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Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, & World Affairs

2 Noviembre 2011

Where did you first meet the Community of Sant’Egidio? What attracted you to the Community and its philosophy?I first met Sant’Egidio in Rome. I had gone there on a pilgrimage of Algerian students. I was studying in Algeria at the time, and the Catholic diocese there had organized the visit. A part of the visit was a week that we spent with the Community of Sant’Egidio. I was deeply impressed by the people I met, Matteo Zuppi and many others. Their active service to the poor, the language they used, the prayers in the chapel in Trastevere, the symbol of the crucifix, all affected me deeply. I remember vividly Matteo speaking about Jesus as if I had just met him, as a man who had weaknesses, of the need for us to be in his arms. In the Sant’Egidio center, there was a room with images showing many scenes from Jesus’ life. I felt that this was what the world is about.Before the visit to Rome, I had been rather preoccupied about myself, concerned about the unfairness of what I did not have. But during that visit I came to realize that I was part of the world, that we are all part of the world. It called on resources of courage. By the end of the week, I had visited the elderly, children, and the sick. I began to ask why I could not do the same kind of work in Guinea. So when I returned to Guinea, I tried out that idea in talking to my friends, especially to those I had known since I was in school. Of those, only four agreed to join me but they did so with enthusiasm. I also talked to my Bishop. His initial reaction (he already knew about Sant’Egidio) was that Sant’Egidio was a good organization but that its approach would not work in Guinea. But when my friends joined me and we spoke to him again, he said that if we thought we could do it, and succeed, we should go ahead. Meanwhile, I went back to Algeria to continue my studies.The pilgrimage to Rome was in 1989, and, when I returned from Algeria, we began our work in 1991, slowly, bit by bit. That was the way it was born. Members of the Community from Rome visited us, each time with encouragement, new messages, helping us to a new understanding.Then Pope John Paul II came to Guinea. Among the many placards that greeted him was a small sign on which was written “Sant’Egidio, Guinea”. The old man was remarkably astute and saw everything. When he returned to Rome, he asked Andrea [Riccardi]: “Is that the same Sant’Egidio as the one in Rome?” From that was born our first invitation to Rome, and I went with the others who had begun our community. We visited the Vatican and were received by the Pope. That gave us a boost and encouragement.Today, the community in Guinea has about 1,500 members. All are volunteers.What are the Community’s areas of focus?We have various service activities. We began with street children and yes, there are many. We also began Schools for Peace. At first, we focused on children who were not in school, teaching them to read so that they could then go to the regular schools. Today, apart from the street children, there are not many children who are not in school. So now we focus on those who have been held back, and who face various difficulties. We help them with homework and collaborate with their families. We also talk to them a lot about the world, telling them about other children who work with Sant’Egidio. Guinea’s worst problem is the ethnic tension, the prejudice that is everywhere. We stress to them that this is a false problem. They often believe that they have no chance in life, that children from poor families can go nowhere. We show them on television people who came from all ethnic groups, and whose families are poor. We tell them that they too can do it. The famous journalist talking on television, we say, was a child like you, who went to primary school, who had failures, but who continued and succeeded. Often small things can encourage them. And we have met great success. Once the children go back to school they never leave. Many finish first in their class. Now, with 14 years of experience, many are at university.You said that your studies in Algeria were part of a longer story. Where were you born and what took you there?I was born in the forest region of Guinea, in the south, in a small village of Lainé, near the small town of Lola. It is 1039 kilometers from the capital, Conakry. That is where I went to primary school and to the lycée. It was the time of communism in Guinea, and I grew up in that environment. My parents were practitioners of traditional religion, and that was how I grew up (they were baptized later, after me). In school, I came to believe that God was a problem, responsible whenever things went wrong. That was a common belief in those times.I went to university first in Kankan, and studied physics and chemistry. There, I began to understand that the world was more varied than I had earlier thought. Without being in any political party, I came, as all students did then, to oppose Sekou Touré, the president. I