Liberia: The dream of freedom that turned into a nightmare

Forced to flee by the war, Folley has lost everything, including his health

Folley is 35 but looks 20 years older. Hailing from the Bomi region in the northeast of Monrovia, where he worked in the farm industry, he was compelled to leave his home on February 4, when the Lurd rebels stormed his village. Together with his uncle, he sought refuge in various displaced persons camps, which he was forced to leave owing to the waves of attacks. His uncle died, leaving Folley with no other choice than to flee by himself to the centre of Monrovia, in spite of the fierce fighting. In the end he found shelter in a school, which was crammed with people huddled together in the most unhygienic conditions. Vomiting and suffering from diarrhoea, he was taken to the anti-cholera centre MSF opened in Monrovia. It had to be evacuated in the midst of an emergency in late June. Folley is now one of the thousands of displaced people wandering the streets of Monrovia, without food or medical care.

Let us call her Suzan. When she was 14 years old she was brutally raped by Charles Taylor's soldiers, who left her torn apart, half dead. Suzan managed to survive but the doctors told her she could never have children, which is a real curse for an African woman.

When she reached the age of 26, she heard about an operation that might help her. She worked all hours as a cook so as to save some money for the operation but when the war flared up again, in early June, she was forced to flee once more. Some armed men arrested her at roadblock and stole all the money she had saved. Managing to overcome her despair, she took shelter in a camp for displaced people, where she tried to earn a bit of money by gathering wood. However, she was faced with a repeat of the dreadful experience of her childhood when some men assaulted and raped her.

Suzan's story is in a way the story of the entire Liberian population. They have gone through absolute hell since the war broke out in late 1989. The international media has once again turned its attention to Liberia in recent weeks, in reaction to the offensives launched by the rebel forces, the cease-fires announced but not observed, President Bush's reluctance to send US troops to this country, which was created by Americans in the 19th century.

The population lives in utter misery. Most of the country's people have no access to healthcare.

However, the international community has generally forgotten about what the Liberian population has endured over the last decade or so, preferring to avert its eyes from the overabundance of barbaric acts. For nearly 15 years now, the Liberian people has witnessed a stream of horrors such as the violent activities of armed bandits and drugged up, bloodthirsty child soldiers.

The eyewitness reports heard in recent weeks seem to share the same kinds of tragic themes. They speak of families on the run, terrified by the fighting. A mother, a sick grandmother and four or five children. When the grandmother can no longer move anymore she is left on the roadside where she will soon die from hunger and exhaustion. In the case of the children, the mother can carry the youngest on her back and hold the hands of another two. The others are at risk of getting lost, being separated by the crowd from their mother, if they are not hit by a stray bullet, which is what happened to a 13-year-old child recently.

LIBERIA

  • Capital: Monrovia
  • Area: 111,370 km2 or four times as big as Belgium
  • Type of state: unitary republic
  • Type of regime: presidential
  • Population: 3.1 million inhabitants
  • Infant mortality: 11.4 per 1000
  • Life expectancy: 48 years-of-age
  • Illiteracy rate: 28.8 % for males – 60.96 % for females

Background

Gaining independence in 1847, Liberia was created to resettle freed slaves from the New World. This utopian vision soon turned sour: the descendants of the slaves were scornful of the indigenous people and failed to include them in their powerbase.

On 24 December 1989 an uprising led by the rebel Charles Taylor plunged the country into a war from which it has never really emerged. Overwhelmed by the extreme violence, the Liberians agreed that Charles Taylor should be elected president in 1997. Starting in the year 2000, his corrupt regime has come under attack from two rebel movements: the Lurd and the Model.

2,000 deaths, 2.5 million refugees and displaced persons: these horrifying figures represent the sum total of a host of individual cases of suffering. After waging a cruel war over a period of seven years, Charles Taylor was in the end elected in 1997 by a population petrified because of what it had had to endure. However, the President did not do any better than the war chief: he plundered his country and exported the war throughout the region, whilst completely disregarding the administration.

Over three-quarters of the population are struggling to survive in wretched conditions. Owing to the insecurity, most of the people are unable to receive health care. Nearly all Liberian doctors have gone into exile and most of the few dozen that stayed behind are working in the private sector. Drinking water is no longer being distributed and diseases such as cholera have returned with a vengeance, just like yellow fever.

In the late 19th century, American Quakers dreamed about being able to help former black slaves to rediscover their continent and their dignity. This dream has turned into a nightmare, however. Created in 1833 and gaining independence in 1847, Liberia has a motto: "The love of liberty brought us here". Yet the black Americans felt they had little in common with the indigenous people who they regarded as savages.

These Americo-Liberians set about dominating the indigenous people, exploiting them. This situation continued until the day Samuel Doe (a member of the indigenous population) slaughtered and eviscerated President William Tolbert (a descendant of a slave) and then took away all the members of the government to be killed on the beach. Coming in the wake of 150 years of oppression, this bloody revenge was the starting signal for 20 years of sheer horror. This page of history has unfortunately still not yet been turned.

Copyright Le Soir