Sunday, 29 April 2012

"Here we say that the freedom is in your hands, so if you go against us, so go your hands. "

So this post comes a few days late, but Uni commitments have meant I haven't had a spare second to breathe let alone type. 

I'll sit here now and ask what were you doing on Thursday 26th April 2012? I ask you this and yet you are most probably puzzled as to the significance of this day. It is in fact the day Charles Taylor, former President of Liberia, was found guilty of "aiding and abetting war crimes and crimes against humanity." His sentence saw him convicted "on 11 charges including murder, rape, sexual slavery and enforced amputations." Not only that but next year Liberia will step out of the shadow of the atrocities as it reaches a significant milestone: a decade since the war ended.

As the surge of viral enthusiasm towards the Kony campaign begins to dwindle and people forget about that link they shared, it gives me hope that at least some justice is being served. The atrocities Taylor performed, supported and led are beyond imaginable. It is hard to believe it continued for so long and at such a level. (For more in depth details on  the war and Taylor see The Guardian link below.)

In February 2009 I traveled to Liberia with my Father. At the time he was helping to evolve a Charitable Institute that educated young Liberians with computer skills so that they have a chance at getting a job.  The war spanned from 1989 to 2003 (with a brief interlude, for want of a better word, from 1996-9) and in that left a whole generation completely uneducated. I spent some time teaching but mostly traveling and seeing Monrovia and its people with my father. I sat in on meetings with Charity executives and workers from the UN and American Government. I spent time with the small close knit group of ex-pats working out there. The insight and information I heard in these times was eye opening. Whilst there are many dedicated to the Country and it's people, there are also many who sit in their chairs within securely gated compounds looking out at the people and not truly seeing what their needs are.

My time there was eye opening, difficult, sad; hopeful. We stayed with family friends and truly lived like Liberians, albeit very well off ones. One day when I was there, I sat for several hours talking with our friend Phillipson about the war. It was as if he was telling me of a movie he had just watched and I had to continually remind myself that this was real. He had lived this. They all had lived this story in different variations. On my last day I had an urge to write down how I was feeling, as I knew no matter how deep this experience was lodged in my very being, I would not remember the intensity of what I was experiencing at that very moment. With this momentous  occasion having just happened, I feel it is the time to share it. 

Take note that at this point I had not yet been to Kenya and started that journey. It was my first time in Africa and I do believe that, without this trip, I would not have established what I did in Kenya. The writing, as with this blog, steps off route at times and jumps from one thing to another. But I am not going to correct it, because it simply shows the thoughts that were pacing my brain at the time and the things I did not want to forget. It comes from the heart and for that reason I do not feel it needs reconstructing.

My first Visit to Liberia, West Africa
January 24th to February 11th

It is hard to understand the magnitude of the poverty in Liberia unless you see it for yourself. As a conscientious person, who watches the news and knows of others plights, you assume you can empathize with these people. It is not the case. Many will say, “I’ve been to Africa, I’ve seen the starving: so therefore I understand”. But there is something sadly unique about Liberia. It is the longevity of the war that is most frightening. A child born in 1989 or later, until 2003, would have known nothing but brutal civil war. The war started on Christmas Eve 1989, almost exactly a month after I was born. It scares me to think whilst I was playing, learning and living my childhood most had theirs stripped of them.

            On coming to Liberia I found it hard to make a connection between the war and the country I saw before my eyes. On the surface there is poverty within a developing country, but at the same time the people are so warm and giving it is very easy to look beyond. When looked at a little closer the hollowed buildings and bullet holes become distinguishable. However, what becomes so startlingly clear is a veneer of un-comprehendible sadness. A handsome young man becomes a victim of war when you look closer and see the scar running down his cheek or the hand he is missing. A young mother becomes another statistic or casualty when she asks for change to feed her fatherless children.

