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Liberia: paying back an old debt

01-06-2011 Feature

Joseph was injured during the unrest in Côte d'Ivoire. It was Abraham, a Liberian medicine man on the other side of the border, who saved his life as he lay unconscious in the bush.

A late afternoon in April. The sun filters through the door of the mud brick house. In the distance, the Nimba mountains are deep blue. Beyond them lies Côte d'Ivoire and the village that Joseph (not his real name) has had to flee.

"It was the fifth of December," recalls the Ivorian traditional nurse, in his quiet, thoughtful voice. "I was eating with friends when these armed men burst in. They asked my name, and whether I was from the village. I said yes. Suddenly, they started hitting me on the neck with their weapons. I lost consciousness."

Joseph's wife and his brothers got him across the border into Liberia, along with the couple's eight children. There, they hid in the bush, trying to find their way to a village. Joseph’s neck was badly swollen, and he was barely conscious. "I couldn’t eat. Some other refugees made it here, to Dulay, and told the people that there was a man lying injured in the bush with his family. That's when Mr Abraham told his relatives ‘Let's go and look for him.’”

Sitting next to him on the wooden bench, Abraham Voker picks up the story. "Joseph had slept in the forest for a week, without treatment. I sent my son and he brought him to Dulay."

With the closest clinic at least two hours’ walk away, it helped that Abraham was the local herbalist. As he proudly explains, "When your bone is broken, I can straighten it." When he saw the state Joseph was in, Abraham went to the bush to pick some chop, or medicine. "I steeped it in hot water and started pressing it on Joseph's neck. You see, that had to happen before he came to." Proudly, he points to his 27-year old son, sitting quietly in a corner of the dark room. "This is Alphonso. He went for Joseph and brought him to me."

Saving a life creates a deep bond. The two medicine men, the Ivorian and the Liberian, have been inseparable ever since.

But there is more to this story. Between 1991 and 1993, when another war was ravaging the Liberian countryside, Abraham and his people had found a roof, and comfort, inside Côte d'Ivoire. "I have a friend there who helped me. That's what made me want to help Joseph."

But times are hard. After all these months, Joseph's big family weighs heavily on Abraham's depleted resources. "It’s still difficult for me to do heavy work,” says Joseph quietly. “And we came here with only the clothes we were wearing. Abraham is now suffering because of us. He gave us all he had, and now he has no food left. This is because he’s a good man. So we’re thinking of going back." He stops, tries to convince himself. "We'll wait until next month. If we see it's calm over there, we can go back home."

I will keep them

Abraham won't have any of this. He embarks on a long comparison between Liberia – where the war lasted for so long, he says – and Côte d'Ivoire, "a much bigger country." His take is that in such a "big country" no one knows when and how the violence and tensions will end. "Since these people are with me here, I will be patient and take care of them. Yes, I will keep them."

The sun has sunk low on the horizon. Joseph listens, intently. He has nothing to add.


Photos

Dulay Town, Nimba County, Liberia. Ivorian refugee Joseph was injured in Côte d’Ivoire by armed men. 

Dulay Town, Nimba County, Liberia. Ivorian refugee Joseph was injured in Côte d’Ivoire by armed men.
© ICRC

Dulay Town, Nimba County, Liberia. Alphonso Voker, who rescued a badly-injured Joseph from the bush. 

Dulay Town, Nimba County, Liberia. Alphonso Voker, who rescued a badly-injured Joseph from the bush.
© ICRC

Dulay Town, Nimba County, Liberia. Liberian traditional herbalist Abraham Voker. 

Dulay Town, Nimba County, Liberia. Liberian traditional herbalist Abraham Voker.
© ICRC

Dulay Town, Nimba County, Liberia. Ivorian refugee Joseph was injured in Côte d’Ivoire by armed men. Alphonso Voker rescued him and took him to his father Abraham for treatment. Left to right: Abraham Voker, Alphonso Voker and Joseph. 

Dulay Town, Nimba County, Liberia. Ivorian refugee Joseph was injured in Côte d’Ivoire by armed men. Alphonso Voker rescued him and took him to his father Abraham for treatment. Left to right: Abraham Voker, Alphonso Voker and Joseph.
© ICRC