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Liberia - surviving the past

The wounds of trauma

Downtown Monrovia

The deep wounds on Joe Turner’s* wrists and ankles were strangely golden – a result of the gentian violet antiseptic used to keep them clean by the nurses at ES Grant, Liberia’s only psychiatric hospital.

His family, terrified by his rages, had kept him tightly bound for days. Somehow he was able to work himself loose and escape, but a brother found him and brought him to the hospital in a quiet neighbourhood of Paynesville, in the capital, Monrovia.

Turner’s case, diagnosed as acute psychosis, is not unusual for ES Grant and its increasingly busy out-patients department. Whatever troubled him was accentuated by alcohol and drugs, according to Barkon Dullah, the acting nursing director. “It’s hard to establish what he’s been taking, probably marijuana, but maybe other drugs we don’t know about.”

Shaven-headed, wiry and intense, Turner was “a little bit aggressive” when he first arrived at ES Grant but had improved, said Dullah. He was expected to spend two to three weeks in the 73-bed hospital, given sedatives to help him rest and detox, and group counselling sessions on alcohol and drug abuse.

Seven years after the end of its civil war, Liberia is still trying to free itself from the trauma of the conflict; with only a rudimentary healthcare system, it is a struggle for those affected by the fighting. In dealing with the new challenges of rebuilding their lives, they first need to recognize they need help, and then find it.

Dullah suspected Turner had been in the war. Sitting in a cramped office of the hospital administrator, lighting his umpteenth cigarette, Turner guessed where Dullah’s questions were leading. He said he “didn’t see anything” during the war as he was a refugee in neighbouring Cote d’Ivoire, emphatically denied he ever held a gun, and added: “I don’t abuse women and don’t disrespect people.”

But the story he told of his life seemed no less traumatic: three of his five children were dead, he had recently lost his wife and was struggling to keep his family together on a labourer’s wage. Regardless of whether bad war experiences haunted him, or he had lived peacefully in a refugee camp, Turner was clearly unwell.


The stock image of the Liberian war is of a wild-eyed urban youth decked out in a wig. But according to a June 2010 MICROCON Research Working paper, ex-combatants “[do] not seem to have been any more idle, marginalized and alienated than any other group of young men in Liberia”. Many people fought, but not all were hardcore fighters: most joined the various militia “for the sake of protection for themselves, their families and their communities”.

Barkon Dulah, acting nursing director, ES Grant hospital, Liberia

Barkon Dulah, acting nursing director, ES Grant hospital, Liberia
Obinna Anyadike/IRIN
Barkon Dulah, acting nursing director, ES Grant hospital, Liberia
Monday, November 8, 2010
Survivre au passé
Barkon Dulah, acting nursing director, ES Grant hospital, Liberia

Photo: Obinna Anyadike/IRIN
Barkon Dulah, acting nursing director, ES Grant hospital

But that did not lessen the impact of the 14-year civil war. Research by Kirsten Johnson published in 2008 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that 44 percent of the adult household population had symptoms associated with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The difference between former combatants and non-combatants was 57 percent and 37 percent respectively.

“Demographically these are the highest figures I have ever read,” psychologist Judith Baessler, a consultant to the Mother Patten College of Health Sciences, Monrovia, told IRIN. “The war lasted too long and too many bad things happened.”

When your focus is solely survival, horrors can be endured, noted Baessler. “It doesn’t mean you are okay, it just means you go on living as best you can … Little scars are there, but when you are struggling so hard you don’t have the luxury of looking into yourself.”

Peace raises new challenges. “All that internal stuff, depression and suicidal ideation, can break through as life gets less tough. You need different skills rather than being able to run and hide, and poverty becomes a stress factor,” said Baessler. “You are no longer satisfied - the kids might not be in school, you don’t have a job.”

In the rural areas, poverty is tempered by traditions of communal support; that can also extend to cleansing rituals aimed at overcoming the past. But although the purpose of the ceremonies is to move forward, “you can be grieving silently inside; the grief still comes and you cry in the mornings”, said Grace Boiwu of the Mother Patten College trauma counselling programme.

Communicating and understanding trauma are culturally bound. “Open mole” is a specifically Liberian disorder - increasingly regarded as short-hand for PTSD - where it is believed the head opens and the brain and soul leaves the body. There can be physical symptoms, such as dizziness and high blood pressure, but with “no word [in Liberian vernacular] to describe depression or anxiety, you say ‘open mole’”, Alice Vahanian, head of mission for Médecins du Monde (MDM) in Liberia, told IRIN.

Women in particular have suffered as they have tried to reintegrate or cope with the past. “Some women were perpetrators [of violence], some were victims. In some small communities they were fighting for recognition, and behaved violently. ‘If you don’t accept me, fear me’. After the war some became pregnant to identify themselves as women … [but do] not have the means to take care of the child,” said Vahanian. Former fighters do not often make the best parents, she added.

Fear of more war

Formal sector employment in Liberia is estimated at 15 percent and the literacy rate 56 percent. A GDP growth rate of 7.1 percent in 2008 has not yet translated into a marked rise in living standards and opportunities. In Liberia’s urban “ghettos”, home to so many young migrants, the poverty is raw.

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Emanuel Sonny was caught with his parents in Grand Bassa County in central Liberia and forced to fight with the NPFL militia of Charles Taylor from the age of 12. “I didn’t want to be a fighter and was happy to demobilize,” he told IRIN.

But now aged 21, he has been unable to find a formal job and like so many other ex-combatants, is a “pen-pen” motorbike taxi driver earning LRD150-300 (US$2.11-$4.22) a day. He has a one-year-old child but does not live with the mother. His parents, now in Monrovia, “help me sometimes”.

Tevid Nelson, 33, said during the war he was known and feared as “Corporal Siwa Siwa” and fought in northern Liberia and Sierra Leone. “I enjoyed the war. For me I was suffering [before he was forcibly conscripted], but as a soldier nothing was hard for me, I could have anything I wanted. I didn’t take from old people though, just young people; like your bag here, I would just take it.”

When Liberians talk about a possible return to conflict as the divisions of the past still remain, it is these urban-based former fighters with seemingly little to lose, who still retain their war-time connections, they are concerned about.

According to David Konneh, executive director of Don Bosco Homes, which works with former child fighters, the focus of demobilization was “not really on the trauma they had gone through, but how to ‘process’ them for reintegration”, and even then they were short-changed on the training and skills they needed to improve their lives. “People can easily take advantage of their poverty,” he told IRIN, “Things are fragile, definitely.”

Spiritual healing

Judging by the healing churches and prayer centres springing up in every Monrovian neighbourhood, Liberians are increasingly putting their faith in spiritual salvation. “Spirituality is one of the biggest assets that Liberians have to cope with what happened,” said Baessler. “It’s a way of letting go of the atrocities and moving forward.”

Johnson Goumolor, 20, is positive about his future. He was a student in Monrovia when he was caught by the NPFL on the streets, and stayed with them for a year as an ammunition porter. He went back to school after demobilization, and is working his way through college providing private tuition at night. His parents did not survive the war. “I believe I have to be a man. Though I feel lonely I put God first, and by God’s grace I will make a better life.”

Click here for In-depth: Coping with crisis


* Not his real name

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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