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THE TOMB DWELLERS; Child sex workers sleep in graves, believing it protects them from evil; EXCLUSIVE.

Byline: from MATTHEW DRAKE Chief Reporter in Monrovia, Liberia

SCORES of children who sell their bodies to stay alive have taken up refuge among the dead - believing it will keep them safe from evil.

Each day, the haunted youngsters in dirty, ragged clothes rise up from the crumbling tombs of Monrovia's Palm Grove Cemetery shortly before dawn.

These are the lost children of Liberia, sharing graves they have clawed out by hand on the outskirts of their country's capital, still blighted by a 14-year civil war that ended a decade ago.

As TB, Aids and heroin abuse run rife, one girl, 16-year-old Princess Chea, told us: "I've been sleeping here in the graveyard for five years.

"There is no other option, my parents both died after the civil war. There was nobody to protect or look after me.

"It is safe in here, in the tombs, where nobody dare come to hurt us."

Princess was just 10 when she first sold herself to old men on the streets of downtown Monrovia, who would pay her [euro]1.60 for sex.

HOLLOW

With tears in her hollow, yellowing eyes, she said: "I've been working as a prostitute for six years now. I am not happy at all, but I have nobody to turn to.

"Every day I sleep with up to 10 older men. I have been lucky never to have got pregnant - and I am not afraid of Aids because hopefully God will protect me."

When Ebola ravaged the country, all she could do was carry on, and pray.

She added: "I smoke cocaine to take away the pain while praying every single day that I can one day leave my grave and perhaps even go to school." Princess, who shares her dug-out refuge with friend Joshua Williams, 17, is one of the many underage girls in Monrovia who "cut jopu", or hustle on the side of the street for goods or money.

Police say the problem is soaring, with scores of sex workers aged just 11 or 12 bartering in bars and clubs.

The acceptance of paid underage sex is a sad legacy of Liberia's conflict, when young girls became "girlfriends" of fighters who could get them food or other goods. UK charity Street Child is supporting children like Princess, helping them to seek counselling and education.

Another friend of Princess, emaciated Daniel Johnson, 12, feels he is lucky to have a place among the skeletons after Ebola wiped out his close family last year. Soccer-mad Daniel said: "I feel safe here with the spirits to watch over me. We have nobody else, and nothing else."

matthew.drake@trinitymirror.com

For further information about the charity, visit street-child.co.uk

"I feel safe here with the spirits to watch us - we have nobody else DANIEL JOHNSON, 12 ORPHAN GRAVE DWELLER

CAPTION(S):

RESTING PLACE Princess and Joshua in cramped tomb

SURVIVORS Princess, right, with Joshua. She began selling sex when she was 10

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Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Geographic Code:6LIBE
Date:Jul 10, 2016
Words:494
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