LIBERIA: Liberian women's war wounds fester

Wednesday, June 26, 2013
Western Africa
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
General Women, Peace and Security
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence
Human Rights

It is over a week since Ruth Flomo was last able to walk, the bullet lodged in her leg an agonising reminder of the terror of being shot in crossfire during Liberia's bloody civil war 10 years ago.

Flomo, then just a teenager, was caught in an exchange of fire between the rebel Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy and troops loyal to ex-president Charles Taylor as the conflict was nearing an end in 2003.

"I am living with a bullet in me," the 28-year-old said, her voice gentle and supplicating, as she held the back of her scarred thigh while resting in an armchair at her home in the Liberian capital, Monrovia.

"We were fleeing when a stray bullet penetrated my right leg. I was rushed to the hospital where doctors conducted an x-ray and said that the bullet that pierced my leg was still in my flesh and was just an inch away from my bone."

The medics in the Monrovia hospital were ill-equipped to deal with gunshot wounds and had to discharge Flomo in the hope that the bullet would work its own way out. Ten years later, it regularly causes her serious pain.

"After a week in the hospital I was discharged and sent home. I was advised to keep taking antibiotics, ampicillin or penicillin, with the hope that the [bullet] would have come out but to this date it is still in me.

"Every now and then I feel pain in my leg and my entire body. I don't have the money to go to hospital to remove it. I do not have the means of paying the bill," she said.

Psychological and physical wounds

Deep psychological and physical wounds remain in Liberia after two back-to-back civil wars which ran from 1989 to 2003 and left a quarter of a million people dead.

Numerous rebel factions raped, maimed and killed, some making use of drugged-up child soldiers, and deep ethnic rivalries and bitterness remain across the west African nation of four million people.

There is no official figure for people living with poorly-treated gunshot and explosives wounds but charities estimate that Flomo is among 5 000 women and children coping with the pain of shrapnel they cannot afford to have removed.

Miatta Gayflor was just 12 when a bomb exploded near her as she fled a gun battle between government troops and rebels in Monrovia, sending white-hot shrapnel searing into her buttocks.

"It is sometimes difficult for me to sit. I feel rotten pain in my buttocks for at least a week every two months. The only treatment I can afford is a painkiller," the 23-year-old said, breaking into sobs.

"I was not armed, my mother did not have weapons and we were only running for our lives and that is the crime we committed. I can still remember my mother holding me in her arms crying for help while I was bleeding," Gayflor said.

She and thousands like her have formed a Liberian branch of the Association of Disabled Females International to demand compensation from the government for their suffering.

"The association is about only women and children because we did not pick up arms to fight. We were harmless but we suffered most," the group's executive director, Meima Hoff said.

"We have been going from office to office to cry for help but no one has come to our rescue."

A glance at the group's membership provides a gruesome snapshot of the privations women suffered during the civil wars, with many of the activists made blind, missing limbs or suffering mental or neurological disorders.

Compensation scheme

A Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was set up by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to probe war crimes and rights abuses between 1979 and 2003, and particularly during the brutal conflicts that raged in 1989-96 and 1999-2003.

The commission said a compensation scheme should be set up alongside a war crimes court to prosecute eight ex-warlords for alleged crimes against humanity but the government is yet to implement the recommendations.

Ten years after the war, no money has been made available and the only Liberian to face trial is Charles Taylor, and that was for his role in neighbouring Sierra Leone's civil conflict, not that in his own country.

The former leader is appealing a 50-year prison sentence handed down in April last year for supporting rebels in Sierra Leone in exchange for blood diamonds during a civil war that claimed 120 000 lives between 1991 and 2001.

"It is time for all of us to fight for our rights... especially women that were made disabled because of the war. We have lots of women and children that are disabled as a result of the war in Liberia," Hoff added.

"They did not pick up arms. They did not fight war. Out of wickedness, they were made victims of the war. You see in Sierra Leone they have got their reparation. This was part of their reconciliation process.

"But since the TRC process ended in Liberia, the government has not opened that chapter. It is time for us to demand reparation for war-made victims in the country."