found myself looking for alternatives, for something new. I met Christianity there and wanted to be a Christian.How did you discover Christianity in what was a largely secular and Muslim society?One of my friends, Eric François, introduced me. My baptismal name in fact is Joseph Francois, but because it is so difficult in Guinea to change names legally I never made the change. Eric was baptized early during our studies. At first I did not believe in everything he said. But we became friends and because I was good at math I tutored him. Eventually he persuaded me to go with him to Church. It was when I was back in Algeria that I was baptized and became a member of the Church. I had not completed my preparatory studies and catechism in Guinea. Eric Francois was my godfather.How did you continue with your studies and career?As I entered my third year at university in Kankan, I changed my field of studies. I had four older brothers who had all studied physics and chemistry. They had done well in their studies, but all were without jobs. I decided instead to follow a course for laboratory technicians. It was practical, but the students were not at the same level. I was at the top of my class and, after five years of study, won a scholarship to continue my studies in Algeria. I also pursued my laboratory technician studies there. When I finished the course I returned to Guinea.In Guinea, I had to fulfill the conditions of my contract with the government before I could do any further studies. A condition of receiving the scholarship was that I must work for five years for the government. But even though there was no job, I still could not do any further studies. The frustration was that I had finished first in my course and was recommended for further studies in pharmacy or medicine but could not accept the offer. So I spent five years in Guinea, without a government job, essentially working in private labs. I then went through the concours, passed it, and began further studies in Conakry. This was in 2004. As a result of the concours, I was then in the fonction publique (a civil servant).So when in 2006 the DREAM HIV/AIDS program was launched in Guinea, the Minister proposed that I be assigned to take responsibility for the lab and to make sure that it worked well.And then, in 2009, medical tests showed that I had the beginnings of a liver tumor. I went through further tests in Rome which showed many small points in the x-rays. They recommended that the only solution was a liver transplant. I was put on the list, and had a transplant on December 16, 2009. Now all is well and normal, except for routine follow up.So I have been in Rome since February 2009, working with the Community. I also study history and politics at the university.You, and the Community, were involved in the transition in Guinea. How did that start and evolve?The Sant’Egidio principle is that nothing a community does is done because it was decided or encouraged by Rome. The idea is that the evangelization is to serve the poor, and to do something that grows from the capacity of the community, if it has eyes to see. So the first work we did was with children. We responded to the witness of the Community in Salvador that I had met in 2002, a community that worked with children. So from 2002 to 2006 we worked with children.Then in 2006 the bishop asked our Sant’Egidio community to help with an effort to distribute food in Conakry’s main prison. A generous benefactor had given some money but the bishop had no way to implement the program and turned to us. I remember that first visit. I could not believe what I saw behind the walls that hid the prison, people so thin and malnourished they were barely alive. There was a place with cement holes, which people with diarrhea used, and which were simply hosed down. It was unimaginable. We asked how we could help. So we began to bring food, initially with the grant that the bishop received. We signed the register with the amounts we distributed, and certified what we spent with receipts. The prison commissioner verified what we had done. When the money ran out we raised more ourselves.Meanwhile the work of the community spread to different parts of Guinea. Colleagues and friends from school and university were assigned to different parts of the country, and began programs along the same lines as our Conakry work. They focused on children and on the prisons. Eventually the community was working in 16-20 places, with groups in 14 cities and towns.The political crisis in Guinea was a long and slow process. The crisis began even before the death of President Lansana Conté, in December 2008. There were demonstrations in 2007 and many died. During that period the Community had made efforts to reach out to the President to find solutions. Andrea [Riccardi] and Mario [Giro] sent messages and eventually met with Conté, though in Cote d’Ivoire, where then-President Gbagbo was also trying to find solutions. Conté asked what action we wanted to see and we responded that the President should name a Prime Minister, in charge of the Government, chosen out of a list