BOMI, LIBERIA, 5 June 2014: FOR years afterwards, in the river, you could see the bones of the slaughtered people under the surface. They lay beneath the water where they had fallen from the bridge, men, women and babies, children who’d thought they were being taken to safety. Now, when people talk about it, they say they are afraid of their own thoughts, the images in their heads. They remember the way the bodies hit the water and the river turned red.
Other memories emerge at unexpected moments. We are walking up the hill, a still, hot afternoon. ‘During the war I saw a man use a machete to slice a pregnant woman’s belly open, see whether it was a boy or a girl.’ The other women grow quiet. Blessing* stares ahead, chin lifted, a nerve in her cheek working. When she turns to look at us, her eyes are aflame. ‘So yeah, I blame the war. No wonder things are like they are.’
We gather in a zinc-roofed hut in Tubmanberg, Bomi County, 65 kilometres east of Monrovia, sunlight filtering in, dust particles dancing about our foreheads. We are twenty-two women. They are in their teens and twenties and were children when, on July 20th 2002, trucks came to evacuate men, women and children to the capital. When the trucks reached the Maher Bridge, troops smashed the babies’ heads, disembowelled the pregnant women, lined up the rest and shot them. It went on all night, this shuttling of people to the bridge in blood-stained trucks. Nowadays, the same road from the bridge into town is where the women orphaned by that massacre come at night to sell their bodies. Their customers are men so brutalised by war that they no longer believe in family, humanity or love.
Blessing, who is 27, calls herself and her friends hopojos, prostitutes. They are the generation that missed out on school, women who survived the violence but have been left with no parents, no education, no money, no skills, barely a roof over their head and several children born of rape or prostitution that they must support alone. In Bomi County, community workers estimate that 75% of women with children are single mothers. Liberia’s rate of teenage pregnancy is one of the highest in the world. ‘Before the war, men were better,’ says Blessing. ‘But they do not want the responsibility of children or wives anymore.’
She describes how every night they go on the block, on the street, on the road, and have sex with men to buy food and clothes for their children, a few dollars per night to pay their school fees. They might get 75 or 100 Liberian dollars ((around 50 to 70 pence) per man. Sometimes, if the men get drunk, they pay less than they agreed. ‘What are you gonna do, you need it for the children,’ Blessing shrugs. During the war, many of the women were raped, sometimes by three or four men at once. Most of them lost their mas and their pas. All of them live with layer after layer of trauma, unable to make peace with the past because of the ongoing nightmare of the present.
Blessing shows us her room in another zinc-roofed house in the shade of a dabema tree, the photographs of her children pinned to the mirror where she gets ready, the soft toys around the bed where she sleeps with her ten year old son and her daughters aged 13 and nine. They all have different fathers. Blessing says the only thing she likes about herself is that she pays for them to go to school, even if the money comes from sex work. ‘If I don’t go out there, no one will care for me,’ she says. ‘What can I do to get money for myself? There’s nothing, no job, I’m not educated, a woman with children, no father, so this is very difficult for me, though I am trying to leave prostitution.’
It is eleven years since the war ended and the cameras and the war correspondents have gone home, uninterested in the less tangible kind of suffering that follows in the aftermath of war. ‘My life is miserable,’ says Mamawa, 23, a single mother with a face ravaged by childhood measles. Because of her disability she makes less than the others on the street, a mere 50 Liberian dollars a time. ‘I was a baby when they killed my pa. He said he’d rather die than fight. They raped my grandma in front of my pa, then beat him and killed him.’
Mamawa wells up. ‘I have nobody to help me and I’m thinking, my daughter’s growing up. How will she go to school? How will she be tomorrow? I have no pride, and a woman without pride is not a woman.’ Mariatu, 29, interrupts: ‘Sometimes you get vexed, you think, let the money go. But then you think, what will my child eat, when the child is sick, how will he go to hospital? You just have to accept.’
Kassa was ten when she first became a sex worker. Orphaned, she spent the war hiding in derelict buildings, running from, as she explains, men who were raping girls and children who were killing adults. She is 23 now and has never been able to find other work despite putting herself through school. ‘After the war I used to go to lessons in the day. Then I’d go on the road, sell my body and get customers, come back and buy food. I graduated, but then I had to go back to prostitution because I didn’t have any money.’ Kassa doesn’t know the fathers of her son and daughter and gave them away to more well-off families when they were born. She is scared of getting HIV, scared of her children finding out what she does. ‘Sometimes I’ll plan to go and see them but because of no money, I can’t. I sit down and cry and think about my ma and pa, because if they were alive I’d not be living such a life. I don’t want my children to be like me.’
It is impossible to separate Liberia’s problems from the war that haunts everything, the memories so harrowing that the men smile as they describe their mothers and sisters being raped and beheaded. In 2003, the economy was crippled and its infrastructure in tatters; both are gradually recovering, but many rural areas remain without mains electricity and running water and Monrovia still houses one of the poorest slums in West Africa. Corruption is rife; unemployment and illiteracy are endemic. According to UNESCO, 56% of girls aged three to six years above primary school entrance age have never been to school and there are estimates that over half of Liberian women with children are single mothers, with a large number working as prostitutes to support their children.
