From the Worldwide Faith News archives

[PCUSANEWS] Casualties of war

Date Thu, 21 Aug 2003 17:01:38 -0500

Note #7889 from PCUSA NEWS to PRESBYNEWS:

Casualties of war
August 21, 2003

Casualties of war

Counselors in Liberia help women who have been raped

By Alexa Smith

  LOUISVILLE - The Rev. Mariama Brown, a Christian aid worker in Liberia,
knows too many women who have been raped.
Since 1994, more than 10,000 have talked with Brown and other counselors at
six clinics run an organization called the Concerned Christian Community

Funds to operate the refugee-camp clinics come largely from U.S. and European
churches, including the Presbyterian Church (USA), which contributes through
its Disaster Assistance Program.

  "It is because of the war, which is all over (the country)," Brown says of
the rapes and sexual assaults.
She sounds exhausted as she talks about conditions in a country so war-tossed
that, according to Amnesty International, more than 200,000 citizens were
forced to flee their homes in a seven-month period in 2002 - and conditions
have only worsened since then.

"This doesn't happen only in Liberia when there is war," she said. "In war,
women and children are always the most affected. And in our situation, there
is raping going on on every side. You can talk with women who'll tell you've
they've been raped (by combatants) on any side," she says, picking her words

This is a war most Americans only heard about very recently, in a faraway
country that seldom crosses their minds. But fighting between Liberian
government forces and a rebel army called Liberians United for Reconciliation
and Democracy (LURD) has caused more than 70,000 civilians to flee to other
nations to escape the cross-fire. The flood of refugees has destabilized
already fragile neighboring countries such as Sierra Leone.

Most of the women who turn up in Brown's clinics have been raped while caught
up in skirmishes in towns and rural villages or during soldiers' massive
looting sprees. Drunken or drugged soldiers from both sides burst into homes,
beating or shooting the men they find there, and raping the women. Often
women and female children are assaulted by gangs.

In the chaos of the past few months, the number of women coming to the CCC
for help is escalating. In a single refugee camp, in a Monrovia sports
stadium, the group is providing post-trauma treatment 626 women and girls who
say they have been raped.

The aim of the program is to help such women get a fresh start, by providing
food and clothing. But now, says Brown, "We are out of everything."
Brown says some of the women have been raped in the bush by rebels, sometimes
after being raped by soldiers fighting for the regime of recently exiled
President Charles Taylor.

"They've gone on a rampage ... like there is no hope for them," she says of
Taylor's soldiers, speaking by cell phone from Monrovia.

Having lost their leader, she says, many of the soldiers have joined an
unofficial campaign to replace their unpaid salaries - "Operation Pay
In an atmosphere of almost total chaos, and with no functioning court system,
they may rape with impunity.

"My own personal view is that they're high on drugs," she says. "You cannot
imagine what they are doing now... There are 20-year-old men raping 50- or
60-year-old mothers."

And rape is only the beginning of their problems. Often they have unwanted
babies. Often they are rejected by their husbands. Often they find themselves
alone, out of work, and homeless.

"There are many babies, and they don't want the pregnancy, very often," Brown
says. "Even when the baby is born, they may not want to see it." She say she
cannot condone abortion, despite the terrible circumstances. "We, in our
program, talk to them about accepting the child. We try to make sure that the
child will be cared for by the mother, or, that the mother will (not) take
her anger out on the child."

If a mother chooses not to raise her baby, the CCC helps with an adoption.
More often, such situations are handled in the traditional African way: A
woman simply takes the unwanted child home and raises it like her own.

The CCC's 21 staff members, most of whom are volunteers, also help the women
deal with angry husbands, explaining that they shouldn't blame their wives. A
husband who cannot accept what has happened may opt to divorce her by giving
back her dowry, usually $20 to $50 U.S.

And they try to help the victims deal with their humiliation.

"We've really trained people as part of this national non-governmental agency
... to interview women who are running from the war," she says. "Over the
years, we've gotten out in the communities, and into the camps. You see,
women will not just come and tell you they've been raped. They're too

The CCC often enlists the aid of local leaders in contacting women
traumatized by rape.

The CCC is a ministry of the United Pentecostal Church of Liberia, Brown's
denomination. In normal times it offers, in addition to trauma counseling,
medical care, relief assistance, shelter, and training for such jobs as
soap-making, sewing and baking.

But these are not normal times in Monrovia, according to Luke Asikoye of PDA,
who is in the city assessing the situation as part of a World Council of
Churches team:

There has been a cholera outbreak. The city is split in half, with the rebels
controlling one side. People are frantically looking for missing relatives.
Food is scarce.

"There are a lot of traumatized women," Asikoye says by cell phone. "A lot of
rapes. The soldiers are drugged and drinking. ... And of course they've got

Asikoye points out that no one knows much about conditions in rural Liberia.
National Geographic News has reported that refugees entering neighboring
Sierra Leone and Guinea speak of a severe shortage of food.

"You cannot get out into the country," says Brown, but overwhelming numbers
of traumatized women are flooding into Monrovia from the countryside.

That is how she got to the city herself: Traumatized, tired, missing most of
what she owned.

She was walking home from church in Tubmanburg in western Liberia one day in
1992 when she heard gunshots and discovered that the town was surrounded by

"I was seven months pregnant, and couldn't run very fast," she says. "But
something made me run. God gave me the strength."

She lost track of her children.

"On the road, they were raping women. My oldest daughter was nearly raped;
her clothes were torn. But then one of the soldiers said that I was the wife
of a pastor, and they stopped. ... An old man showed us another route to
travel, and he made a fire for us. We slept in the bush. The next morning, we
started moving."

That was the start of a sorrowful journey that hasn't ended yet.

(The web version of this story containing pictures may be viewed at

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