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Refugees in Liberia

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Searching for books in a country of Guns

Give me a note book!

he voice belongs to Fatu a seven-year-old girl in the remote bush village of Genie Brown, hundred kms away north of the Capital of Liberia, Monrovia. Holding a book has been a dream for girls like Fatu. We give her and her friends a pencil. It is received with much joy. Girls like Fatu have not held a comic book in their hands. She has not read a story at bed time. Her dreams were to hold a book, get a notebook and write a few words. We were the first outsiders they are seeing after two years. More than hundred pairs of young eyes excitedly look at the strangers. Surprisingly no one asks for food. The village elder asks us whether we could supply a black board, since some old people were willing to teach the children freely. The villagers tell us eagerly that they would build a mud school. They need chalk boxes and more importantly some books.

Two years ago, the militias fighting for the one of the warlords of west Africa raided the village. For the drugged, illiterate brutal mercenaries, schools are great impediments. They need children to fight a war. They burnt down the local school and the head teacher was executed in cold blood two year ago.

No one dared to speak of schools for long time. Now we are there, the outsiders who have taken the risk of visiting them. More than hundred pairs of young eyes are looking at us with expectation :

Can we have a book? This question was asked ad nauseam by many others in the last two months.

Books, books, books. Can’t we give some textbooks?

It sounds easy. But Liberia is an odd country. We do not find any books. It is a country with more guns than books. When the UN tried to disarm the Monrovia based militias in December 2003, it expected 1000 guns to be surrendered. But 11000 unruly militiamen came with their guns expecting a ‘gun for money’ deal. The process had to be stopped because UN had neither the logistics nor the money to handle so many guns. We are still searching for books, not thousands but at least for 100 books in a country there are still thousands of hidden guns...

What do you say to children in a country where the schools are closed for the last two years and the teachers were not paid for years together?. Militias treated school system as a hostile sign. In the whole county of Lofa, teachers went into hiding. The ruthless militias considered holding a pen a crime. Children were needed for the militia armies. Schools were a great impediment. Attacking schools and burning them leaves a whole population of frustrated youngsters. Among them some can be easily recruited for the loot seeking wars of Africa.

In Liberia, various War Lords have recruited 30000. The contours of war in Africa are changing. From de colonisation struggles to identity conflicts between tribes and races, war has entered a dangerous zone: Fight for resources in the resource rich African countries. Liberia has diamonds, gold, timber and oil. The former Liberian President, Charles Taylor and his cohorts let loose a violent orgy for nearly 14 years in trying to corner resources. Other militias jumped into the fray. Children came handy. The modus operandi was simple : Abduct them from villages, displaced camps, get them hooked to drugs, give them guns, brutalise a generation. Pay them nothing, encourage them to loot ordinary villagers. Abduct young girls, make them ‘sex companions’ to militias. Amputate them when they resist -- as it happened in Sierre Leone.

The country is just emerging from a 14year savage war. Various militias, War Lords and their cohorts enacted a cruel orgy of death and mayhem. In a country of 3 million people, 200,000 were killed, nearly a million fled the country and around 700,000 are eking out a life in crowded camps as IDPs ( Internally Displaced People). 70 percent illiteracy. 85% unemployment. Despite all its resources, Liberia has the dubious distinction of being the 74th poorest country among the 75 poorest countries in the world. The country has just 28 doctors. Malnutrition and starvation dogged a population condemned to 14 years of a ferocious war. Liberia was the heart of darkness.

Liberian war Lords were evil men. But others too contributed towards the torment of the ordinary the Liberian. Liberia’s rich soil, timber, diamonds and iron ore attracted regional and international powers. The US exploited this country to the brim. During the cold war era, CIA had its African head quarters here. Second world war saw American war planes having their air bases here. For more than hundred years, the American Multinational tyre company, FIRESTONE, extracted rubber from the million acre land, leased at a paltry rate for long lease. Liberians still live under the illusion, US is their protector. On its part, the US threw made this unwanted child, as a total orphan after the cold war. George Bush Sr, cynically dismissed the plea of Liberians for a military intervention saying : Not even the whole of Liberia deserve the life of one US Marine. More countries showed interest, mostly for the resources. Till recently huge percentage of Liberian Timber trade was with France. But when the militias waged war against their own people, none of them came to their assistance. Thousands died. Millions fled their home and become refugees in their own country. The cruelty of the conflict provoked the world attention.

JRS has a long history of association with this ill-fated nation. From 1995, JRS started its work with the war ravaged Gbarnga and Nimba counties. When the war forced people to flee to nearby Ivory Coast and Guinea, JRS accompanied the people, and rendered memorable services. JRS itself fell victim to militia violence many times, loosing the cars, being chased by militias etc. But it stayed faithfully with the displaced people.