Less immediately discernible is the estimated 40 percent of Liberia’s population suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Sit down and ask anyone questions and the stories come spilling out, as if everyone is desperate to confide what happened during that time when humanity stopped functioning, when life ceased to be important and all moral boundaries broke down. They show the machete scars, the bullet holes in the buildings, but somehow their memories are most shocking. The women believe this is the reason for the men’s need for no strings sex, their reluctance to marry and take responsibility for their children, their apparent hatred of women. ‘We were alright,’ says Lavender, 68, remembering life and marriage before the war. ‘The men used to treat us well, buy food and clothes for us. Nowadays it’s hell.’
‘Yes we are desensitised,’ admits John, 31, who was a teenager when he was recruited to fight as a soldier. ‘How can you expect us to have relationships with women when we saw our mothers raped and killed in front of our very eyes?’ ‘Send us counselling,’ adds George, 37, who saw the trucks rumbling away from town. ‘We all need it.’ Like the women, Liberia’s young men missed out on school. Now they’re unemployed, uneducated and unable to provide, traumatised by the past, rejecting family values, relationships and responsibility for the children they father with different women. ‘We’re trying to do well, but we’re financially impotent,’ adds John, who a moment earlier has grinned and gestured with his hands to show us how his AK47 was as tall as he was. ‘I want to be able to support someone else, but I can’t support myself. We have no way of making a living. At times I wish I could be a girl child too, just to go in the street and have sex for money.’
‘Everything is broken, spoiled.’ Twenty year-old Carmen bows her head, breaks down in sobs. She pauses and wipes her eyes, her body shaking with emotion. Carmen was ten when she was raped by three men in the war. They killed her parents and her brother, and she became pregnant and had a baby boy. Now she has no choice but to work on the street to support her son, now 10, and her daughter, who is seven. Silver, 30, wears a t-shirt saying ‘don’t hurt me’ in diamanté letters. Her face is expressionless as she tells me how she was gang raped. ‘Four men grabbed me and raped me. Then they tied me up and my pa found me like that.’ Silver has a daughter from the rape and two other children with unknown fathers. ‘I go on the street to get money to send them to school and pay the rent.’ Blessing laughs when I ask her about love. ‘I don’t really know what love is now. The more you try, the more love tries to kill you. What will you do? Just leave it alone.’
Fifteen year-old Mary was born at the beginning of the war. She twists her hands on her green school skirt. ‘‘I have to go in the street to make money,’ she whispers. ‘When I’m entering a room to sleep with a man, that makes me so scared. I feel like a child.’ Anna is fourteen, a school girl who sells her body at night. ‘My pa died in the war and they gave me to my auntie, wrapped in a blanket. My auntie doesn’t have enough money to send me to school.’ Kassa explains what the teenagers must do. ‘Sometimes when I see the children among us in the night, I ask “but you are a little child, what are you doing here?” Today there are a lot of young girls, and we’re all on the block.’
The signs wedged in the dirt on the side of the road between Monrovia and Tubmanberg cry for peace. Never again, one of them says, amid adverts advocating child protection and reconciliation, rape is not a family matter, stop violence against women. There are the support centres for former child soldiers, places for women to report rape, help for girls with fistula, a condition caused by early pregnancy. Liberia’s problems are so complex that there is no single solution. Yet there is one wish that clearly emerges, a ray of hope that all the people we meet, men and women alike, seems to agree on; if only they could be employed, learn a trade, run their own businesses, send their children to school, they would be empowered, able to mend the future for the next generation.
‘I need to find a solution like education, like trade, learning how to do something, it would help,’ says Blessing. ‘I always tell my children that education is the key to success. Do not be like me, focus your attention on your education, I tell them, it will help you tomorrow.’
Temba is testament to their belief that education can transform their and their daughters’ futures. The 29 year-old former sex-worker has taken part in a project called Girl Power run by children’s rights charity Plan International in Bomi. Since learning how to make soap she has left the street and now supports her children by running a stall in Tubmanberg. The second phase of the project is about to start, with a new batch of girls and young women and a new range of courses including hairdressing, beautician skills and tailoring. ‘I thank God for the Girl Power project,’ says Temba. ‘Since I joined it, at least I’m not on the street any more, I have my pride and my dignity back. People see me and say, “oh, you have changed, the way you were before, you’re no longer like that”.’
Plan’s Girl Power coordinator Beatrice Newland believes that in order to help women and girls leave sex work, they need vocational training. ‘The long term solution is to empower them. In addition to business start-up kits, we’ll be offering Savings Groups to empower them to start businesses, get a little profit in order to sustain their families.’
Blessing, Kassa, Mamawa and the others grow animated when they talk about learning a trade. They want to be entrepreneurs, drivers. ‘We can do anything a man can do,’ says Temba. The resignation in their eyes is replaced, for a moment at least, by hope, and they are unanimously agreed that learning a trade will allow them to form businesses or get jobs and thus allow them to support their children through school. Kassa starts to cry. ‘I swear I’d leave the street if I only had a trade and earned my own money. I’d be able to take care of myself and my children. I’d get my pride back.’
There is no all-encompassing solution, and that is the tragedy of Liberia’s war. But for these men and women, girls and boys, for whom everything is broken, it is at least a start. ‘Someday we’ll be gone and our daughters will be left,’ says Temba. ‘If they can work, they won’t be like us. Bring us programmes for education and trade, so that we can leave the streets and our daughters can maintain their pride for tomorrow.’
*All the women’s and girls’ names have been changed to protect their identities
All text ©JaneLabous