Liberia: Helping a country to recover from conflict
by Trude Totland
WITH the word ‘warning’ from the Lonely Planets web site in mind, we travelled through Abidjan by the Ivory Coast to Monrovia, the capital of Liberia.
The trip was long and complicated until we got a glimpse of the Salvation Army uniform. In a few minutes, everything had been taken care of. We discovered that the organisation is well known and well respected in Liberia.
With help from Norway, the English couple Lieut-Colonels Dorothy and Brian Knightley – leaders of The Salvation Army’s Liberia Command – have started some of the most successful projects in the Army world.
Liberia’s recent history has been traumatic. What began like an American dream has led to poverty and suffering. Brutal political coups have made the country bankrupt. Today, The Salvation Army plays a significant role in the rebuilding of a civil society in Liberia.
Liberia became a haven for free slaves at the beginning of the 18th century. After the declaration as an independent republic in 1847, Liberia gave the impression of being one of Africa’s most stable countries. A USA-inspired flag (the lone star) symbolised liberty and peace, and American companies made big investments in Liberia. At the same time the differences between people were growing. Corruption increased, and so did the opposition of the people to their rulers.
At the beginning of the 1970s, Liberia got a president who had diplomatic connections with China. President Tolbert tried to introduce several new reforms, but did not succeed because the government was controlled by American-Liberian family dynasties.
Liberian Salvationists lead hundreds of refugees in a time of worship
The political intrigues really became intense in 1980 when 28-year-old Samuel Doe became the first leader who was not in this dynasty. People liked the new president. However, Doe shocked the entire world when he executed 13 members of the government at the beach. The coup led the country into isolation and economic and social ruin. The Americans stopped their investments and the country’s entire infrastructure collapsed. The American dream was crushed.
At the end of the 1980s, a new group of rebels was able to defeat Doe and his men. Twenty-year-old Mark remembers: ‘It was Christmas Eve 1989. I was living in my uncle’s house. He was an officer in the national army at the time when the country was attacked in the north. In September 1990, the capital, Monrovia, was attacked. I was eight years old. ‘I saw things I should not have seen. When the people fought back, the soldiers took the children, drugged them and armed them. Many of the children killed their own parents. So many illusions were created and there was no safety at all.’
Mark begins to cry and covers his face for a while before continuing: ‘Many regret their actions today, but they were kids, right?’I wondered how he survived – how he was able to live with some awful memories.‘I was able to keep a distance between myself and the terrible actions,’ he explains. ‘That’s what saved me. I knew all the time that my actions were a result of the situation in which I lived.’
I assume that something more than his intelligence has saved the boy’s soul. Today Mark is attending the last year in high school, he sings and leads a choir at the Salvation Army corps (church), plays table tennis and is the goalkeeper for a soccer team.
Mark, a former child soldier who has now found
new hope through his association with The Salvation Army
Through The Salvation Army, Mark has found God – and some sort of peace. ‘It is God who is going to judge us,’ says Mark, ‘not people. Everyone is going to be judged by God’s own law for what they have done here on earth.’
We have come to a beautiful country. Liberia is one of the last West-African countries with a significant rain forest. Even in the dry season humidity is more than 85 per cent. Prior to the civil war, most people were farmers. The soil is very productive and we have never tasted better fruit or vegetables. But in spite of the last peaceful five years, no one wants to invest in a country where people live with a constant fear of war. We can see burnt-out churches, schools and business buildings. Litter is piling up in the streets. We have been told not to go out alone. Through the car windows we can see people sitting by the road, holding oil lamps. It is beautiful and scary at the same time. The electricity comes from private aggregates, and large areas of the city remain dark.
Liberia is counted among the poorest countries in the world. Monrovia, with its beautiful shore on the Atlantic Ocean, should have been a holiday paradise for tourists. However, the beaches are empty. Even after 20 years the memories of the executions are strong, and there are still activities going on which scare people. We follow a relief delivery from Norway to the Gbargna area, where The Salvation Army is working. Many thousands of refugees live there in very cramped quarters. The food delivery has to be organised in order to prevent chaos. The heat is terrible. There is no water there, and many of the refugees are not able to get hold of anything from the food delivery.
We travel further, to another district, a small place with a corps house and a primary school. The Salvation Army is going to give the inhabitants a medical examination and hand out medicine. One third of the people are teenagers, the youngest girls are 15 years old. In their arms they carry sick and dying babies. One mother, a child herself, puts her baby into my arms. ‘Can you do something for him?’ she asks. ‘He won’t eat.’
I take his head between my hands and kiss him on his forehead. Then I give him back to his mother. She is content. I have no time to tell her about the connection between clean water and bacteria, vitamins and strong health. People have no idea about the threat of HIV/Aids.‘How old is your baby?’ I ask.
She looks at me. ‘One month,’ she says. ‘Maybe six.’
For more than 10 years the English couple Dorothy and Brian Knightley have headed The Salvation Army’s work in Liberia. In a long period of shootings and street violence during an uprising in 1996, seven armed men broke in to the Salvation Army headquarters and took anything of value, including Brian’s wedding ring and Dorothy’s nicest dress. Fortunately, the Knightleys were able to flee to England.
Lieut-Colonel Brian Knightley with young Liberian
soccer players. The young men – many of them former child soldiers – are
wearing kit donated by some of Norway's top teams
Brian went back to check on the situation six months later and, shortly after that, Dorothy rejoined him. It has been peaceful ever since but Dorothy tells us that she is always worried. Still, both of them love their job as leaders of The Salvation Army in Liberia. For 10 years they have been working hard in order to make the Army strong.
The first years were tough. The civil war that started in 1989 ruined the country. The infrastructure collapsed and the inhabitants needed help. Young people were walking aimlessly through the streets. Many had psychological damage after they had been used as soldiers during the war.
There were a lot of tasks to start on. Dorothy says, ‘I prayed and read my Bible. We did not know where to start. We were short of money and the tasks seemed unattainable. Then I read in the Bible that everything was going to be OK. I felt at peace. ‘Still I was wondering what was going to happen. One day we had a visitor. It was Inger Marit Nygaard from The Salvation Army in Norway. She said she was going to take a closer look at our work and give us some money from a television appeal in Norway.‘I was looking at her as she was standing in the doorway, smiling at me. Then I thought: she is the one who is coming to help us. Everything is going to be OK!’They soon began rebuilding The Salvation Army. A lot of people were coming to the meetings and a large number of soldiers were enrolled. A lot of schools, homes for young people, day care centers for children, music groups and evangelical teams were started.
In one of the poorest countries in the world, The Salvation Army grew and became a positive institution – an important part of a Liberia that was trying to start anew. Children and teenagers got new possibilities, self-confidence and dignity. Adults got new jobs. Suddenly there was new hope for the future.
Lieut-Colonel Dorothy Knightley talks to a mother who has a sick child
The uprising in 1996 brought this growth to a halt, but not for long. When the Knightleys returned they found that the damage to Salvation Army property was not as bad as expected. The only obvious structural damage was to the corps building in Monrovia, which had a big hole in the ceiling and a broken window. A lot of technical equipment, clothes and furniture had been stolen from the boys’ home. However, The Salvation Army is getting stronger and stronger. With its many schools, corps and institutions, The Salvation Army is an important part of the economic and spiritual development of the country. It is obvious that both ordinary people and those in authority respect the Army.
We had no problems with the authorities when we at last arrived in Monrovia. ‘Ah, Salvation Army!’ we were told. ‘You are the best of my friends. Welcome to Liberia!’ All our problems were solved.
Trude Totland is Information Secretary in The Salvation Army’s Norway, Iceland and The Færoes Territory