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Stories from Liberia.

This feature was written during the visit of a five-member international ecumenical delegation of women to Liberia, from 26 July to 2 August 2000. It is one of a series on the West African country. The five women went to Liberia to find out about the situation of women and children in the country after the war. Responding to the needs of their respective members, this solidarity visit was planned and organized by representatives of the World Council of Churches, the World YWCA, the All Africa Conference of Churches, and the Lutheran Worm Federation.


Monrovia is celebrating!

July 26, 2000 marks the 153rd anniversary of Liberia's independence. It is a national holiday. The main streets are closed from early morning and traffic is diverted through side streets. Distinguished guests are expected--President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, President Gnassirkgbe Eyadema of Togo, President Alpha Oumar Konare of Mali and Gambia's Head of State, Yahya Jammeh.

Around noon, to the strains of Handel's Hallelujah chorus, they will accompany the Liberian President Charles Ghankay Taylor to the Centennial Pavilion, decked for the occasion in the national colors of red, white and blue.

It is indeed an unusual day: the festively decorated hall, the men in tails or dinner jackets, the women--Liberian women in key positions in society--in evening dresses, official robes or uniform. The Supreme Court is headed by a woman, as is the Commission on Reconciliation. Women are in leading positions in the police force and in the army. During the civil war some of them fought for Charles Taylor's National Patriotic Front and reached the rank of commander.

"Liberian women are different ... they are special people ... they are strong," a representative of the national YWCA told us. "Liberian culture had a high regard for women, but when the war came women went to extremes. No matter what a Liberian woman did during the war, she did it for the survival of her family. I forgive her," she added.

Women on the winning side and women as victims. Women as agents of peace and reconciliation and women commanding battalions of child soldiers. Liberia's past and its present are marked by the different, and it seems often contradictory, roles played by its women.

Estimates by the World Health Organization suggest that, during the eight years of civil war in Liberia, more than one-third of the estimated 500,000 displaced women and children were raped. The international agency's filing cabinets are full of reports on the torture and killing of girls, pregnant women and mothers. Alongside them are reports from and about women who fought for one side or the other or occupied key positions in the different factions. And in the end, it was courageous action of women's peace groups like the Women's Peace Initiative that helped to bring peace to the country.

A fragile peace has reigned in Liberia for three years. The celebration to mark independence day was overshadowed by renewed fighting in the north-west of the country and the festivities in the Centennial Pavilion could not disguise the strong military presence in the city and the ruins left by the war.

How do women and children live in this uneasy post-war period? How do they come to terms with the past? What support do they expect for the future? These were the questions the international ecumenical women's team asked.


Struggles for Justice

McVilla, (pictured upper right) a 24-year old teacher, is visiting her friend Cassandra. They chat and laugh, exchanging gossip, "Can you imagine ... Have you heard....." An ordinary afternoon in her friend's house; But a few hours later, McVilla finds herself in hospital with serious internal injuries. (1.)

The afternoon of 19 March 2000 turns into a nightmare, for McVilla is raped in her friend's house. Her aggressors are Benjamin, a relative of Cassandra's, and his friend Daniel.

The McVilla case is making legal history in Liberia. It is the first time a woman rape victim has brought charges and started legal proceedings against her aggressors. McVilla speaks at press conferences about what was done to her in her friend's house. She names the rapists publicly by name. She displays medical reports.

McVilla is not alone in her fight for justice; she has the support of the Association of Female Lawyers of Liberia (AFELL).

"When one woman suffers, all women suffer," says Elizabeth J. Boyenneh, the president of AFELL. "Violence against women continues to be widespread in Liberia, and up till now the perpetrators have gotten away with it. We live in a culture of silence and concealment. Because of the norms and values prevailing in our society, the victims are ashamed to take action against their violators."

The McVilla case was still attracting public attention in July when a five-member international ecumenical delegation of women made a solidarity visit to Liberia. AFELL president Boyenneh believes the case is far from over. The Grand Jury, when called to decide whether the McVilla case should go to court, rejected the application. In September AFELL intends to submit the case to the Jury for the second time.

For Boyenneh, the visit of the international ecumenical delegation of women came at just the right time because AFELL is aiming for international support in its fight against rape. A website on the McVilla case is in preparation; only if McVilla is given a fair chance in a court of law will other women and girls who have been raped dare to break their silence.

Sexual violence against women and girls is only one aspect of AFELL's work. Under the slogan "Equal Rights for All", this association of women lawyers, founded as a non-governmental organization in 1994, works to defend Liberian women's and children's rights in general.


Forgiving but not Forgetting

The first time Grace found herself standing in front of a class again after the long years of war, she almost fainted. Among the boys and girls looking expectantly at her, she recognized the face of the boy who had killed her husband and son as she watched. (2.)

The boy also recognized Grace. He fell to his knees in front of her and begged her to forgive him, and she did.

