Story Publication logo January 11, 2008

Scars and Stripes


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Reporter Ruthie Ackerman and photographer Andre Lambertson travel from Staten Island to Liberia...

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Multiple Authors
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Image by Andre Lambertson. Liberia, 2007.

Jion's one leg is carrying him as fast as it can go. As he races down the field on his crutches the stadium is silent, waiting to see if the goalie can block his shot. Jion kicks. The goalie catches the ball and throws it back onto the field. Jion turns around and runs again, swinging his body to gain momentum.

Jion plays soccer for the Amputee All Stars, a team made up of former fighters and war-affected youth, all of whom lost limbs in Liberia's fourteen-year civil war. On a recent Thursday morning, the Antoinette Tubman Stadium in downtown Monrovia is filled with cheering fans as the Mighty Conquerors' one-armed goalie misses the ball and the other team scores. Suddenly, the Rev. Jervis Witherspoon, executive director of the National Commission for Disarmament, Demobilization, Rehabilitation and Reintegration (DDRR), stands up and shouts half-jokingly, "We need to get those guys off the street so they can really play soccer!"

Two days later in his office, Reverend Witherspoon explains what he meant. "It looks bad that the soccer players are going around representing the country, and they don't have work and they're living on the beach. Even if we sit them behind a desk, it will keep them off the streets."

Indeed, while the soccer players are held up around the world as the new hope of Liberia, in reality many of these young men sleep on the streets at night, and beg for money to buy food, even showing their soccer identification cards so people might have pity on them and donate some extra cash.

Even as the international press cheers the soccer players on, aid from the global community for the reintegration and skills-building programs that would help these young men make a living is tied up in bureaucratic snafus or in aid packages with too many strings attached. Security sector reform is a higher priority for the Bush Administration, with $45 million provided in June to rebuild the Liberian Armed Forces, support the training of the national police force and equip the protective detail for the president. This imbalance in favor of military aid persists despite the plea of Liberia's president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who asked the US Congress on March 15, 2006, for more funding for training and rehabilitation programs. "What is the return on an investment that trains young combatants for life, rather than death? What is the yield when our young men can exchange their guns for jobs?"

Could the $800,000 allocated to DynCorp, the private US military contractor, to train the new army have been used to feed, house and provide healthcare to former fighters? Sure. But let's not forget that the US government's policy of beefing up Liberia's army goes back to Ronald Reagan, who provided military aid that ultimately fueled President Samuel Doe's brutal regime, leading to the civil war that left 250,000 dead and up to half the country's population displaced. When the cold war waned, Liberia was moved to the back burner. Now, with the "war on terror" in full swing, Liberia is back at the forefront of America's military imagination, vying to be the headquarters for Africom, the new US Africa Command, which will coordinate all the US military and security interests on the continent.

The 2005 election of Sirleaf, a Harvard-educated economist and finance minister under Liberian President William Tolbert, was hailed as a victory for the country. Promises of aid and encouraging words flowed in from every corner of the globe. But after two years in office she is still struggling to jump through hoops to get the funding necessary to implement programs and rebuild the infrastructure Liberia so badly needs.

"What you have is a whole lot of rhetoric for support for Africa's first woman president and not a lot of substance," said Emira Woods, co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC. "Of the aid that does get on the ground from bilateral institutions, there's either strings attached or pledges are made and not followed through or the money is being used for security sector reform and not rehabilitation."

One example of a strings-attached aid policy is the anticorruption commission the International Monetary Fund required Liberia to set up before it would cancel the country's debt. The second condition for the arrears clearance to go forward was that the central bank be brought under the Finance Ministry to control the money supply and the inflation rate, even though Liberia's central bank is modeled on that of the United States. In a sense, Woods points out, Liberia is being asked to sacrifice schools and hospitals to have inflation at single digits and an anticorruption commission that even the United States doesn't have. "So to create this almost artificial standard in the case of Liberia as a rationale for not giving funding, to me seems idiotic."

While the multilateral and bilateral institutions drag their feet over funding, Sirleaf's hands are tied. There's not much she can do when Liberia's budget for this year is $199 million. Although that's an increase from the $135 million budget for last year, it's still only about $60 per Liberian. That makes providing electricity and running water, not to mention tackling the country's 85 percent unemployment rate and 42 percent illiteracy rate, daunting if not insurmountable challenges. Meanwhile, the president's promise to empower Liberia's youth to be full participants in the reconstruction of the country now rings hollow.

Even before Sirleaf came into office the DDRR rehabilitation program, which promised former soldiers $300 to put down their guns and pick up a book, was widely criticized. The reason: the funding was sufficient only to disarm 38,000 former fighters, but almost 103,000 applied. This meant that rehabilitation efforts had to be cut short or even stopped altogether. Human Rights Watch estimates the funding shortage at $39 million, leaving 40,000 ex-combatants at risk of missing out on job training and education.