proposed by the opposition. This was what everyone was recommending at the time, and the President eventually accepted and agreed that he would do it, even though he was not convinced. A week later he named a Prime Minister and a consensus government led by Lansana Kouyaté, and that halted the crisis for a while.From that time on the Community was continually, and quietly, involved in the process. We were known to many in the government, even if many ministers were not aware of what we were doing or paid us much attention.We had by this time a second generation of the Community, even a third, thus many adults in different places. We talked to many young people. With the tensions in Liberia, where Guinea sent troops, there were actions to persuade young people to go to the conflict areas, with promises that they would receive arms and money. At one point there were 2,000 young Guineans in Liberia, and a rally with 20,000 in stadium, giving out arms. We told the young people that this was not a good thing. I met students who said they were offered 6,000 FCFA (US$12) a day, just to go for two weeks. Students thought it was a good vacation idea – they would go, make money, and come back to class. We warned them it was a trap, that they would not come back and there was no guarantee they would not come back dead. We gained a reputation for concern and honesty.At the time of the President’s death and the military coup d’état that followed, I was the Honorary Consul of Italy in Guinea. In that period between Conté’s death and the coup we were involved with Conakry’s largest prison. There, for weeks there was no one in charge and no food. Prisoners faced hunger and disease and many were dying. Someone called the Community, saying we had to come to help. There was no Minister of Justice, and the soldiers had no leaders and no authority. We called Rome and they advised us to take the initiative and act as we thought best. So we worked in the prison, without any formal authority as no one was in charge anymore in Conakry. It was only later that what we did was known.Then, there was a new government, controlled by the military junta, and that included a new Minister of Justice, a colonel. We went to visit him, told him about what we had done, and invited him to Rome. He listened to what we said.Then one day this Minister was at a meeting of African Ministers of Justice, in Conakry. He was visibly sad, and said nothing. We asked why and he answered that 21 people were to be executed, that he opposed the action but could do nothing. If he resigned he would be killed. The military was arguing that the people demanded the death penalty. Mario Giro spoke to him but his effort failed. The acting President, a captain, listened to him but the Vice President stood firm. An officer in charge of Security, then the Minister of Health, called to say that our intervention was wrong, a problem. But they also indicated that the government was divided. What Mario had said was “un caillou dans le boubou” (like a stone in the shoe) and Mario’s intervention in fact troubled them. He promised us, privately, that no one would be executed and indeed no one was. The Minister of Justice came to Rome and wanted help in leaving Guinea and the government, perhaps to teach in a university but it was not possible at the time. Today he is still there. The actions of the military during that period are being investigated by the International Court, but we have good relations.How did Sant’Egidio become involved in the latter stages of the transition?We were very careful during this period, and most of what we did was not known; most of the story has not been published. Dadis [Captain Moussa Dadis Camara served as President of the National Council for Democracy and Development, Conseil National de la Démocratie et du Développement (CNDD), which seized power in a military coup on December 23, 2008] was not very much aware of our work. But things changed after he was wounded and the power passed to his Vice President, General Konaté. So we came to play a significant role through the period of transition. At that time the transition to an electoral process could finally begin. But the political landscape was highly confused.Rabiatou Serah Diallo, a trade union leader, was named president of the Transitional parliament (CNT) after the massacre of September 28, 2009, and we came to know her well (she was at the 2010 Sant’Egigio Prayer for Peace). It was a tumultuous time and in one sense we were a thorn in the sides of everyone. The African Union was involved in trying to mediate a settlement. President Blaise Campoaré was named as the facilitator and he asked Sant’Egidio and specifically Mario Giro to help as co-facilitator. So Mario was in Ougadougou, playing an active role. Rabiatou noticed Mario there, seeing his flare and intuition.There was progress but the transition was not moving forward. Everyone wanted to move to elections, but there were different views and different options. Rabiatou Serah asked Mario and Sant’Egidio to help them in resolving the impasse, to come to a unified vision of