"Forgive and forget," says the English proverb. Christiana R. Davies,(pictured right) the president of the Liberian Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) is quite prepared to forgive, but certainly not to forget. "If we forget, we will learn nothing from our history," Davies says, and it sounds almost like an incantation. "We never want another war."

The women in the meeting room at the National Women's Commission of Liberia (NAWOCOL) nod in agreement. NAWOCOL is the umbrella organization for 105 Liberian women's organizations. Founded in 1991, during the first wave of the war, one of its objectives is to link up women's self-help initiatives and unite their efforts in defending the interests of women in Liberia.

The women's groups banded together in NAWOCOL support agricultural projects, help women to set up small businesses, issue small loans to women in desperate need and look after teenage mothers and girl drug addicts. Victims of violence or rape can find help in NAWOCOL's AWAG project.

"We believe in solidarity among women. We look after one another. We help one another," Pearl says. "During the war we had to fend for ourselves. Our men were either forcibly recruited or they hid in cellars and attics so they wouldn't have to fight. The war made men of us women ... We learned how to look after ourselves," she says, with a mixture of pride and defiance. (3)

The women of NAWOCOL will have to go on showing spirit and tenacity, because from now on AWAG--trauma counseling for women and girls abused or raped during the war--will have to manage without support from UNICEF. But Pearl and the other women refuse to give up. "We'll have to find ways and means of financing our projects ourselves so that we can be independent of the donor agencies," Pearl adds.

Three years after a shaky peace was reached in Liberia, counseling to help women work through traumatic experiences is still urgently needed although, according to Pearl, the focus of the work has shifted with the passage of time. The immediate need was for first aid, but now it is a matter of working through the long-term consequences and reintegration of the women and girls who have been the victims of abuse and rape. "We have brought the women and girls to the point where they can more or less cope with their lives again. Now we have to support them as they make a new start in life."

The road to this new life is far from easy. "Hush, hush, don't talk about it," is the advice most of these women get from their families and friends. "Hush, hush,"--because who is going to marry a woman who has been raped?

So far, the perpetrators have gone unpunished. Women and girls often have to live side by side with their abusers in a village community. The act remains unavowed, unexpiated and yet, again and again, the women and girls who spoke to the international ecumenical women's delegation said they want to forgive.

The women of the Baptist Missionary Educational Convention are also prepared to forgive--but not to forget.

Sara has come a long way. When she finally reaches the meeting it's too late. The guests of the international ecumenical delegation are preparing to leave. Sara stands erect and determined in the middle of the group. She has come to testify, and she wants the women visitors to hear what she has to say and take her story home with them.

"My story is endless," Sara says "and I won't go into details. I went through everything a woman could possibly go through in this war, but I don't want to talk about it." She tells of her husband who was attacked in front of her by a boy soldier. "In the end the boy cut off his head. I was forced to watch. My mother was killed and I couldn't even bury her because I was held on the other side of the front."

But Sara wants to forgive the boy; she meets him almost every day, and every day the sight of him causes her to relive the scene of horroryet she wants to forgive him. Sara takes a deep breath. "You take a long time to forgive, but the Bible teaches us to love one another and forgive one another." So Sara is fighting with all her strength to love this boy. She includes him in her prayers, and "every day," she says, "I can forgive him a little more." But Sara will never forget.


Signs of peace and Symbols of hope Liberia's guardian angels

They first set out in September last year--twelve women equipped with nothing but their unshakable faith in God. Their destination was the border area between Liberia and Sierra Leone. When their car broke down they didn't give up, they found people to help them; and those people in turn were inspired by the women's mission and traveled part of the way with them.

Victoria, of the Pan African Christian Women's Alliance (PACWA), tells the story of an unusual peace effort by some unusual women. She and other women from PACWA set out "to seal Liberia's border", to protect Liberia without using force of arms.

They traveled along Liberia's western border from south to north, holding services along the way with the local population, weary of war and conflict. When they wandered onto Sierra Leonean territory, they encountered ECOMOG soldiers and rebels and invited them to join them in prayer for peace. The heavily-armed fighters made confession and broke down in tears.

Victoria places her trust in guardian angels more than in people: "God's Word is carried out on earth for the benefit of human beings by ministering and guardian angels. We cannot protect Liberia with our blood, only the blood of Christ can keep us safe."

So Victoria and other women from PACWA want to set out again, this time to the Lofa area in the north-west of Liberia, heading for the place where renewed outbreaks of fighting have been reported. This seemingly non-political action has thus become a political issue. The Liberian government has so far refused the PACWA women permission to travel to the region.

As a result, the women in PACWA have found their peace efforts restricted, but they are by no means inactive. Their action in September last year sparked new initiatives. Since then more than 3000 women have joined in the fasting and prayer for peace and forgiveness organized by PACWA every month.


Cartridges to Crosses

Like Victoria and the PACWA women, George too wants to help bring about peace and set signs of peace in zones of devastation and conflict. This former building worker transforms instruments of death into symbols of peace and hope, for George makes crosses out of cartridges.

