Legacy of War

I was looking through some old posts and reread this one. I hesitate to repost it, because the situation in Liberia is now such that there are no NGOs on the ground thorough whom you can help. The war is over, but its effect remain, and there is very little we can do there. Doctors Without Borders does do this work wherever they’re allowed, though. We also still need to understand that this is what happens when we go to war.

“Battlefield” is such a terribly misleading term. It suggests that war is contained somehow, that it has its own special place. It ignores that spaces for war are made only by destroying what was there before.

In order to make space for fighting and killing, farms fall, schools fall, homes fall. Places that were once used for celebration fall that people may have room to fight. People, of course, fall whenever they are not quick enough to flee.

But that isn’t all that needs to be destroyed to make room for war. Our inhibitions against killing and hurting one another have to be dismantled. Our empathy, our understanding that others are as fully capable of feeling pain as we are, as entitled to life and joy and dignity–that has to fall too.

Civilization is a necessary casualty of war, and it may be the hardest to rebuild. Civil war makes reestablishing the norms of civilization doubly hard, because there is no physical separation at the end of the war, nothing to say, “That was the battlefield and enemy, there. Here is where the old rules apply, among the people for whom I was fighting.”

Liberia is trying to restore civilization after almost fifteen years of internal armed conflict. Revolution, civil conflicts and the brutality of a dictator against his own people created a generation of adults who grew up amid war. They were raised on a battlefield, and now the country must find a way to civilize them as it rebuilds itself.

The results are, unfortunately, as one would expect. From Amnesty International’s 2009 report on Liberia:

Violent crime, especially armed robbery, was on the increase throughout the year, fuelled by high unemployment, disputes over land ownership, poverty and readily available small arms. The activities of ex-combatants continued to be a source of instability, particularly in the context of illicit mining activities.

Liberia has instituted harsh penalties for violent crimes, including widespread use of the death penalty, to try to reign in the violence. So far, it isn’t working well, and as usual, the more vulnerable members of society are being targeted.

Rape and other forms of sexual violence remained among the most frequently committed crimes. According to the UN there were 349 rapes reported between January and June 2008, a significant increase over the previous year. Access to health facilities to address emergency needs and psychological care continued to be inadequate.

Crimes against children, including rape, sexual violence, physical violence, trafficking and neglect, remained of serious concern.

There were some positive developments in addressing rape and other forms of sexual violence. In May, the government decided to establish a special court dedicated to hearing gender and sexual violence cases. In June, a safe house for survivors of sexual violence, supported by UNMIL and run by a local NGO, opened in Monrovia. During 2008 a national action plan on gender-based violence was adopted and funds were provided by the UN to implement the plan. In July Liberia ratified the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa.

As grim as the situation is, there is hope for these children. Nicholas D. Kristof has a piece in the NY Times (free registration required) profiling one of the children in the Monrovia safe house.

Yet there are signs of progress. Liberia’s president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first woman elected a president in Africa, has sent strong signals that rape is intolerable. Aid groups like the Carter Center are working to promote the rule of law and punish the rapists, recognizing that economic development will be elusive as long as women and girls are prey.

Maybe the greatest reassurance came from Jackie, the resilient 7-year-old. She appeared to have overcome the stigma of rape, for she explained that she wanted to grow up to build shelters for abused girls, adding, “I want to be president for Liberia.”

It will take time to fully restore civilization in Liberia. In the meantime, we can help these children, and children in similar situations in far too many more countries than Liberia, get the help they need to recover as well as Jackie has. Doctors Without Borders is providing care to victims of sexual abuse in Liberia, and you can help support their work here.

You can also make sure that your congressional representatives are aware that you support UNMIL (United Nations Mission in Liberia) and other missions like this–and that you expect they will too.

Finally, you can help spread the word. Sheril Kirshenbaum of The Intersection has organized a web event, starting today, called Silence Is the Enemy. Go and read more about this situation, find the posts that will tug on the hearts and purse strings of people you know, and pass them on. If you feel moved to add your voice, make sure Sheril knows so she can add you to the list. Whatever you do, don’t remain silent.

Legacy of War
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