During my visit to Cambodia, about three years back, I had found a unique kind of museum on way to the famous temple of “Bante Strai,” created as a result of an one man’s crusade against land mines. His name is “Aki Ra” and he has built this museum, displaying thousands of landmines originally planted all over Cambodia by Khmer rouge. In this museum, I had found a small memorial dedicated to all the victims of the civil war in Cambodia, who had lost their lives to land mines. What was special about this memorial was the fact that it was entirely built from parts of deadly weapons left behind by soldiers fighting the war including land and anti personnel mines.
I am much reminded of this memorial, after reading about what a German blacksmith Manfred Zbrzezny and his apprentices have created in their workshop on the outskirts of the Liberian capital Monrovia. Liberia is a country that is located in the west Africa. It had suffered two civil wars, which ran from 1989-1996 and 1999 to 2003, leaving a quarter of a million people dead. Deep psychological and physical wounds still remain in this war ravaged country. Numerous rebel factions raped, maimed and killed, some making use of drugged-up child soldiers, and deep ethnic rivalries and bitterness still remains across the west African nation of four million people.
Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who was awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, jointly with Leymah Gbowee of Liberia and Tawakel Karman of Yemen and Indira Gandhi peace prize by Government of India recently, has set up A Truth and Reconciliation Commission to probe war crimes and rights abuses between 1979 and 2003. This commission in its report has said that a war crimes court should be set up to prosecute eight ex-warlords for alleged crimes against humanity but the government is yet to implement the recommendations.
Zbrzezny, who is married to a Liberian lady and have a child of their own, had worked as a blacksmith in Italy and Germany. He came to Liberia in 2005, to settle down, two years after the end of the rebel siege of Monrovia. His initial attempts to set up a workshop of his trade, failed and he was unable to make any profits. Luckily, in 2007, he was approached by the owners of a riverside restaurant, who asked him whether he could transform the parts of old weapons into a marine-themed banister using his skills as a blacksmith.
The project was a great a success, which made Zbrzezny think that he could began making other pieces for the restaurant with parts from rocket-propelled grenade launchers and sub-machine gun barrels, which were available as a commonplace scrap, still in Monrovia. It was a good business decision and he soon started converting weapons of war into candle stands, bookends, bells and bottle openers. There was a German charity involved in Liberia’s disarmament process and they gladly agreed to supply him parts of old scrapped weapons. He now employes five young Liberians who are also learning the trade at the same time. Zbrzezny, proudly calls his work “Arms into Art.”
Providence Island, is an iconic part of Monrovia, where freed slaves from the United States, landed in the 19th century to found the new republic. One of Zbrzezny’s most ambitious projects, a “peace tree” made in 2011, from weapons parts found on Providence Island itself, now stands here. Momodu Paasawee, is the caretaker for the area, where the tree is exhibited. He says that the tree has become a symbol for reconciliation in post-war Liberia. The tree reminds Liberians, according to him, that the war has ended and never should we return to war. Many tourists and Liberian students come here to see the tree.
Remembering the profound impact on me of the memorial erected at the “Aki Ra” museum of land mines, during my Cambodia visit, I think, that what Momodu Paasawee says is absolutely right.
(First published in Akshardhool on 16th September 2013)