where the transition was leading. So we brought the CNT and the representatives of all political parties and civil society leaders to Rome. The task in Rome was to agree on specific terms for the transition. The difficulty in the way was to suppress the hatred that existed within the group responsible for the transition. Some of the political parties were seen as supporting the military, and were seen as supporting assassins. These retorted that the stadium massacre was the result of the provocations of those who encouraged the harsh reaction, that they in fact got what they wanted with the violence. So each called the others the culprits.Sant’Egidio argued that the future depended on those who were there and they must understand each other. After much talk, we were able to reach a conclusion of sorts.But there was a very practical discussion about the electoral process, the questions of justice and compensation, what to do with the military, what to do with the transition council after the election: should it disappear right away or not? We were able to reach an agreement that the Transition Council would stay intact right after the election. Then there was debate about compensation for victims. There was a need to agree on a list of those eligible for compensation. Some wanted to list everyone who had suffered since Guinea’s independence in 1958, others only those directly involved in the post Conté period. The accusations were traded, one side seeing that the others simply wanted to drown out the option of monetary compensation by inflating the list. We argued steadfastly that the real goal had to be reconciliation. Important points of discussion were to agree on a common effort to ensure that there would be no more changes in the new Constitution previously elaborated by the CNT, that there would be a reorganization of the army, that there would be a reconciliation process.All this was embodied in a very detailed political agreement. The group in Rome was able to read and agree on this document page by page, and also on a two page summary. Everyone signed it and thus they set out the main outlines of the transition plan to the election and beyond. Even after that there were many issues, and many times when mediation was needed, but the elections finally took place successfully. And on December 21, 2010 the newly elected President, Alpha Condé, was inaugurated.And the work of the Community continues?Yes, the work continues, with a continued focus on children, on prisons, and on the DREAM HIV/AIDS program. It is a difficult and delicate time but we are seeing progress.TIMELINE (based in part on http://www.fondationchirac.eu/en/2 010/11/the-work-of-mario-giro-in-guinea/)1958: Guinea proclaims its independence.1958 – 1984: Ahmed Sekou Touré rules the country.1984: Following a coup d’état, General Lansana Conté seized power.January 2007: The country’s most significant important social crisis is followed by a national strike, protests; increased military repression as the government sought to control the country.February 26, 2007: Mr. Lansana Kouyaté named Prime Minister following external mediation by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and Sant’Egidio’s facilitation.December 22, 2008: General Conté died after 24 years in power.December 23, 2008: Captain Dadis Camara proclaims himself President, suspends the Constitution. The international community cuts all funding to Guinea.January 3, 2009: French Minister Jouyandet traveled to Guinea to remind the government of the European Union’s requirements.September 28, 2009: Opposition peacefully demonstrates at Conakry stadium, the army locks them inside and opens fire. 150 people die and 1,200 are injured. France withdraws its military cooperation. UN inspectors describe the massacre as a “crime against humanity.”December 3, 2009: A failed assassination attempt on Captain Dadis Camara. He is evacuated and hospitalized in Morocco, finds refuge in Burkina Faso in January 2010.January 15, 2010: A Joint Declaration signed in Ouagadougou between Captain Dadis Camara, General Konaté, and President Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso. General Konaté appointed Acting and Transition President. The transition begins. A Transitional Parliament (CNT) is constituted and elaborate a new Constitution.May 28, 2010: Signature of the Agreements in Sant’Egidio, Rome.June 27, 2010: The first round of the first multiparty democratic elections in Guinea’s history. Following this first round, a wave of violence between supporters of the two candidates for the second round leads authorities to postpone elections.November, 2010: Alpha Condé declared winner of run-off presidential race. Emergency declared after clashes between security forces and supporters of defeated candidate Cellou Dalein Diallo.December 21, 2010: Alpha Condé inaugurated as President of Guinea.March 24, 2011: West African regional bloc ECOWAS lifts sanctions against Guinea after the election returns the country to civilian rule.September 11-13, 2011: President Alpha Condé speaks at Sant’Egidio Prayer for Peace in Munich, Germany.

