Forgiveness & New Skills in Liberia
by Linda Beher
Fourteen-year-old Robert learned to use an AK-47 rifle when he was eight. “I was often really afraid,” he recalled. “I talk to counselors a lot about what happened. Now I’m learning to be a carpenter, but I first want to go back to school before starting to work.”
“I was forced to fight because I was separated from my parents,” said Tom. He was 13 when he joined. “I am haunted by what we did during the war.”
At 17, Momo Famolé is without a family and without work. He was 10 when soldiers he encountered forced him to the front. He fought so he could eat. “I’m happy there’s peace now in Liberia.”
These are the voices of former combatants in Liberia’s 14-year civil conflict. United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) manages a camp near Monrovia, the capital city, where men, women, and children like Robert, Tom, and Momo Famolé can begin a transition back into their communities.
Camp residents surrender their arms to the United Nations peacekeeping force. Then, in partnership with other humanitarian groups, UMCOR provides a place for them to live, recreational activities that help treat war trauma, and basic necessities, such as fresh drinking water and medical treatment.
More Than “No Weapons”
Some 35,000 soldiers have demobilized at four such camps throughout Liberia since the program began in April. The UMCOR-managed camp accommodates about 1200 people at a time. Most stay for about seven days, then move on to other facilities dedicated to reintegration activities, such as trauma counseling and job-skills training.
UMCOR leaders in Liberia anticipate opening a new phase of work with former combatants as a skills-training proposal comes to fruition. Building a lasting peace depends on a whole constellation of activities—not simply the removal of weapons. Earning an income is part of being able to return to a community. The new program will provide training in 15 different vocations, including carpentry, cosmetology, shoe repair, embroidery, and fish processing. Former combatants in the program will graduate with new literacy and job-search techniques, as well as new work skills.
A Methodist Tradition
Situated in West Africa, Liberia is Africa’s oldest republic. United Methodists have been an active part of Liberian spiritual life since 1822. Methodists founded hospitals, schools, and other ministries.
Ganta Hospital is the only hospital in the northeastern region of Liberia with a surgeon. Two groups of rebel soldiers who were fighting each other invaded the hospital grounds and destroyed and looted the buildings during the latest flare-up of tension, May to August 2003. The hospital reopened in April 2004. Medical staff members are providing health services in burned-out buildings and replacing looted equipment with homemade devices assembled from spare parts.
In the words of Mary Zigbuo, a United Methodist missionary at Ganta, “We must forgive the excombatants who destroyed and looted the buildings and are now coming back to the hospital for medical services. Jesus requires us to forgive without keeping score.”
The Prodigal Son
No one at Ganta is “keeping score” on Charles. A former combatant, Charles confessed to having a piece of hospital equipment critical to the eye program there. For several months, Mary Zigbuo encouraged Charles to return the eye machine. At last he brought in the machine and a few days later attended a morning chapel service. “We celebrated and gave thanks to God for Charles’s returning the equipment,” said Mary. Later, Charles led hospital staff to a cache of other equipment.
“Why continue our efforts to assist?” Mary asks. “Because of all the young men and women like Charles. If one like Charles, through Christ-centered actions directed toward him, comes to understand the meaning of forgiveness, then it is worth the effort.”
Thanks to generous United Methodists, UMCOR has provided additional funds for other renovations at the hospital. UMCOR is also anticipating the possibility of a new demobilization camp at Ganta.
As in other Liberia projects, UMCOR’s staff will work closely with community and church leaders in Ganta, traditional and local government leaders, and community-based self-help groups.
“I don’t think about the war anymore,” said George, aged 13. “I’m thinking about the future and about developing my country.” George is a former soldier who escaped from the fighters. “I’m receiving training now to be able to make furniture like tables, chairs, and beds. I want to open my own shop and become a carpenter.”
Acknowledgment: The words of former combatants are adapted from stories by Eric Beauchemin, Radio Netherlands. Used by permission.
* Linda Beher is the Executive Secretary for Communications, UMCOR.
Date posted: Nov 10, 2004