History and Hope: Liberia's Battle

By Olson, Daniel | The Christian Century, October 9, 1996 | Go to article overview

History and Hope: Liberia's Battle


Olson, Daniel, The Christian Century


THIS PAST spring, scenes of drugged boy soldiers killing and looting on the streets of ravaged Monrovia were regular fare on the evening news. Those images and reports of Liberia's horrific war have since disappeared from our news media. What has not disappeared is the desperate situation of those affected by the war, including hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people and refugees.

The population of Liberia has dropped almost in half since the war began. Meanwhile, mediators from countries belonging to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) seek disarmament and a return to security in a land plagued by violence since late 1989.

ECOWAS's July summit in the Nigerian capital of Abuja raised hopes that the latest peace plan may succeed where more than a dozen have failed. Nigeria's military dictator and newly elected head of ECOWAS, General Sani Abacha, has added pressure to proposed sanctions and warcrimes tribunals by insisting on total disarmament of the estimated 60,000 fighters, which might allow elections to take place before the end of the year. Nigeria has the largest number of soldiers in the ECOWAS peacekeeping force in Liberia. Although factions have agreed to total disarmament, Liberians are only cautiously optimistic; they have been disappointed before.

Liberia, on Africa's west coast, is so rich in natural beauty and resources that one can't help wonder why such a country has fallen into chaos and seems so intent on self-destruction. Given the severity of the violence one also wonders what, in the short term, can be done so that people can return to their homes. The long-term question is whether Liberia will ever be reconstructed.

The dilemma of Marion and her family suggests the extent of the challenge. Marion is among the many refugees who have poured into Liberia's eastern neighbor, Cote d'Ivorie (Ivory Coast) since this year's outbreak of killing. I spoke with her in the sprawling town of Danane, which now has as many Liberians as Ivoirians. She and her husband--both of whom have graduate degrees from U.S. universities--were able to escape from Monrovia with their four children and some members of their extended family. Now they face the struggles of finding food and shelter and that great burden of the displaced--boredom. They feel caught between a country to which they can't return and a country--the U.S.--that doesn't want them.

Despite the trauma to her children, Marion's smile and words express the strong faith that is so characteristic of many Liberians: "God has been with us. We were able to leave our home with God and our most valuable possessions--our lives."

Marion and her family symbolize both Liberia's tragedy and its hope. The country is losing the very people who are capable of rebuilding civil society: educated professionals and church leaders. Liberia's hope lies with its persevering, adaptable and determined people. These are the people who even now, in and outside of Liberia, work in hospitals without salary, staff orphanages, distribute relief goods and, in churches, proclaim hope for the future.

This past winter I visited Liberia as part of a Lutheran World Service relief and development agency planning team. Our goal was to create a fiveyear plan of sustainable development and community building in the region. At that time hope was relatively high in Liberia. The Council of State, a new interim government, was in place and Christmas could be celebrated in peace for the first time in years. But those expectations were dashed in April. The temporary six-man Council of State, which included leaders from several of the battling factions, made matters worse rather than better. The new government configuration served to allow fighters from the various factions to freely move from the countryside to the capital, bringing with them even more violence and chaos.

The current war began on Christmas Eve 1989.

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