A Discussion with Kpakilé Félémou, Community of Sant'Egidio, Republic of Guinea

Background: Kpakilé Félémou and Katherine Marshall spoke in Munich, in the context of the Sant’Egidio Prayer for Peace meeting, on September 13, 2011. The meeting focused on the work of Sant’Egidio in Guinea, which offers a vivid example of the way this unique group links the commitment of its members, working as volunteers, to work with the poor, its engagement with conflict resolution, and its intensive efforts to combat HIV/AIDS. In the recent political turmoil and transition in Guinea, the Community has played significant roles and Kpakilé has been a participant and a witness.

 
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Where did you first meet the Community of Sant’Egidio? What attracted you to the Community and its philosophy?

I first met Sant’Egidio in Rome. I had gone there on a pilgrimage of Algerian students. I was studying in Algeria at the time, and the Catholic diocese there had organized the visit. A part of the visit was a week that we spent with the Community of Sant’Egidio. I was deeply impressed by the people I met, Matteo Zuppi and many others. Their active service to the poor, the language they used, the prayers in the chapel in Trastevere, the symbol of the crucifix, all affected me deeply. I remember vividly Matteo speaking about Jesus as if I had just met him, as a man who had weaknesses, of the need for us to be in his arms. In the Sant’Egidio center, there was a room with images showing many scenes from Jesus’ life. I felt that this was what the world is about.

Before the visit to Rome, I had been rather preoccupied about myself, concerned about the unfairness of what I did not have. But during that visit I came to realize that I was part of the world, that we are all part of the world. It called on resources of courage. By the end of the week, I had visited the elderly, children, and the sick. I began to ask why I could not do the same kind of work in Guinea. So when I returned to Guinea, I tried out that idea in talking to my friends, especially to those I had known since I was in school. Of those, only four agreed to join me but they did so with enthusiasm. I also talked to my Bishop. His initial reaction (he already knew about Sant’Egidio) was that Sant’Egidio was a good organization but that its approach would not work in Guinea. But when my friends joined me and we spoke to him again, he said that if we thought we could do it, and succeed, we should go ahead. Meanwhile, I went back to Algeria to continue my studies.

The pilgrimage to Rome was in 1989, and, when I returned from Algeria, we began our work in 1991, slowly, bit by bit. That was the way it was born. Members of the Community from Rome visited us, each time with encouragement, new messages, helping us to a new understanding.

Then Pope John Paul II came to Guinea. Among the many placards that greeted him was a small sign on which was written “Sant’Egidio, Guinea”. The old man was remarkably astute and saw everything. When he returned to Rome, he asked Andrea [Riccardi]: “Is that the same Sant’Egidio as the one in Rome?” From that was born our first invitation to Rome, and I went with the others who had begun our community. We visited the Vatican and were received by the Pope. That gave us a boost and encouragement.

Today, the community in Guinea has about 1,500 members. All are volunteers.

What are the Community’s areas of focus?

We have various service activities. We began with street children and yes, there are many. We also began Schools for Peace. At first, we focused on children who were not in school, teaching them to read so that they could then go to the regular schools. Today, apart from the street children, there are not many children who are not in school. So now we focus on those who have been held back, and who face various difficulties. We help them with homework and collaborate with their families. We also talk to them a lot about the world, telling them about other children who work with Sant’Egidio. Guinea’s worst problem is the ethnic tension, the prejudice that is everywhere. We stress to them that this is a false problem. They often believe that they have no chance in life, that children from poor families can go nowhere. We show them on television people who came from all ethnic groups, and whose families are poor. We tell them that they too can do it. The famous journalist talking on television, we say, was a child like you, who went to primary school, who had failures, but who continued and succeeded. Often small things can encourage them. And we have met great success. Once the children go back to school they never leave. Many finish first in their class. Now, with 14 years of experience, many are at university.

You said that your studies in Algeria were part of a longer story. Where were you born and what took you there?

I was born in the forest region of Guinea, in the south, in a small village of Lainé, near the small town of Lola. It is 1039 kilometers from the capital, Conakry. That is where I went to primary school and to the lycée. It was the time of communism in Guinea, and I grew up in that environment. My parents were practitioners of traditional religion, and that was how I grew up (they were baptized later, after me). In school, I came to believe that God was a problem, responsible whenever things went wrong. That was a common belief in those times.

