In-depth: Our Bodies - Their Battle Ground: Gender-based Violence in Conflict Zones
LIBERIA: War leaves no respect for age in Voinjama
The Liberian wars have made many women destitute, only increasing their vulnerability to sexual attacks
Voinjama, 1 September 2004 (IRIN) - Vanny Moore[*
] has white hair sprouting from under her black headcloth and from her chin. A bird-like woman who cannot weigh more than 50kgs, she sits neatly in a battered wooden chair as she talks about how she put up with repeated rape and abuse.
The elderly woman fled her home in Voinjama, a once bustling town near the border with Guinea, a little more that a year ago to escape escalating battles during the final months of Liberia's civil war. Her nightmare began when fighters of the rebel Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) found her and several other women hiding in the bush.
The rebels forced the women to go back to Voinjama to help them make the town function - and to take care of their needs: cooking, washing clothes and sex.
"At night, the men would come, usually more than one. They would rape me. They said they would help me with food if I helped them. I had no choice. If I was lucky, they gave me 10 Liberian dollars (20 US cents)," she said quietly. But sometimes, she wouldn't even get the miserable tip. The men would just rape her, abuse her and leave her. If she had anything, they would take it - even her clothes - leaving her naked and alone.
Vanny and many others like her were among the most vulnerable victims of Liberia's war. Often widowed or abandoned by their husbands and families, they had no means of protecting themselves.
Vanny does not know how old she is exactly, but she says she was a grown woman when William V.S Tubman was first elected president in 1944. That would make her at least 80 years old. Her age made her easy prey to the young rebel fighters, who made sport of her predicament.
There was no door to keep the men out
For months, Vanny could do nothing to stop the nighttime visits. She slept in one of Voinjama's many partially destroyed buildings. There was no door on the concrete shell to keep the men out. Neither was there a roof to keep out the rain.
"I have borne five children," said Vanny, only one of them died as a child. "The others, I sent them all to school," she said proudly. "But now there is no-one to take care of me."
Shortly after the first fighting broke out in Liberia at the end of 1989, three of her children fled to Monrovia. Vanny said she was too old to walk the 500 km to the capital, so she told them to leave without her. She doesn't know where they are or if they are still alive. She visited one of her sons in Monrovia once, but cannot recall where he lives exactly - she vaguely remembers that his house was opposite a maternity hospital.
Only one of her adult children, a daughter, stayed with her. For a while, the two of them managed. It was difficult, but they survived like many of the other women in Voinjama, by fleeing into the bush at the sound of gunfire - the first warning that rebels or government soldiers were attacking the town. Often they would get sick. They suffered from parasites living rough in the forest and food was not always easy to find, especially in the rainy season when their clothes seemed to be permanently wet.
"One time, when we were hiding in the bush, my daughter got very sick and died," Vanny said. "I didn't know what to do. It was even harder without my daughter. I had no one to help me to find food," she said. "I lived on green bananas. Not long after that, the soldiers came."
These men did have guns, but they were not soldiers fighting for former president Charles Taylor. They were LURD rebels who found Vanny and the other frightened women in the bush and forced them to return to Voinjama.
Being old and without her daughter, Vanny was particularly vulnerable. There was no one to take care of her, no support. She could find nothing to eat, no one cared about an old lady, not even when a peace agreement brought a formal end to 14 years of civil war in August last year.
For months she lived on the stone floor of the wrecked building, enduring the night-time abuse. This wretched existence finally came to an end when she was taken in by Hanni Gede [*
], a young woman who moved back to Voinjama shortly after the town was secured by UN peacekeeping troops.
When the Pakistani battalion arrived in late April there were only about 600 residents in town. But with the arrival of the blue-helmeted peacekeepers, other civilians trickled back in.
"I thought she was crazy"
"When I first spoke to [Vanny], she was practically naked," said Gede. "I would see her in town. She would be in the street with hardly anything on, dancing for money, for food - anything. I thought she was crazy."
Gede first began inquiring about the old woman after her brother told her that Vanny had been using the wrecked house next to his own to sleep in. During the night, he had heard Vanny's shouts and cries when groups of men - usually LURD fighters - abused the old woman.
"One day I went up to her and [Vanny] said to me: "I'm not crazy you know, but I have no one. I have to do this to eat,"" Gede recalled.
Seeing Vanny's predicament, Gede invited her to stay in her own tumble-down house. The inside is bare, but at least it can be secured from the former combatants and the elements. There Gede shares what little she has with Vanny - even finding her clothes.
"We are all women. I looked at the condition of her and I thought she could have been my mother too, so what could I do?" Gede said.
Asked if she would like to see justice against the men who abused her, and who are still in the small town, she and all the other women who sat in the early morning sun on Gede's verandah laughed at the thought.
"It is enough that it is over," said Vanny, a smile on her face.
The names of the women quoted in this story have been changed.