Powerless in rape, women wait in constant worry
By Associated Press
As drunkenness and despair set in, Liberia's warriors roam from house to house, shattering dreams and escaping justice.
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 10, 2003
MONROVIA, Liberia - Clutching her daughter's photograph to her breast, Rebecca throws back her head and wails. Gunmen burst into her home and raped the child on her 10th birthday, leaving her lying there - dead.
Every time fighting surges in Liberia, women are raped, aid workers say. But this time, the scale is incalculable. Wild-eyed men are going door to door, ransacking homes, beating and killing people, and raping any women, or girls, they find.
Both sides in the battle are implicated - the fighters of warlord President Charles Taylor and the rebels trying to overthrow him. Women used to be most at risk fleeing through the bush, aid workers say. Now they are not safe in their homes.
"Those people are not human beings," sobs Rebecca, sheltering in a friend's yard. She, like other victims, doesn't want her surname published for fear of reprisals.
July 20 began with Rebecca, 42, waking the sleeping child with a chorus of Happy Birthday To You. She gathered her son and a friend's 14-year-old girl with them for Sunday prayers.
Then government fighters pounded at the gate.
A young man smashed Rebecca's head with a hammer and tore off her clothes, while her 10-year-old clung to her, crying "Mommy! Mommy!" When the man realized Rebecca was menstruating, he kicked her.
Another fighter, who called himself Black Dog, ripped the child from her mother and threw her to the floor.
"When he got through with her, I saw blood, I saw vomit, I saw toilet," Rebecca says, moaning rhythmically. "He raped her to death."
As her daughter lay on the floor, another man grabbed the 14-year-old and raped her.
"He was holding me," whispers the child, sitting bolt upright, knees pressed together and hands twisting in her lap. "I was fighting, kicking him."
Rape has always gone hand in hand with war in Liberia, where Taylor's first grab for power in 1989 ushered in nearly 14 years of strife.
"Every time there is an incursion going on, it is the same thing," says Miatta Roberts, a counselor with the Liberian-run Concerned Christian Community - the only group remaining in the country that works with rape survivors. "When there is war going on, no woman is safe."
Figures are impossible to track because most victims are cut off by fighting or feel too humiliated to seek help. But the few counselors left after international aid groups pulled out foreign staff members say they've never seen so many cases.
"It's more rampant than ever before," said Mariama Brown, the group's founding director.
The attacks are usually linked to looting sprees by drunk, drugged and disaffected fighters. Many feel abandoned since Taylor bowed to mounting international pressure and pledged to hand over power, so they have launched what they call "Operation Pay Yourself."
With no functioning court system, they act with impunity.
Some 1,500 women participate in the Christian group's trauma programs at a teeming refugee camp in an athletics stadium. Of these, 626 have been raped.
In better times, the group gave the women food, clothing, medical treatment and skills training. Now they can do little more than provide a safe haven and keep them busy. The women play games in a bamboo and tarpaulin enclosure and sing traditional songs to remind them of home.
Joining a circle of clapping, singing women, 20-year-old Alice breaks into a rare smile.
Three years ago, she was gang-raped in front of her family as they fled through the bush ahead of a rebel advance. Last month, pro-Taylor militia fighters caught up with her on the outskirts of Monrovia, pulling her from a group of refugees huddled in an abandoned home.
The repeated rapes have shattered her dreams of marriage and children.
"I feel shame before men," she says. "No one approaches me now."
Violence against women is as widespread in rebel-held areas, aid workers say.
While fleeing the insurgents' latest advance, Kula's family stumbled into a rebel ambush. Her husband, mother, aunt and brother were killed.
When she reached a refugee camp outside Monrovia, she thought she was safe. But soon the rebels were back, moving from hut to hut in search of women.
"They shared us among themselves," says Kula, who is 47 but looks much older. "Everyone was crying."
Four days later it happened again. Rebels with stockings over their faces burst into the house where she was sheltering and grabbed all the women.
Two fighters raped Kula this time, one of them so young he could barely hold up his machine gun - no older than 10, she guesses.
"I think the women who can say they haven't been raped are very few," she says sorrowfully. "It pains my heart."
As for Rebecca, the fighters stripped her house and even took the family album. Rebecca has only one picture left of her daughter, taken when she was 11 months old - a solemn child with bright bows in her hair, standing unsteadily with the help of a piece of furniture.
Falling to her knees, Rebecca sobs: "Just kill me. I want to die."
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