I went to university first in Kankan, and studied physics and chemistry. There, I began to understand that the world was more varied than I had earlier thought. Without being in any political party, I came, as all students did then, to oppose Sekou Touré, the president. I found myself looking for alternatives, for something new. I met Christianity there and wanted to be a Christian.

How did you discover Christianity in what was a largely secular and Muslim society?

One of my friends, Eric François, introduced me. My baptismal name in fact is Joseph Francois, but because it is so difficult in Guinea to change names legally I never made the change. Eric was baptized early during our studies. At first I did not believe in everything he said. But we became friends and because I was good at math I tutored him. Eventually he persuaded me to go with him to Church. It was when I was back in Algeria that I was baptized and became a member of the Church. I had not completed my preparatory studies and catechism in Guinea. Eric Francois was my godfather.

How did you continue with your studies and career?

As I entered my third year at university in Kankan, I changed my field of studies. I had four older brothers who had all studied physics and chemistry. They had done well in their studies, but all were without jobs. I decided instead to follow a course for laboratory technicians. It was practical, but the students were not at the same level. I was at the top of my class and, after five years of study, won a scholarship to continue my studies in Algeria. I also pursued my laboratory technician studies there. When I finished the course I returned to Guinea.

In Guinea, I had to fulfill the conditions of my contract with the government before I could do any further studies. A condition of receiving the scholarship was that I must work for five years for the government. But even though there was no job, I still could not do any further studies. The frustration was that I had finished first in my course and was recommended for further studies in pharmacy or medicine but could not accept the offer. So I spent five years in Guinea, without a government job, essentially working in private labs. I then went through the concours, passed it, and began further studies in Conakry. This was in 2004. As a result of the concours, I was then in the fonction publique (a civil servant).

So when in 2006 the DREAM HIV/AIDS program was launched in Guinea, the Minister proposed that I be assigned to take responsibility for the lab and to make sure that it worked well.

And then, in 2009, medical tests showed that I had the beginnings of a liver tumor. I went through further tests in Rome which showed many small points in the x-rays. They recommended that the only solution was a liver transplant. I was put on the list, and had a transplant on December 16, 2009. Now all is well and normal, except for routine follow up.

So I have been in Rome since February 2009, working with the Community. I also study history and politics at the university.

You, and the Community, were involved in the transition in Guinea. How did that start and evolve?

The Sant’Egidio principle is that nothing a community does is done because it was decided or encouraged by Rome. The idea is that the evangelization is to serve the poor, and to do something that grows from the capacity of the community, if it has eyes to see. So the first work we did was with children. We responded to the witness of the Community in Salvador that I had met in 2002, a community that worked with children. So from 2002 to 2006 we worked with children.

Then in 2006 the bishop asked our Sant’Egidio community to help with an effort to distribute food in Conakry’s main prison. A generous benefactor had given some money but the bishop had no way to implement the program and turned to us. I remember that first visit. I could not believe what I saw behind the walls that hid the prison, people so thin and malnourished they were barely alive. There was a place with cement holes, which people with diarrhea used, and which were simply hosed down. It was unimaginable. We asked how we could help. So we began to bring food, initially with the grant that the bishop received. We signed the register with the amounts we distributed, and certified what we spent with receipts. The prison commissioner verified what we had done. When the money ran out we raised more ourselves.

Meanwhile the work of the community spread to different parts of Guinea. Colleagues and friends from school and university were assigned to different parts of the country, and began programs along the same lines as our Conakry work. They focused on children and on the prisons. Eventually the community was working in 16-20 places, with groups in 14 cities and towns.

The political crisis in Guinea was a long and slow process. The crisis began even before the death of President Lansana Conté, in December 2008. There were demonstrations in 2007 and many died. During that period the Community had made efforts to reach out to the President to find solutions. Andrea [Riccardi] and Mario [Giro] sent messages and eventually met with Conté, though in Cote d’Ivoire, where then-President Gbagbo was also trying to find solutions. Conté asked what action we wanted to see and we responded that the President should name a Prime Minister, in charge of the Government, chosen out of a list proposed by the opposition. This was what everyone was recommending at the time, and the President eventually accepted and agreed that he would do it, even though he was not convinced. A week later he named a Prime Minister and a consensus government led by Lansana Kouyaté, and that halted the crisis for a while.

