Escaping a broken, war-torn homeland

Oct. 2, 2003, midnight | By Olivia Bevacqua | 17 years, 3 months ago

Liberian Blazers relate their experiences with death, hunger, chaos, and deprived schools

She huddled in the tree with her friend as the rebels approached. They clung desperately to the branches in strained silence until her friend lost her grip and fell. As the rebels began to shoot, she too slipped from the branches, breaking her wrist as she slammed into the ground beneath the flying bullets.

Less than a year later, sophomore Kowo Jallah sits in Blair's library dressed in tight jeans and hoop earrings with a quiet smile and unflinching eyes. Jallah is one of over 1.5 million Liberian citizens who have become refugees in the last decade due to prolonged internal conflicts, according to an August Rolling Stone article. For Liberian Blazers, former Liberian president Charles Taylor's recent resignation elicits both painful memories and hope for change.

Growing up in war

For the past seven years, Taylor has ruled as president of Liberia. He came to power during a massive civil war in which over 150,000 people were killed; more than 70 percent of the militia fighters were under age 18. Child soldiers were encouraged to eat their victims' hearts for courage and many became addicted to cocaine or heroin.

One rebel attack in particular stands out in Jallah's memory. Jallah, who lived in Monrovia for 17 years, had been journeying to a refugee camp with her aunt. "We were running, and they were shooting, and they hit her body." She touches her chest lightly with both hands, indicating where her aunt was hit. "She died, and I was screaming and running. I was close to her."

The rebels did not kill all of their victims. Junior Madanyon Dunbar, who arrived in America six months ago, saw rebels every day in Monrovia. "They would dress in colored clothes; some would paint their faces," she says. "Sometimes if you were walking in a group with your brother, the rebel would stop and take him. They needed more men to fight." She pauses. "If you didn't do it, they'd kill you."

Despite the need for security, U.S. aid has been chiefly humanitarian. Some Liberian Blazers believe that military intervention is also needed. Junior Godwin Kennedy, who lived in Liberia for three years, claims that America has a duty to help rebuild Liberia and stop the fighting. "We need to bring in armies to help keep the peace," he says. "We also need to help rebuild the government, build homes, create jobs and appoint new law enforcement officers."

Darkness and hunger

The chaos in Liberia touches upon all aspects of life. Acts of war perpetuate ongoing job shortages, lack of public utilities and food scarcity.

Dunbar describes her country's situation as both poverty-stricken and dangerous. "We have no lights or telephones; everyone is in darkness," she says. "Our life is not safe."

The need for telephones is one of many problems. In a country where 85 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and is unemployed, there is no official government budget, running water or electricity. The nation is in a state of near anarchy, according to Richard Greene, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for refugees and migration. "Liberia is a mess right now," he says. "There is no working infrastructure, and there's been no real government for at least a decade."

There are also severe food shortages. Junior Akee Moko, who left Liberia when he was seven, says that hunger was a fact of life in his homeland. "I remember war, fighting and violence. But mostly I remember being hungry," he says. Moko's earliest memory of arriving in America was of the stomach pains that resulted from eating food regularly.

Struggling schools

Liberia's absence of a working infrastructure is further demonstrated by the poor state of its educational system. According to the Liberian Ministry of Education, the past 15 years of war have ravaged the country so terribly that 50 percent of the children who should have attended school did not. Currently, 78 percent of Liberians are illiterate.

When Dunbar attended school in Liberia, her mother worked so that she could send her daughter to a private school. Even at a private school, says Dunbar, there were no textbooks, computers or libraries. Dunbar's five siblings had to remain in government schools, as the cost of private education was too high.
Junior Priscilla Kai, who lived in Liberia for 15 years, states that even the government schools come at a price. "If your parents don't have money, you don't go [to school]," she says.

Looking to the future

On Aug 11, Taylor resigned from office and flew into exile in Nigeria, meeting a key condition set by President Bush for a U.S. peacekeeping role.

Taylor's departure has allowed rebel groups to move toward a peaceful solution, according to Greene. "His leaving the country has made possible a political settlement, which [enabled] a ceasefire. The ceasefire has been in effect for over a month," Greene states.

Liberian Blazers are optimistic about their country's future, and look forward to a time of peace. Jallah lifts her sleeve to reveal one of many scars, this one left from the gun butt of a rebel. Maybe one day she will return to Liberia and rejoin her brothers and sisters. But for now, the scars may be a little too fresh. She tugs her sleeve back down and gazes away. "I'd rather stay here," Jallah says quietly.

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