Time here is divided into “before the war” and “after the war”. And there are the people who lived through the war, the people who went into exile and never came back – and the people who left, but are slowing making their way back. But at least for the people I’ve talked to so far in Liberia, no one who stayed holds a grudge against those who left, permanently or otherwise.
“The war went on for 14 years so every Liberian, living here or abroad, was somehow affected,” says Rev. Dr. Katurah Cooper. Rev. Cooper left Liberia for 11 years, but missed it so much that she came back before the war ended. She organized with Leymah Gbowee and other Christian and Muslim women to protest—and force both sides to the peace table. “What we’ve learned is that it doesn’t really matter your age, ethnicity or religion. We’re Liberian.”
If this sense of unifying identify endures, it will be a true break with the past for Liberia. Liberia’s founding fathers, freed slaves from the United States, replicated some of the ways of the oppressors—and dominated the economy and political system in Liberia from its very beginnings, in the 1820s. In 1980, indigenous people finally wrested control from the “Americo-Liberians”, but within a short nine years the country had descended into tribal and civil war.
It’s almost impossible to meet a Liberian adult who can’t vividly recount for you horror stories from these long years of war. Yet—despite the stories of children who went hungry, going to sleep to the sounds of gun-fire, fathers who were shot in front of their families, girls and women who were brutally raped over a period of days—Liberians are remarkably forgiving.
Given the atrocities they have endured, one could understand if Liberians were bitter. Charles Taylor’s cronies not only walk free, many of them hold important government posts. Former warlords have drinks in the same hotels with UN and humanitarian workers, and reparations for the thousands and thousands of Liberians who lost family members, parts of their bodies or even their entire childhoods are nowhere in sight.
But the Liberians we are meeting this week are focused on the future.
One of the delegates with us here in Monrovia, journalist Seema Mathur, today quoted Rumi in talking about her experiences in Liberia: “Out beyond right-doing and wrong-doing, there is a field. I will meet you there.”
Liberian people—led by remarkable Liberian women like Leymah Gbowee and her colleagues from the women’s peace movement—are clearly trying to meet each other in that field. Scratch beneath the surface, and it is clear that there are many miles to walk before the trauma is healed. Yet here in Monrovia, people are also rebuilding infrastructure, welcoming home Liberians from the diaspora and getting out on the dance floor to make up for lost time.
View images from today’s visit to the community of Rockhill.