Even those who did receive training said it was often delayed or the teachers were inadequate. And the tools that were supposed to be delivered upon completion of the programs, such as sewing kits and baking sets, often never arrived.

Part of the problem was that the whole process was prone to corruption. Commanders turned in the guns of their former fighters for cash. Ex-combatants sold their guns to nonfighters who then enrolled in the DDRR program. Some took the cash and never completed the rehabilitation programs. Meanwhile, those who completed the skills-training and education programs were often left without jobs in Liberia's struggling economy. For many, living on the streets became the only option.

Some of the youth who were disarmed made their way to the United States as refugees, settling in communities like the Park Hill Apartments in Staten Island, New York, without receiving counseling or rehabilitation and often lacking skills or education. Some of them were still addicted to drugs. Others suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental illnesses. Yet the focus of the US government's refugee program is economic self-sufficiency. "This means they are employed. Period," explained Elizabeth Campbell, director of the Refugee Council.

Federal funding provides $850 per refugee--$425 goes directly to the refugee for resettlement, and the other $425 goes to the agency for the first thirty days of basic needs support. Campbell calls the $425 given to the agencies "a joke," especially in places with higher costs of living, like New York: "You are not seeing a federal commitment to make sure refugees have access to reintegration services."

The consequences of these policies can be seen in the Liberian youth living in Park Hill. James Kollie, a case manager for an agency that resettles Liberians in Staten Island, says the whole system--from the organizations that set out to help the youth to the governments of Liberia and the United States--is failing. Kollie has seen newly arrived youth sleeping in hallways and staircases because the families who are supposed to take them in are overburdened. And he's seen teenagers drinking and drugging their days away because they have nothing to keep them busy, as job- and skills-training programs are unavailable and local rehabilitation offices are almost nonexistent because funding for refugee resettlement is limited and competitive. "It's like you're fighting crime and then creating criminals" by leaving young people with so few options, Kollie says.

For President Sirleaf, one of the biggest stumbling blocks is that the former warlords she is trying to distance herself from are still members of her cabinet. Jewel Howard Taylor is senator for Bong County although she is under a UN travel ban and assets freeze. Prince Johnson, who helped steer Liberia into civil war and ordered the torture of ousted President Doe, was elected as a senator. And Adolphus Dolo, a commander under Taylor who was responsible for the recruitment of child soldiers, was elected to the legislature.

Sirleaf also has to deal with the enormous weight of the debt burden accumulated by her predecessors, who used at least part of the funds to fuel Liberia's civil war and didn't worry about making payments. The bind Liberia finds itself in today is that it must clear its past-due bills to the IMF, the World Bank and the African Development Bank in order to receive any new funding from the multilateral institutions to reopen schools, start job-training programs or reintegrate people into communities. Two years into Sirleaf's presidency, Liberia only now has been able to secure an agreement to cancel the $1.5 billion in debt that is in arrears. Liberia is eligible for the three-year, IMF-supported initiative for heavily indebted poor countries, which will ultimately lead to the clearing of the country's $4.1 billion of principal debt.

"The debt campaigners celebrate the arrears clearance as a victory because the country is no longer held hostage," Emira Woods said. "But we recognize it's a long way to go to get full cancellation of Liberia's principal debt." To get there, Liberia will have to jump through even more hoops, as it is required to privatize, lower public spending and keep tabs on inflation.

Meanwhile, former fighters such as Jion continue to sleep on the streets, begging for money and food.

Although Reverend Witherspoon highlights Sirleaf's accomplishments--free education for all children and basic skills training for many--he laments that not enough has been done for former soldiers. "We have to avoid ex-combatants going back into the bush and getting involved in conflict that could derail the peace process of the nation," he said, a mission that is becoming more difficult as the wars in Guinea and the Ivory Coast rage on and former fighters view the wars as economic opportunities. In Liberia, where food and resources are scarce, a generation of youth faces this problem. And as long as there are unskilled and uneducated youth, there is the likelihood that there could be another civil war, with a new generation of child soldiers.

At the very least, Witherspoon said, the young men who play on the soccer team, like Jion, should be given a job--any job--to keep them off the streets. But that hasn't happened. When Jion is asked how long he's been sleeping outside the bank on Randall Street, he pauses, thinks for a minute and then says, "For a long time."

For now all Jion can do is wait and hope for help. His answer comes when he's told that he will be one of the soccer players who will join the Amputee All Stars in Turkey. As he limps down Randall Street with his soccer medal from the previous day's game around his neck, he tells anyone who will listen about his upcoming trip. Then after the initial excitement wears off, he asks them if they can spare any change.



Three women grouped together: an elderly woman smiling, a transwoman with her arms folded, and a woman holding her headscarf with a baby strapped to her back.


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