Facing the horrors of war

Facing the horrors of war

no healing The women of Liberia are still reeling under the scars of civil war.

‘When I was small it was the war, but I don’t remember too good,” says Finda Fallah. She’s talking about Liberia’s first civil war, which started in 1989 when she was two years old. Her family, along with up to a million other people, fled the country to escape its horrors.

Finda rocks her two-year-old daughter, Priscilla, in her arms as she talks, in the small hot office at the rescue home in Monrovia where she now lives. She’s 22 years old now, just one of a generation of women in Liberia who have been irrevocably scarred by the use of rape as a weapon in her country’s civil wars.

After a decade in a refugee camp in neighbouring Guinea, Finda’s parents decided to return to their farm in Bong County. But a second war had begun, and in 2002 rebel soldiers came for Finda’s father. “They said he was a spy. They beat him until he died. My mother was crying for my father and they beat her and they raped her,” she says.

The soldiers, she doesn’t remember how many, also raped Finda, then 15, and forced her to come away with them into the jungle. “They gave me a gun and said I had to go and fight,” she says. “They used me as their wife. They killed a lot of people, mostly men. They raped women constantly. Even young, young boys did it.” I ask her why she thinks they did this. “I don’t know,” she says. “They had a gun and they had the power.”

Liberia’s civil wars were characterised by the extreme abandon with which rival militias terrorised the people. The soldiers who abducted Finda were, she has been told, loyal to the then President Charles Taylor, whose militias included the infamous Butt Naked Battalion, child soldiers out of their minds on speed, marijuana and palm wine. When they weren’t naked, they wore women’s nightdresses, wigs and make-up.

Shocking violence
The excesses of the militias included burning people alive, making people eat the flesh of their murdered relatives, gang-raping women and girls, forcing boys to rape their mothers, placing bets on the sex of a foetus and then disembowelling pregnant women to find out who’d won. An estimated 3,00,000 people, mostly civilians, were killed, out of a population of just over three million.

Finda knew nothing of the cause served by her captors. She says she didn’t want to carry a gun and never killed anyone. She has since found out that most of her friends were raped during the war years. Finda got pregnant and had a baby boy. “He died.”
Abandoned by the soldiers and separated from her family, Finda came to Monrovia, Liberia’s capital city. There was even more torment to come. “There were soldiers all around,” she says. “One of them raped me. He hurt me... he made me pregnant and then he went away.”

Now, Finda is housed in a centre for girls who’d had bad experiences in the war. The centre is run by the Christian NGO Think Inc.

The home offers literacy classes, skills training and counselling. There’s a high perimeter wall laced with barbed wire, and a security guard on the gate. This is, above all, a safe place. “We pray a lot and they teach me a lot of things,” Finda says. “How to sustain my life. How to live with people. How to know my importance in life. How to take care of myself. Before, I felt I would just be nobody.”

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who, at 71, is the first woman to head an African country, says the long years of war transformed people. “It has introduced into our national psyche a culture of violence.”

Last year, a study found that children aged from two months to 17 years had been raped during 2007, and that the vast majority of them had not resulted in any action against the perpetrator. Several children had been ritualistically killed, and others had been tortured, beaten, trafficked, neglected and abandoned.

Up north in Bong County, the violence was particularly intense during the war. This was where former president Charles Taylor raised his brutal militias. Taylor is on trial for international war crimes at a special tribunal in The Hague, while his son has been jailed for 97 years for crimes against humanity.

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