From the Worldwide Faith News archives

[PCUSANEWS] Picking up the Pieces

Date Fri, 22 Aug 2003 16:53:09 -0500

Note #7893 from PCUSA NEWS to PRESBYNEWS:

Picking up the Pieces
August 22, 2003
Picking up the Pieces

Presbyterian Disaster Staffer Assesses Damage in Monrovia

By Alexa Smith

LOUISVILLE - When he took the call, Elder Prince Porte was assessing the
damage to yet another Monrovia church that was hit by rockets during the last
two months of fighting in Liberia's capital city.

The windows are damaged, the roof blown apart. Bits of shrapnel are embedded
in the walls. Rubble is strewn in the courtyard.

"Right now, the church is in a very precarious situation, still," said Porte,
the moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Liberia (PCL) who was speaking
into his cell phone and apologizing for the hum of helicopters overhead.
"We're not yet clear how many churches have been (hit directly) with rockets,
at least two. There is more damage across the bridge.

"It is going to be on the high side."

With a Monrovia businessman, Gyude Bryant, now in place to lead the
transition government that is aiming to guide Liberia out of 14 years of
civil war, hints of normalcy can be seen in the capital city.

But the damage done in the last two months of the siege that deposed
warlord-president Charles Taylor, is tragically apparent: There's a cholera
outbreak. Refugees are stuffed into sprawling tarpaulin-covered camps. Food
is scarce; in some spots, non-existent. Grief is palpable for the men and
boys who've been shot randomly by unpaid soldiers on looting sprees.
Thousands of raped women and girl-children try to hide their own agony, too
humiliated to openly ask for help.

For Porte - and for the wider church - it is hard to know where to start.

"People are starting to pick up their lives," said Luke Asikoye, an aid
worker for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)'s disaster assistance program who
is in Monrovia as part of a team sent by the World Council of Churches'
relief organization, Action by Churches Together (ACT), to assess how the
international church can assist denominations there.

ACT both sends direct aid and helps church leaders connect with secular
humanitarian agencies. The team has been meeting with organizations like
USAID and representatives from the European Union, as well as forging links
between those bodies and the Concerned Christian Community (See related
story), the YMCA, the Lutheran Church of Liberia, the United Methodist Church
of Liberia and the PCL.

Asikoye agrees that knowing where to begin sounds easier than it is.

"There are thousands of people going up and down the streets," said Asikoye
during a break between meetings. "They are trying to reunite with relatives.
The city is divided, with the rebels holding one end. And people are
disconnected from their families.

"They're scurrying for food. Food is the real issue. And health. Monrovia is
not equipped to handle the number of people who are here all at once," he
said, referring to the refugees who've fled to the capital city, named after
the U.S. president who backed the establishment of this state by freed
American slaves in the early 19th century - a tie that produced names of
African warlords like Taylor and like Elmer Johnson.

Asikoye arrived in Liberia last weekend with ACT; he leaves today for the
Netherlands to begin conversations with European church partners about how to
proceed now that a peace accord is in place and Liberia's rebels and
government have agreed to give stability a chance by not vying for the top
government posts themselves.

Now in exile, Taylor has been indicted by a United Nations-backed war-crimes
court. Taylor himself invaded Liberia in 1989 and overthrew the government of
dictator Samuel Doe, which led to seven years of civil war and the killing of
200,000 people. Taylor emerged as the strongest of a field of ruthless
warlords and was elected president in 1997.

Recovery is more complicated when violence and turmoil are prolonged, aid
workers say.

"In Rwanda, the violence was there and then it was done. In Liberia, there is
almost a culture of violence that has taken (hold) in the region," said
Asikoye. "There's been a lot of lost lives, a lot of innocent people killed."

He said the first step is getting food.

Simultaneously, he wants to link church leaders with aid organizations that
will assist with everything from rebuilding looted church offices and
sanctuaries to helping heal survivors of trauma.

"Given the resources that they have, they've done the best they can," said
Asikoye of the Christian community in Liberia. He said the YMCA in Monrovia
was trashed by looters and filled with a stench of a decaying body found in
one of the rooms.

"They just need more resources."

Standing across town, Porte surveyed the shelled sanctuary before him, noting
that most churches opened their doors for worship last Sunday for the first
time since the siege began.

The homes of church members, too, he told the Presbyterian News Service, were
demolished in the fighting and looting. Others lost all of their possessions,
Porte said, stressing that the damage is widespread.

"Trauma is another big issue. I want to talk with Luke about that. A lot of
parishioners are displaced, living in camps in the city or with relatives.
Since I am moderator, my house became a refugee center; people came there.
What we had, literally, we had to share it," he said, pausing.

"The needs here? Food. Health. Safe drinking water. Those are the immediate
needs," said Porte. "Right now."

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