From that time on the Community was continually, and quietly, involved in the process. We were known to many in the government, even if many ministers were not aware of what we were doing or paid us much attention.

We had by this time a second generation of the Community, even a third, thus many adults in different places. We talked to many young people. With the tensions in Liberia, where Guinea sent troops, there were actions to persuade young people to go to the conflict areas, with promises that they would receive arms and money. At one point there were 2,000 young Guineans in Liberia, and a rally with 20,000 in stadium, giving out arms. We told the young people that this was not a good thing. I met students who said they were offered 6,000 FCFA (US$12) a day, just to go for two weeks. Students thought it was a good vacation idea – they would go, make money, and come back to class. We warned them it was a trap, that they would not come back and there was no guarantee they would not come back dead. We gained a reputation for concern and honesty.

At the time of the President’s death and the military coup d’état that followed, I was the Honorary Consul of Italy in Guinea. In that period between Conté’s death and the coup we were involved with Conakry’s largest prison. There, for weeks there was no one in charge and no food. Prisoners faced hunger and disease and many were dying. Someone called the Community, saying we had to come to help. There was no Minister of Justice, and the soldiers had no leaders and no authority. We called Rome and they advised us to take the initiative and act as we thought best. So we worked in the prison, without any formal authority as no one was in charge anymore in Conakry. It was only later that what we did was known.

Then, there was a new government, controlled by the military junta, and that included a new Minister of Justice, a colonel. We went to visit him, told him about what we had done, and invited him to Rome. He listened to what we said.

Then one day this Minister was at a meeting of African Ministers of Justice, in Conakry. He was visibly sad, and said nothing. We asked why and he answered that 21 people were to be executed, that he opposed the action but could do nothing. If he resigned he would be killed. The military was arguing that the people demanded the death penalty. Mario Giro spoke to him but his effort failed. The acting President, a captain, listened to him but the Vice President stood firm. An officer in charge of Security, then the Minister of Health, called to say that our intervention was wrong, a problem. But they also indicated that the government was divided. What Mario had said was “un caillou dans le boubou” (like a stone in the shoe) and Mario’s intervention in fact troubled them. He promised us, privately, that no one would be executed and indeed no one was. The Minister of Justice came to Rome and wanted help in leaving Guinea and the government, perhaps to teach in a university but it was not possible at the time. Today he is still there. The actions of the military during that period are being investigated by the International Court, but we have good relations.

How did Sant’Egidio become involved in the latter stages of the transition?

We were very careful during this period, and most of what we did was not known; most of the story has not been published. Dadis [Captain Moussa Dadis Camara served as President of the National Council for Democracy and Development, Conseil National de la Démocratie et du Développement (CNDD), which seized power in a military coup on December 23, 2008] was not very much aware of our work. But things changed after he was wounded and the power passed to his Vice President, General Konaté. So we came to play a significant role through the period of transition. At that time the transition to an electoral process could finally begin. But the political landscape was highly confused.

Rabiatou Serah Diallo, a trade union leader, was named president of the Transitional parliament (CNT) after the massacre of September 28, 2009, and we came to know her well (she was at the 2010 Sant’Egigio Prayer for Peace). It was a tumultuous time and in one sense we were a thorn in the sides of everyone. The African Union was involved in trying to mediate a settlement. President Blaise Campoaré was named as the facilitator and he asked Sant’Egidio and specifically Mario Giro to help as co-facilitator. So Mario was in Ougadougou, playing an active role. Rabiatou noticed Mario there, seeing his flare and intuition.

