Liberians see signs of hope, restoration

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Liberian United Methodists say they are daring to hope that their war-torn country is moving away from destruction and violence.

Hopeful signs include the April 14 reopening of the Ganta Hospital, which suffered near-total destruction in fighting between government and rebel forces in mid-July 2003. Founded in 1926 by Methodist medical missionaries, the hospital and mission compound serves a population of 450,000 in Liberia and the surrounding border regions of Guinea and the Ivory Coast.

The ratio of doctors to the general population in Liberia is 1 to 1,000; that translates into 3,000 doctors serving the health needs of the country’s 3 million inhabitants. Some sources estimate as many as 60 percent of children do not reach age 5. 

“When the hospital was destroyed, the people were completely depressed,” reported Liberia United Methodist Bishop John Innis from the 2004 General Conference of the United Methodist Church in Pittsburgh. “Its reopening symbolizes hope, restoration, peace and the aliveness of the church who is the custodian of God’s creation and God’s people.” 

In addition to the hospital, the mission compound includes a primary school, nursing and vocational training facilities, agricultural production, homes and a church. The hospital had just undergone a major renovation with the help of funding from the Board of Global Ministries before the last attacks in summer 2003. Almost every part of the hospital compound, with the exception of the leprosy unit, was destroyed or rendered inoperable.

Today, with the help of funds from numerous groups — including United Methodist churches in Germany and the United Methodist Committee on Relief — 37 hospital staff are back at Ganta providing outpatient care, prenatal, maternity and child care, eye clinics, emergency surgical procedures and short-stay ward care. The hospital’s prosthesis and orthopedic workshop is not yet able to resume its work.

Only eight months after ferocious attacks on the Ganta compound, Innis says local people have the confidence to begin rebuilding because the political landscape has changed and now peace and stability are real possibilities for Liberia.

What has changed is the departure of former Liberian President Charles Taylor last August and a peace process that includes a 7,500-strong United Nations peace-keeping force helping to disarm nearly 45,000 soldiers — as many as half of them children. The exiled Taylor, whose militia is blamed for starting Liberia’s 14 years of civil unrest, has been indicted for crimes against humanity by a U.N. tribunal.

The Rev. Erlene Thompson, senior pastor at the oldest United Methodist church in West Africa, says she too sees a confidence in Liberia’s future she has not witnessed in years. Thompson has been a part of Monrovia’s First United Methodist Church congregation all her life.

“Lots (of people) are beginning to come home. Some who went away years ago come to me and say, ‘I’ve come back to help rebuild the church,’” said Thompson, who also is serving as a General Conference delegate. “People are rebuilding their homes. … There is more hope now that the U.N. has started disarming. Our citizens are relieved they are taking the guns away. And soldiers are happy to give guns up.”

In partnership with the United Nations, the United Methodist Committee on Relief is opening a demobilization, rehabilitation, disarmament and reintegration camp in Liberia. Soldiers come to the camp voluntarily, give up their weapons and begin a process of stepping away from the violence and fighting that has so defined and, ironically, sustained their lives.

Once U.N. officials have disarmed soldiers, they are fed, given a place to sleep and receive counselling and vocational training, including literacy training. The UMCOR camp has a full-time recreation director who organizes activities for soldiers undergoing the reintegration process. They also receive $300 and an official U.N. “demobilization certification,” which can help smooth the way for their return to communities and lives left behind during combat.

“Soldiers want to leave but are afraid without proper documentation someone will come after them and arrest them and worse,” said relief agency head Paul Dirdak.

While the relief agency has a proven track record with “demobilization” work, this is the first camp it has undertaken to manage. Its success will help shape similar efforts the agency has been invited to take on in Central Asia and Congo in the future. A previous UMCOR literacy demobilization project in Liberia’s Gbazon Town saw more than 360 demobilized child soldiers graduate from high school and receive vocational training. Some 13,000 soldiers are expected to be processed at this new camp.

The United Methodist Committee on Relief is acutely aware of the complex needs of child soldiers. According to a recent Human Rights Watch Report, “How to Fight, How to Kill: Child Soldiers in Liberia,” the use of children as soldiers dates to the start of Liberia’s conflict in 1989. Charles Taylor’s militia became infamous for the abduction and use of boys in war, and others factions soon adopted this practice. In many cases, children as young as 9 were kidnapped, sexually abused and forced to kill or be killed. The use of child soldiers under the age of 15 is a violation of the Geneva Convention.

In the UMCOR camp, child soldiers are separated from adults when they arrive. In addition to the standard care and reintegration support, they also receive assistance in reuniting with family members. Many of these children are eager to return to education, but the cost of school fees can make such a move difficult, if nearly impossible. This situation is one that Innis feels the Liberian United Methodist Church could help change. He hopes that fees at United Methodist-sponsored schools can be reduced or eliminated through scholarships so child soldiers and others can get the education they need to keep them from drifting into militia activities. According to the Human Rights Watch report quoted above, children with an education are more difficult to recruit.

“The church is the extension of Christ. Wherever Christ was, people were healed, fed, clothed, redeemed from imprisonment, had demons driven out of them,” Innis said. “We must continue to be the extension of the love of Jesus Christ so that people’s lives can be made whole.”

*LaCamera is a United Methodist News Service correspondent.

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