x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Emma Thompson's harrowing tale from Liberia

The British actress Emma Thompson and her adopted son Tindy, a former child soldier, visit a ravaged Liberia. Here are their diaries.

Emma Thompson and her 24-year-old adopted son, Tindy, explore the remains of the infamous Ducor Palace Hotel in Monrovia, Liberia. Anastasia Taylor-Lind
Emma Thompson and her 24-year-old adopted son, Tindy, explore the remains of the infamous Ducor Palace Hotel in Monrovia, Liberia. Anastasia Taylor-Lind

Emma Thompson and her adopted Rwandan son, Tindy, travel to Liberia to see how the organisation ActionAid is helping poor and vulnerable women as well as former child soldiers like Tindy following years of civil war. Here are their diaries, which contain graphic accounts of the suffering they encountered.

 

Day 1: The first thing I learn is the Liberian handshake. A series of squeezes ends with a click of your fingers. Liberia's founders were the children of people who'd had the tops of their third fingers chopped off to identify them as slaves. The finger-click is a firm but playful indication that their offspring were anything but.

Atop the highest point in Monrovia sits the dusty ruins of the Ducor Palace Hotel. Abandoned by its owners in 1990, this huge hotel, once operated by InterContinental, was used by the warlord Charles Taylor as a barracks. From the wreckage of the coffee-lounge terrace you can see the shanty town of West Point stretching to the horizon. We walk into the empty swimming pool. Children used to slide down it on plastic trays but the place is behind razor wire now.

We leave the haunted space and spend two hours in West Point. It's wild. Winding pathways through mud houses set cheek by jowl; women selling giant spoons made from recycled tin cans; piles of the ubiquitous and fierce Liberian peppers; dried and fresh fish; chicken feet; various hooves; trader stalls dealing in tiny bags of herbs, salt and chicken stock; squalling babies; battered motorcycles buzzing and tooting; humans in a constant roar. Tindy is so happy. "I want to stay here for at least a month," he shrieks. Here, the young outnumber the old by a huge margin because of the 30 years of conflict. Liberians call them World Wars I, II and III. They ended only in 2003.

Getting out of the shanty to a better life is tough. In this country it's not just who you know but what your name is. An Americo-Liberian name such as Dennis, Johnson or Thomson (inherited from the inventors of the handshake) will get you in the door. An indigenous name such as Kollie, Saki or Towaye will get it slammed in your face.

 

Day 2: Leaving Monrovia westwards, we pass several checkpoints where during the wars torture was meted out. Korto Williams (ActionAid's country director) points out someone selling a pile of whelk-like shellfish.

"We call them 'Kiss-me's," she says, "because you bite off the pointy end and suck out the flesh. They used to say to people, 'Swallow 10 of these whole and I won't kill you'. But if you swallowed 10 you'd be dead anyway."

We stop to greet the district commissioner and meet our first female town chief. An old man sits listening as she says that one of the greatest problems in the country is rape, which is endemic. Rape within marriage has just been recognised under law. The old man leans back and closes his eyes. I assume he's tired but am told later that it was intended to show his disrespect. He thinks the idea of rape within marriage is ridiculous and has withdrawn from the discussion.

We reach a town called Karnga in one of Liberia's 15 counties, Grand Cape Mount. There I meet Massah, a 33-year-old woman with four children. She went to school until she was six, when the war put a stop to it. Later, rebels killed her husband and raped her. Her mother was killed during the next wave of fighting. She's exhausted, having spent all day foraging for food in the bush and all night looking after the babies. But she says that taking part in ActionAid's Reflect programme, a model for peace-building and leadership skills, has helped her feel less alone and more able to take part in decision-making.

Yatta lives in the room next door. Her husband tried to stop the soldiers from raping her and was shot dead.

"I want to make soap," she says. "Everyone needs soap."

Next door, Jenneh, who has had a pain around her heart and lungs ever since she was gang-raped, says Reflect helped her to speak to people without being aggressive.

"Violence here has dropped away enormously since ActionAid arrived. All we need is a living," she says.

I find Tindy in a green football shirt from a set that has been hired by ActionAid for a game. Everyone walks down to the pitch to cheer and dance. Joanna Kerr, ActionAid's new and first female CEO, a Canadian with articulate passion for women's rights, says the leaders of the community are more impressed by this than by anything else we've said or done.

 

Day 3: On our way to Gbarpolu county, a white van nearly crashes into us. As it drives off, Tindy points out that the sign on the back reads "God is in control". "Ha," he says.