When we arrived in October, 2003, in response to an urgent appeal by the International JRS office, we found a country scorched by hatred. Widespread looting, burning and displacement made Monrovia, the Capital city, look like a country visited by an evil force. Travelling to the districts, we found the beautiful mountains were scarred by thousands of huts, hosting people expelled by militia violence. People have fled marauding mobs of unruly youngsters, who killed without discrimination, who abducted children.

Liberia saw three big wars : in 1993, 1995 and the present one which started in 2000. Two hitherto unknown groups LURD ( Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy) and MODEL ( Movement for Democracy in Liberia) unleashed wild attacks from the west and east of Liberia. This was the most inhumane among all wars. People have lost everything. As a woman in Salala camp told us: “ In the previous wars, we lost our goods, money. But this war is different : This time we have lost our will to start again”.

Liberia looked gloomy. The power of evil seemed to have engulfed this long suffering nation. There was no electricity, no water and no telephone. For the majority of Liberians getting the next meal was an ordeal. World Food Programme mercifully came in trying to feed millions. Yet starvation prevailed. We were oscillating between hope and despair. It was an overwhelming feeling. What do we carry to a people who have seen only death and destruction? Everyone looked threateningly hopeless. We have to fight a deep sense of despair in the initial stages. There were no hopeful signs anywhere in Liberia.

Till we started going to the camps...

In the crowded camps, where thousands live in miserable dark huts, we found light.

The light came in the form of teachers. These men and women who were not paid for two years, who were victims of militia brutality were silently working out a noble task. Without any outside support, they were trying to run schools. There were schools in the camps before May 2003. War broke out. The militias attacked the camps too. School buildings were damaged. That did not deter the teachers. Many were teaching in the morning and in the evenings they were repairing their mud walled schools in the camps. They had the good will and nothing else. The schools had no black boards, children had no note books. In many places children had no benches. Plastic cans, given by NGOs as water cans, were used by children as chairs in the class rooms.

It is at this juncture from October 2003, JRS entered the camps. Much inspired by the example of teachers, JRS decided to help the educational system. We started supplying Shelter materials and helped the people to repair their dilapidated school structures. The teachers mobilised the community. Parents and students contributed a lot in the building of the mud walled schools.

As the building rose amidst them, hope rose. Schooling has a therapeutic effect on a traumatised population. It is a healing psycho social process. It is a trigger of hope. After two years of frustration, the young men and women could go back to schools. It is not the perfect schools, but it is their schools. They built the schools. Their teachers are willing to work voluntarily. In a country known for looting and killing, displaced people exhibited a commendable dignity. When the war lords were placing the killing machine, gun in the hands of the young men and women, the displaced people asserted their humanness by choosing to go to school.

Within two weeks, 12500 children joined the schools in 7 Displaced camps. 280 teachers, despite their years of misery, made another gallant attempt to bring education. The teachers did not have proper clothes. Many of the teachers did not even have their reading glasses. They threw them away to escape from the wrath of militias in 1995 when wearing a glass was considered an unfriendly act by these rag tag men of violence. But the teachers were willing to contribute their teaching skills. JRS came in with black boards, chalk boxes. Much hope flowed in the camps. It regularly trains the teachers. It has worked out a programme to bring the drop out children back to the school. In the deep jungles where the camps are situated, new school shelters are coming up with the help of JRS.

But the problem of books remain. The militias destroyed book depots in Liberia. Looted and vandalised the educational ministry. Even today a visit to the educational ministry is a depressing experience. The educational minister advised us to come with a flash light - during day time – because the stairs were so dark. The ministry had no book, much less any capacity to pay or supply anything to the children. The Ministry was very grateful to JRS for the work it has done.

JRS supplies the notebooks in the IDP schools. 12500 children and they will like to have minimum five note books. Even in the remote villages children wait for a stranger to start their schools. All the children who sit on the jerry Cans need to shift to benches. For the thousands of children who have dropped out there is need for additional tuition facilities. JRS plans to support many village schools. As and when the displaced camps are dismantle and the people start their journey back home, JRS hopes to accompany these people. It needs to help the people with their school repair, books, teacher training and sports goods. JRS needs to join other people in offering an alternative to a generation brutalised by war. Investing in education is an investment in peace for this long suffering people. In concrete terms it is school building, notebooks, books, uniforms and support to teachers at least for two years.

More than ever the children like Fatu need to hold a book, that tells the stories how the children of other countries live in peace, live in their homes, read about animals and birds, read about various countries. They need to know most parts of the world is at peace with itself. In most parts of the world children do not beg for another note book. In most of parts of the world, the schools are not attacked, their children do not flee in fear.

More than all, they need to be assured that world loves all children. Most people in the world, give to their children a proper education. And the children of Liberia needs to know that the nihilist militias have nothing to offer to the world. When Liberia takes guns away from its child soldiers, it needs to place a book and a promise of security. The Liberian Child needs to be assured that there is a constructive path which leads her or him towards a bright future.

JRS need to walk with the thousands of children in Liberia, helping them towards this dream.

Fr. Avam SJ