In Liberia they use motorbikes like taxis- with many ex-combatants taking up this trade. I would walk past them sitting on their bikes and attempt to make a connection between these young boys that could be my brother or one of my friends, and imagine the massacre they helped ensue. It is hard to imagine their plight- displaced families living in shacks made of corrugated iron in 35’c heat. Not being able to afford a sack of rice. Having to sell your child for trafficking for just two hundred dollars. Everyday having to live with the fact that your people, perhaps even your family, helped kill the life you knew. It is the incredibly sad fact that Liberia had a certain level of prosperity before the war. They had electricity, they had running water, they had homes- but this was stripped of them. It is not that they do not have these things: it is that they lost them.

People’s stories linger in my thoughts; it is very hard to forget such tales of gruesome violence. But we must hear them, must listen to their stories, because this is not a Hollywood movie and this is not a book: it is their lives. When you hear them you start to understand the pain etched in the facial expressions and the far off lingering stares. What struck hardest was the desperation and pain burnt on their faces. If the eyes are the window to the soul, theirs’ achingly show a lifetime of war and suffering that can never be eradicated. 

It is frightening to see a young man with so much anger and heart ache written on his face and it is impossible to imagine the atrocities that he had to live through. One asked me to photograph him and his first born- it felt like he wanted a record that he had lived to see this moment. A friend saw two children shoot their mothers before falling to the ground in despair and grief. He picked them up, carried them home and has since looked after them like his own- whilst at the same time having five biological children to feed. As privileged Westerners we have the luxury of switching off the violence when the television shows become more than we can bare. These people have no such switch.

            One thing I am certain that I must not do is paint a picture of people succumbed by the war, unable to see their way out. Of course it is, and I’m sure always will be, a forefront in their minds. But what astounded me most was their ability to forgive. We drove past a group of people celebrating Charles Taylor’s birthday and it incensed and enraged me. I could not understand how they could have this celebration openly. Imagine how people would react if a group candidly celebrated Hitler’s birthday on the street: they would not live to blow out the candles. And here is a man as evil and blood-thirsty, yet in the name of liberty, people can honour him. I questioned this with many of my Liberian friends and they simply said that yes it angers them, but in the name of peace and stability for their country, free will and expression should be allowed.

In the same way I question how so many men were openly accepted back into their communities after shooting, pillaging and raping their neighbours, friends or even their own families. The people may not have forgotten but they have forgiven so their country has the possibility to restore. This is a country that was so lost in the abyss of fighting it is amazing they could find a way out. But they did. And their integrity, forgiveness and sacrifice for their country continues to astound and amaze me. The world would be a better place if we learnt these lessons from our Liberian brothers and sisters.

Everyone has their weaknesses: the thing that shakes them to the core. It is that thing that is always in the back of your mind and lingers in your heart day after day. During my time in Liberia I spent a day in a community just outside Monrovia. What continued to amaze me was the acceptance we experienced. People were grateful that we came to see there plight and that we cared about them as individuals- rather than a country as a whole. It continues to anger me how little the world’s representatives know about the country and its’ people. All they see are stats on violence and crime, but if you look closely- into the heart of the communities- you see a country slowly rebuilding itself: they should be praised and honoured for this.

In the village children attach themselves to you- whether because of desperation, fascination or hope, I am unsure. But there was one young boy, with inquisitive eyes and a grasp so strong I thought he would never let go, that struck a nerve with me. It could have been his living conditions, his desperate stare or his protruding ribs; it could have been the sight of all three, however, the other children were the same. I somehow had the feeling that I knew him, that I had seen his face somewhere before. His eyes carried a sadness and his face, a turmoil and suffering beyond his three years. The only thing comforting is that he had escaped the memories of war. But I cannot decide, is this better or is living with the aftermath of this cruel war as bad as having lived it? What I do know is that his face will be burnt on my mind and clutching at my heart forever.

