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Liberia: Women: prime victims of armed conflict

09-08-2001 News Release 01/31

Korto and her sister Suah are reunited in the displaced camp of TV Tower in Liberia.
 ICRC - Roland Sidler


Refugee Sierra-Leonese Gladys, in the camp of Samukai, close to Monrovia
 ICRC - Roland Sidler

Displaced camp of TV Tower, near Gbanga, where about 6000 people are living.
 ICRC - Roland Sidler  


Korto (41), Gladys (35) and Martha (48) are living in Liberia. They’ve never met. But they all have something in common. Lives scorched by the cruelty of war. Loneliness, helplessness, poverty and the ever-present hostility of those around them. As if the others could no longer stand the sight of suffering.

When fighting broke out in Lofa County at the beginning of the year, Korto left in a hurry. Crossing the Saint Paul River into the next county, she got separated from her two children, her sister and her brother. Until she’d done all she could to find them, she didn’t want to carry on with the rest of the group. But she was alone in the forest, it was dark and she kept going round in circles. Eventually she abandoned the search and headed south towards the capital, Monrovia. A family have taken her in for the time being, and she’s eking out a living selling scraps of charcoal.

Life has been little kinder to Gladys. Back in 1991, she and her father fled the war in Sierra Leone, but when they crossed the border into Liberia they found themselves in the midst of another war. The journey was hard. Gladys was raped. In 1994, she reached the Samukai refugee camp on the outskirts of Monrovia, but her father died on the road. She left his body in a ditch. No funeral, no grave. Today, Gladys has two children and the family are all in one camp, in a little mud-brick house with a piece of plastic sheeting for a roof. She spends her days selling things from her stall.

The light has gone out in Martha’s eyes. As if she were waiting for the relief only death brings. She is not old, but you wouldn't know it. Her home is a corner of a run-down building in Monrovia, shared with others left to fend for themse lves. Her body has been weakened by lack of health care, food and basic comforts. She relies on the unpredictable generosity of a little boy for what little food and water she gets. Martha no longer has the strength to move, and all her family died or disappeared in the war. Here, family are a woman’s only pension plan. Martha lost hers. Now she is at the mercy of others.

But the future is not entirely bleak.

The ICRC got Korto to the “TV Tower” camp for displaced persons, near Liberia’s second city, Gbanga. And there she found Suah, her elder sister. Red Cross volunteers are still looking for the rest of her family. With luck, they may be among the 30,000 people in the region’s other six camps.

In 1999, the ICRC encouraged journalist Bettina Ruhl to produce a series of reports in Liberia. One of the people she interviewed was Gladys. Her story struck a chord with a German pastor and he organized a collection for her. As a result, money is waiting for Gladys in a Freetown bank account. As soon as the border reopens, she will abandon her refugee status, return to her country and set up home, with a little nest-egg to ensure her independence.

Once a week, Liberian Red Cross volunteers visit Sinkor, an abandoned part of Monrovia where Martha is trying to survive. They bring forty or so of the poorest and most vulnerable people from the area to a room near where she lives. Martha comes too, in a wheelchair. The volunteers give everyone a hot meal, a bottle of mineral water, a T-shirt and a bar of soap. A few words of encouragement and compassion from the President of the Liberian Red Cross, Haja Taylor, make this particular day a little less grim than the ones before it. Afterwards, Martha will have to wait several days before receiving further assistance from the Red Cross. According to the National Society, in Monrovia alone there are over 200,000 people with no resources and no one to help them.

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