I spend two hours with women and girls who have been on a project designed to tackle violence against girls in education. Vera, 22, leads the discussion.

"Here's what prevents girls from getting educated: early marriage, teenage pregnancy, traditional beliefs and practices, poverty and rape, lack of parental support," she says. "My mother never went to school so she thought there was no point in me going either. But here's the other problem - Prisky, tell her."

Prisky is a beautiful 15-year-old.

"I had just taken my exams and asked my teacher for my grades," she says. "He said he had failed me. I was shocked and asked to see my papers. He told me to come to his house and he would give me better grades."

Prisky didn't go but many teachers trade good grades for sex.

In the same community, ActionAid has been working with another female chief named Jenneh. We have a private discussion after the formal meeting:

"I don't know how old I am but I have four brothers and three sisters," she says. "One brother was killed in the war. We heard fighting was coming in 2003 so we all ran from here. The rebels caught me and my husband with our little girl. They put my husband in jail and took me as a bush wife. My little girl cried herself to death. When ActionAid came, they made me brave. After the training, all the women wanted me to stand for election. After I was vice-chief for two months, both men and women voted me in as the new chief."

I tell Jenneh we have an appointment with her president and ask if she has any message.

"I only want one thing. You see these roofs?" She points to the thatch on the circular huts. "These roofs are terrible during the rainy season. I need corrugated sheets for 300 roofs. That's all I want."

 

Day 4: I've learnt the traditional Liberian greeting:

"What news?" you say.

"No bad news," they reply.

Two and a half hours north we are welcomed with enormous gratitude by a farming community in a cathedral of towering palms. Korto and Joanna say, "You owe us nothing. We are only here to help you get what is yours by right."

A small, rounded woman named Mamie shows us round with her 11th baby strapped to her back. Only five others are still living.

"I'm maybe 43? I only know because I remember President Tolbert" - William R Tolbert Jr, in office from 1971 to 1980 - "was in power when I was little. There was no farming during the wars - we survived on relief. After I did the ActionAid training, I found 35 women and seven men to join my farming project. They need a lot of encouragement because it's hard work and long hours. My husband won't do it, he says there's no point."

"But he still eats the cassava when she brings it home," says Grace, the wise and witty district commissioner.

Mamie grins and says, "This community is now self-sufficient and we want to be able to export - why can't the country feed the city?"

Tindy and I help Mamie carry a huge tub of sweet potatoes to her village. Mamie pops it on her head and trots, hands-free as though it weighs nothing. Tindy finds it easy after his childhood water-carrying years. When I put it on my head, I can barely stagger 50 metres and have to clutch it with both hands.

Mamie has a livid scar on her ring finger, which was made by the bullet that killed her mother.

Forty minutes later we reach her village. There's an older man sitting in front of her house. He's not friendly so I try to charm him by extolling his daughter's skills.

"She's my wife," he says, disgustedly.

 

Day 5: At Liberia's first women's radio station, founded by Estella Johnson, a young woman who has survived decades of abuse and come out determined to improve the position of women, I hear the following story:

A 10-year-old girl, according to custom, was taken by her grandmother into the bush to be initiated into the Sande Society, the traditional female organisation.

Along with 25 others, her clitoris was cut away, the same knife being used for all. One of the girls started to bleed excessively. They tied a noose around her neck and dragged her about until she was dead. All the women made loud noise as this occurred. The 10-year-old asked her grandmother why. The old woman told her it was not permitted to die alone in the forest and her family would be told that the devil had taken her. Then the child asked why the women had made all the noise. This was in order that the girl's screams not be heard in the village.

Next, the initiates were made to lie on the ground where they were covered in fresh grass. They had to lie for three days without food until the grass was dry. Then a meal was prepared. There were little knobs of meat in the food and when the child asked what they were, the grandmother said that if the clitorises were eaten in this way, it would ensure that any child who dared to speak about what she had seen would surely die.

Female genital mutilation is still common in Liberia and to speak out against it is difficult.

The afternoon is spent with 30 women from all over the country who are all partners of ActionAid.

Annie, who has travelled three days to get here and has 15 children, offers this: "Where I come from, they say women's ideas cannot go very far. Women's ideas stop just below - " and she cups her breasts. Everyone laughs.