What is most upsetting are the people that do not want to be helped, that have succumbed to half a life and are happy to live it. The adopted daughter of our Liberian partners told me that, at her age of twenty-two, many of her friends had one or two children and had given up on education. She, however, was not going to let the war stop her achieving what she dreamed of. She will be in her mid thirties before she has finished her training to become a Doctor: the anger and sorrow in her eyes of what the war had stripped of her was almost tangible.

When the UN stampeded in they offered education to most ex-combatants but many refused. It broke my heart to have to turn my head when they came to the car window asking for just a few Liberian dollars. (There are 64.5 Liberian Dollars to one US Dollar- a can of coke costs just under one US Dollar).  Begging is all they are capable of- sadly hoping that the memories of war they live with everyday, perhaps blindness or half a limb- will bring some pity and perhaps food for their family. Poverty is so rife that most live on a dollar a day, whilst having to support for an extended family. This could be upwards of twenty people. What is hard to fathom is the price of living in Liberia. It is possible to spend ten dollars and get no more than a cabbage. Imagine supporting your whole family during the credit crunch on a pound a day.

Education is held in highest esteem in Liberia, but unlike England where it is a necessity, here it is a luxury most cannot afford. Next time your brother, sister or child complain of school remind them of those who will never be so lucky. In Liberia there are more illiterate then literate and more children in work than in school. The war left a generation of illiterate children and young adults. When I was learning math, young boys where being made to shoots their mothers; whilst learning Shakespeare, children were forced into cannibalism; whilst painting a picture, young girls were stripped of their innocence. But what do you do in the dichotomy of those wanting education being unable to afford it and the refusal of others to attend?

I do not have the answers on how to fix a country that has been through so much, but it is sadly obvious what will not. You cannot repair overnight what took thirteen years to rip apart, and it cannot be expected that, only five years after the conflict has ended, for people to be able to not look back. I can also tell you that pencil pushing diplomats that are cooped up in air conditioned offices, dispensing money where they see fit, have no idea how to help the people. How do you honestly understand a country, its people and its needs without getting out there and talking to them? Experiencing what they live on a day to day basis. Many have not seen Monrovia properly, let alone the poverty in the interior. I do not have enough knowledge to comment on the progress the Government has created but I see the people’s anger at the small amount of people benefiting from the wealth within Government. As one said the curse of African “diplomacy” is corruption and greed.

Liberian’s have a different way of using the word “embarrassed”.  Flooding embarrasses them as they cannot afford a roof or sturdy walls for their homes during the rainy season. Well, to use this, I am embarrassed at how the Western world gallivants in doing what we think is right. How do you know it will help if you do not ask the people? Macro-projects such as the World Bank funded road repairs will not put food on their tables. I am not disputing that this work needs to be done, but I ask you, is this the most prevalent issue to be focusing on?

 We need to help indigenous people achieve an education and gain training in trades that let them utilize their countries abundance of wealth- minerals, diamonds and timber to name a few.  Micro-projects that focus on the people and creating sustainability after the Westerner’s have left. A school is built and we leave without once thinking that there may not be enough trained teachers or money to keep it alive. Liberia is still within the ten year “danger zone” where civil war has a one in three chance of erupting once again. This cannot happen. These people have been through their equivalent of the two world wars, back to back- they were not so lucky to have a twenty year gap. I cannot speak on behalf of the people, but I feel many would not survive it psychologically- if they are lucky enough to physically. As one Pastor so rightly said to me, it is a “war-mentality” of dependence that they must break and I truthfully believe they are. In this sense we must help nurture and provide whilst giving Liberians the tools to fend for themselves so they can run once the training wheels are gone.

What we must do, in the same way Liberians are trying to, is to look forward- not back. These loyal, generous and talented people deserve for us not to remember them for their war but for their tenacity, fight and sense of self. They may be coming on “small-small” but we should take a moment to learn from them: their family values, love for their country and strive for a better life. But most of all we should be in awe of their forgiveness and persistence surely unprecedented by the years of conflict they had to endure.

Facts in this post were obtained from:

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