"My father, my two brothers and two sisters were killed by bullets during the war in Liberia," George tells us. "Now I want to turn bullets into symbols of peace."

George is supported by Reinhard Tietze, the representative of the Lutheran World Federation's Liberia programme. Making these peace symbols now provides work and income for ten people and their families. One of the craftsmen is George's brother-in-law who was a combatant during Liberia' s civil war. Today, with George, he is working for a society free of violence. "War brings nothing but destruction." he says.

With the crosses made from cartridges, George and his rother-in-law have found their own personal way of coming to terms with the past and working for a non-violent future in Liberia.


Elizabeth's children

Shock is etched deep in Elizabeth's face. Her eyes, wide and staring, seem still to reflect the scene she can hardly bring herself to talk about: "The rebels cut off my husband's legs and arms. They threw his head at my feet." Elizabeth hesitates, struggling to find words. But before such horror, words fail; no adjective can describe what she was forced to watch.

That was eight years ago. Eight years during which she has never stopped praising and thanking God that she was alive and did not despair of life; that her daughter was spared; and that she had brought all "her children" safely through the civil war in Liberia.

Elizabeth's children, now 45 of them, 30 boys and 15 girls aged from 6 months to 16 years, are cared for by Elizabeth in the orphanage she runs. At times during the war there were more than 100 children--some who had lost their parents; others sent by parents who did not know where to turn. Elizabeth took them in and somehow or other she brought them up all through the war.

She stayd while others fled. "Where could I have gone, with the children?" When soldiers attacked the orphanage, she prayed. "When they saw the children, they turned and went and never came back."

"Children's Ministry" is the name of the orphanage Elizabeth runs, a name she chose deliberately. For Elizabeth, a trained midwife, ministering to children is not just a job, it is a vocation, as it is for the eleven men and women who work with her, and the two guards who stay with her even when their meager wages cannot be paid. As there is little hope of regular allocations, Elizabeth counts on self-reliance, by farming the land to provide the basic foodstuffs.

Elizabeth shares a small single-storey house with the girls and small children. There is little to recall the life she had led before the war with her husband and daughter in their own home. A small chest of drawers and a bed are all she has. Above the dull mirror hangs a picture of the risen Christ; the text "Fear not" is with her in the morning when she wakes and at night when she goes to sleep. Above the bed is a photo of her daughter who has left Liberia so she can put all this out of her mind and not be confronted at every step with the horrors of the past.

Elizabeth's daughter would like to have her mother with her: "Come and stay with me, what I earn is enough for both of us," she wrote to her mother recently. But Elizabeth knows her place is with the children, hard as it is to be separated from her daughter. "What would become of the children?" Elizabeth dismisses the idea with a wave of her hand, "I'm staying."


Karta's Story

The hall in the YWCA headquarters is festively decorated. There is a bustle of excitement in the air. All the women we met during our time here and who shared a bit of their lives with us have come once again to say goodbye before our five-member international ecumenical women's delegation leaves Liberia.

A farewell party is being held at the YWCA headquarters and all the women we met have come to bid us farewell--or almost all. The women in the VOI 1 and Banjor refugee camps could not come, but in our thoughts they are with us and part of us--women like Karta, a refugee from Sierra Leone who has found a haven in VOA1.

"K-A-R-T-A S-A-N-N-O-H" Karta writes her name carefully on the blackboard. She turns around and smiles proudly at the international guests.

"I love this program. For the first time in my life, I'm getting an education," she says.

Her fellow-students nod in agreement. At the moment there are twenty-five women taking the six months' course in writing and arithmetic offered by the YWCA here in VOA 1 and in the Banjor Refugee Center.

The blackboard stands on the sand, propped up against a straw hut. The women's enthusiasm about learning, at last, to write and do sums cannot conceal the hardships of their life as refugees. Many of them have been in Liberia since 1992, and children die in the camp almost every day.

For Karta and her fellow-students, learning to write and do sums is a first step towards financial independence. This course will be followed by training in a skilled trade. Tailoring, tie-dying and soap-making are the most popular courses. The women will offer the goods they have made themselves for sale in the markets, here in the outskirts of Monrovia and of course back home, when they are finally able to go home--whenever that may be.

Tailoring, tie-dying and soap-making also top the list with the women in the Banjor Refugee Centre. James L. Tommy, a trainer brought in by the YWCA, says emphatically, "In the Banjor Refugee Center we aim for equality and an equal right to education." The demand for courses is heavy in both VOA 1 and Banjor, but there are limits to what can be done because of a lack of financial support from overseas. "But we keep going," says Tommy.

At the farewell party at the YWCA headquarters, we see familiar faces and recall the life stories of Liberian women--every one a hero.
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Title Annotation:delegation of women visit Liberia
Author:Achtelstetter, Karin
Publication:Women Magazine
Geographic Code:6LIBE
Date:Dec 1, 2000
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