"When a woman is pregnant with a girl child, according to customary law, a man can buy her while she is still in the womb. The price he pays goes not only to the father of the girl but the whole family. Then a second bride price is paid for the girl when they marry. So you see, the community feels it has paid a huge double price for this girl and her own family members have all received benefits from her sale. To whom can she complain if she is beaten or abused?"

"But if I buy a pair of shoes I look after them. Don't you want your property to remain in good condition? Why is there so much violence?" asks Joanna.

"They want their property to remain quiet and under their control," answers Annie.

This customary law is upheld by the modern Liberian constitution.

 

Day 6: Today I spend an emotional morning watching Tindy talking with a group of other former child soldiers. Most of them share the same story - they were kidnapped around the age of 14, although one of them, Benjamin, was taken when he was just nine. He says: "Guns were our mothers and fathers. They protected us, they got us food."

Tindy agrees. He says: "Being a soldier makes you strong in some ways. It makes you want to enjoy life because you have missed so much of it. Laughter must be your new weapon. I lost my laughter when I was in the army but I rediscovered it and it helps me with every part of my life."

There is a child protection officer at the meeting named Onike, who says: "People will say to these guys, 'Well, I didn't make you go and fight, so don't come running to me'."

The terms "ex-child soldier" and "ex-combatant" are being replaced with "war-affected youth" to reduce the stigma. There are 60,000 of these young men in the country.

Later, in the coldest room in Africa (I think the air-conditioning was on the blink), we meet Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia's first female president. Her Wikipedia entry fails to mention that it was the demonstrations of thousands of women dressed in white that ensured her victory over Taylor.

She is soft-spoken, dignified, steely and - finally - humorous. Impressed by the transparency of ActionAid (every cent of its US$2 million [Dh7.36 million] budget is accounted for to local government), we feel hopeful that she will allow her office to engage with Korto from ActionAid on a regular basis - she was clearly taken with her brilliant countrywoman.

 

Day 7: It's Armed Forces Day. Time to leave.

I greet everyone we meet with a cheery "Happy Armed Forces Day!"

Every one of them just laughs.

 

Tindy's tale: a former child soldier returns home

Day 1: I leave Garden City, Cairo, where I am working with refugees, at 5am and pass through 57 militia roadblocks manned by young men. On finally leaving the airport, I can't help but remember this young boy (he could have been seven years old) using an old jumper as a makeshift basket to carry stones for his hijab-dressed mother, who was starting to throw them to the crowds in the northern part of Tahrir Square. I anticipated trouble.

Africa, we are a funny old world. To go to Liberia from Cairo one has to go to Europe first and then get a connecting flight back to Africa!

 

Day 2: In the lounge at Brussels airport, I bump into George Weah, the former AC Milan and Fifa World Player of the Year who was also an ex-presidential aspirant in Liberia. He hasn't changed at all except that his beard was becoming grey. As much as I admired him as a footballer I could see how hard it was to measure up to someone as intellectually formidable and learned as Ellen Johnson Sirleaf - the current president.

On our way from Liberia's airport to our hotel, I quickly notice a huge UN presence - armoured vehicles, helicopters and the infamously expensive 4x4 vehicles, which the UN staff travel in. Korto, the ActionAid country director, tells me briefly about her work history and why she is unforgiving about the UN. She says that after working with them for a short while, she had to quit because "it was not designed for young activists who wanted to see things being done on the ground."

 

Day 3: On our way to Monrovia, I get to see the Samuel Doe sports complex. Gigantic stadium. Most Liberians, Jimmy (our guide) informs me, still adore ex-president Doe, who they believe did a lot of good for the country until he was brutally hacked to death by Prince Johnson - who has never been tried and is presently a serving senator.

Nothing prepared me for West Point - a slum occupied by squatters by the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. The squalor had a normality to it that I thought no one seemed bothered about. Hundreds of young mothers breastfeeding, and a lot of babies crawling and playing in the most unimaginable filthy ground - some in sewage.

 

Day 4: Korto joins us at the hotel and we all set off at 8.30am for Grand Cape Mount, a county in the north-west. Since it is almost a two-hour drive, we try to get to grips with the nature of politics, government and Liberia's vast history. Korto tells us that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is ineffective. The commission has not been given enough government backing for it to have the necessary bite. There is no political will because of the fear of stirring up the ghosts of the past civil war from within the hierarchy of the ruling government.

At lunchtime, I meet Dennis Boima, an ex-child soldier who was born here and is now 23. He takes me to his one-bedroom hut, which he built on his own. He offers me his only chair, but I decline and ask him if I could sit down on his two-inch mattress, which is on the floor. Very tidy place. We hit it off as if we have known each other for a long time. From my own experience as a former child soldier I can relate to him.