There was progress but the transition was not moving forward. Everyone wanted to move to elections, but there were different views and different options. Rabiatou Serah asked Mario and Sant’Egidio to help them in resolving the impasse, to come to a unified vision of where the transition was leading. So we brought the CNT and the representatives of all political parties and civil society leaders to Rome. The task in Rome was to agree on specific terms for the transition. The difficulty in the way was to suppress the hatred that existed within the group responsible for the transition. Some of the political parties were seen as supporting the military, and were seen as supporting assassins. These retorted that the stadium massacre was the result of the provocations of those who encouraged the harsh reaction, that they in fact got what they wanted with the violence. So each called the others the culprits.

Sant’Egidio argued that the future depended on those who were there and they must understand each other. After much talk, we were able to reach a conclusion of sorts.

But there was a very practical discussion about the electoral process, the questions of justice and compensation, what to do with the military, what to do with the transition council after the election: should it disappear right away or not? We were able to reach an agreement that the Transition Council would stay intact right after the election. Then there was debate about compensation for victims. There was a need to agree on a list of those eligible for compensation. Some wanted to list everyone who had suffered since Guinea’s independence in 1958, others only those directly involved in the post Conté period. The accusations were traded, one side seeing that the others simply wanted to drown out the option of monetary compensation by inflating the list. We argued steadfastly that the real goal had to be reconciliation. Important points of discussion were to agree on a common effort to ensure that there would be no more changes in the new Constitution previously elaborated by the CNT, that there would be a reorganization of the army, that there would be a reconciliation process.

All this was embodied in a very detailed political agreement. The group in Rome was able to read and agree on this document page by page, and also on a two page summary. Everyone signed it and thus they set out the main outlines of the transition plan to the election and beyond. Even after that there were many issues, and many times when mediation was needed, but the elections finally took place successfully. And on December 21, 2010 the newly elected President, Alpha Condé, was inaugurated.

And the work of the Community continues?

Yes, the work continues, with a continued focus on children, on prisons, and on the DREAM HIV/AIDS program. It is a difficult and delicate time but we are seeing progress.

TIMELINE (based in part on http://www.fondationchirac.eu/en/2 010/11/the-work-of-mario-giro-in-guinea/)

1958: Guinea proclaims its independence.

1958 – 1984: Ahmed Sekou Touré rules the country.

1984: Following a coup d’état, General Lansana Conté seized power.

January 2007: The country’s most significant important social crisis is followed by a national strike, protests; increased military repression as the government sought to control the country.

February 26, 2007: Mr. Lansana Kouyaté named Prime Minister following external mediation by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and Sant’Egidio’s facilitation.

December 22, 2008: General Conté died after 24 years in power.

December 23, 2008: Captain Dadis Camara proclaims himself President, suspends the Constitution. The international community cuts all funding to Guinea.

January 3, 2009: French Minister Jouyandet traveled to Guinea to remind the government of the European Union’s requirements.

September 28, 2009: Opposition peacefully demonstrates at Conakry stadium, the army locks them inside and opens fire. 150 people die and 1,200 are injured. France withdraws its military cooperation. UN inspectors describe the massacre as a “crime against humanity.”

December 3, 2009: A failed assassination attempt on Captain Dadis Camara. He is evacuated and hospitalized in Morocco, finds refuge in Burkina Faso in January 2010.

January 15, 2010: A Joint Declaration signed in Ouagadougou between Captain Dadis Camara, General Konaté, and President Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso. General Konaté appointed Acting and Transition President. The transition begins. A Transitional Parliament (CNT) is constituted and elaborate a new Constitution.

May 28, 2010: Signature of the Agreements in Sant’Egidio, Rome.

June 27, 2010: The first round of the first multiparty democratic elections in Guinea’s history. Following this first round, a wave of violence between supporters of the two candidates for the second round leads authorities to postpone elections.

November, 2010: Alpha Condé declared winner of run-off presidential race. Emergency declared after clashes between security forces and supporters of defeated candidate Cellou Dalein Diallo.

December 21, 2010: Alpha Condé inaugurated as President of Guinea.

March 24, 2011: West African regional bloc ECOWAS lifts sanctions against Guinea after the election returns the country to civilian rule.

September 11-13, 2011: President Alpha Condé speaks at Sant’Egidio Prayer for Peace in Munich, Germany.


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