. The men in blue helmets immediately surrounded the vehicle and prepared for a riot. All of us had such hunger in our bellies. But a moment later they pushed back their helmets and lowered their sunglasses, to make sure what they were seeing was really true. The women rushed forward, myself among them, to snatch up these shining lipsticks. The many miles between us and our lost homes, our rotting feet, the grass and leaves with which we had tried to line our stomachs, the emptiness of the future: for a short while all was forgotten. We stood in the sun, laughing and ribbing each other, painting our mouths in vivid colours.

"War does reduce people to terrible circumstances, and it's that attempt to hold on to moments of pleasure, moments of joy in these tiny things ...." Forna says.

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Renee Montagne
Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.