His education stopped when the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy rebels cordoned off the road to Monrovia and captured almost all the young people. At 16 he was the oldest. He stayed with them for 15 months. During that time, he escaped once and returned to his mum, who forcefully advised him to return to the rebels as they offered protection.

Meanwhile, his brothers were fighting for a Charles Taylor-sponsored militia. So brothers were fighting against each other - although unknowingly. He says that irrespective of coming from a savage war, the time of trying to come back into his community was the toughest because he was ostracised.

He has some ghastly marks on his top right eye from a bomb. Showing me the marks on his right hand near his palms, he says that the commander nabbed him having a nap when he was guarding on night duty and, as punishment, sliced skin off his hand. He believes he was lucky to escape from war in one piece - not the case with some of his fellow ex-combatants whose limbs were dismembered.

He has a 23-year-old girlfriend. I ask if I could I meet her. He hurriedly goes and collects her. She is called Kamah. Ridiculously beautiful girl.

After I interview him on camera, I ask him if I can join his team for a football match. He duly accepts and hands me a jersey. The girls start off playing a unique game called kickball.

After 45 minutes, we, the boys, take to the pitch, which is sandy in parts with very tough grass. The goal posts are wooden. Like all the girls, all these boys I am playing with have been affected by the war. I was born to be a winger but these guys are hard-core. With only 20 minutes gone into the match, I am dripping in sweat.

 

Day 5: We set out for Gbarpolu, in the western part of the country. At lunchtime we arrive at Weamawou School, with mixed age groups in the same classes. Most students are still traumatised. I question a girl named Hawa Toure. She is an 18-year-old with four sisters and a brother and wants to be a lawyer. ActionAid has paid for her uniform and books every year for the last four years. She says students are scared of sharing the personal lives with their classmates because they will be bullied and jeered at if anyone finds out that they were part of militias who had committed atrocities.

 

Day 6: We head north towards a county called Kartoe to visit farming groups and see how they have been empowered by ActionAid. Women demonstrate to us the benefits they have got over the years from this programme. As well as receiving cassava stems, women are equipped with community organising and writing skills. The most important aspect of this programme is to make people aware that it is their right, not a privilege, to get these cassava stems and rice seeds. Rice and cassava are political tools. A very honest and nice guy from the ministry of agriculture tells me, "If any government doesn't deliver on either of those crops, then it is in political trouble of losing office." ActionAid wants to put an end to this mindset - food should be a right and not a favour.

 

Day 7: Early morning, off to the first all-female radio station, whose founder and CEO is a beautiful woman named Estella. It broadcasts mainly on issues of poverty reduction, justice and gender violence awareness. It's called Liberian Women's Democracy Radio. Their slogan is: "Giving the voice to voiceless".

Later, at Terravilla flower garden, a quiet girl named Fatou tells us that Liberian men are "in mourning" about the recently passed Rape Act because it has provisions to imprison men for life. "Men believe it's harsh and unfair," she says.

 

Day 8: After touring the ActionAid office, we sit down with the ex-combatants. There are 12 of them - 11 men and one woman. Most are in shorts, vests and dirty flip-flops. Onika, a child protection officer, has accompanied them. Seated next to me is 30-year-old Dennis, who entered into war when he was 13 and is now an aspiring radio programmer. One can see that he is more healed than the rest of his fellow ex-combatants. Another, Benjamin, spent most of his life in militias from the age of nine, but didn't start killing people until he was 11. He fought until 1997 and tried to go back to school but rejoined the war in 1998.

This has so far turned out to be the most emotionally powerful experience.

 

Day 9: Monrovia is quiet because it is Armed Forces Day. We go to a small restaurant and before we enter Jimmy introduces me to a girl named Fatima. In the middle of the street on a hot day, she propositions me. I am startled by her boldness. I give her a gift of $5 (Dh18) to help her out.

I get on the pen-pen (motorbike taxi) to take me to the hotel where I have a shower and glance at the TV. CNN is on and one of its captions says, "Mubarak's office to make important statement shortly". At 4pm Mubarak's deputy and mouthpiece, Omar Suleiman, says the president had stood down and the army council had assumed the powers to lead the nation according to the constitution. I would have loved to have been there in Tahrir Square.

 

Payment for this article is being donated to ActionAid. www.actionaid.org