In-depth: Our Bodies - Their Battle Ground: Gender-based Violence in Conflict Zones

LIBERIA: Sexual violence goes hand in hand with war

Photo: IRIN
Most of the women at Mount Barclay IDP Camp have suffered some form of GBV
Monrovia, 1 September 2004 (IRIN) - Most of the women at Mount Barclay camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Liberia's capital, Monrovia, were raped or otherwise abused during the country's civil wars, the chair of the camp's women's group explains as she gathers the women together for a meeting at the bamboo and thatch church.

"Women! Women-o! Women!" she calls. Then, as everyone settles on the bamboo pews, the chairperson, Hawa Sah, says to IRIN: "There are plenty here who had bad, bad things happen to them in the war." She introduces some of the women, who then tell their stories:

Coumba M-

Coumba M- says she is 45, but looks older. She has four children and was pregnant with her fifth, but lost it after she was savagely raped and beaten by Guinean soldiers after fleeing fighting in Liberia. Her face is still marked by the beating. On her forearm she bears the scar of a machete wound.

"We crossed the border in to Guinea on foot in 1993. During the night they came to where we were lying and they said they were going to kill my husband," Coumba says, sitting with her elbows on her knees, her forehead in her hands.

"'Why do you want to kill my husband?' 'Because he is army-man!' they told me." Her children managed to run away, but Coumba stayed and begged for her husband's life: "'Please, if you kill my husband then there will be no one to take care of me'," she told them.

"The three men, they grabbed me and raped me. I lost the child. I was in pain! I was bleeding badly, there was plenty blood. They tied my husband, so that he couldn't help me," she recalls. "They told me they were going to kill me," Coumba says, as she retells how she was stripped naked and humiliated in front of her husband.

Afterwards they were dumped in a jail without food, water or medical assistance, even though she was bleeding badly after the miscarriage. For a long time, they refused to untie her husband. "They tied his arms so tight that when they finally cut him free, his arms were useless," she says, demonstrating how her husband's arms had hung limply from his shoulders. "The veins and everything were all cut."

They spent 18 days in jail. Every night they were beaten. Once, when she told the soldiers she was cold, they set her hair on fire. It has not grown back so she keeps her head covered with a cloth. It still hurts sometimes and the pain prevents her from sleeping.

It was only when the UN heard about them and obtained their release that Coumba received medical care. That probably saved her life, although she suffered such internal damage from the rape that she has not been able to bear another child.

Shortly after, when they had recovered somewhat, Coumba and her husband managed to find their children and walked back to their home in Foya, near Liberia's border with Guinea. However, the war continued to rage on and off for the next 10 years. In the final years of the war, rebel soldiers from the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) broke into their home. They killed her husband and locked her in the attic. The only reason she is still alive is that she managed to break out of the attic and escape into the bush.

Alice

Alice's ordeal was at the hands of a different rebel group, the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL), which operated in the east. War had spread to Grand Bassa County, about 100 km east of Monrovia, and she had been trying to reach a safer place when the rebels caught up with her. "I was raped by four MODEL men," she said, as she nursed her three-month-old son, Able. She had no idea which of the men who raped her was Able's father.

"They came in the house, they forced themselves on me," she said in a whisper. " 'You want yourself or you want your life'," they told her after breaking into the house where she had been hiding. "They beat me. I struggled with them, but I have no father, no brother, no one who could help me."

Her attackers took everything she had, which wasn't much. Afterwards, badly beaten and hurt from the gang-rape, she walked all the way to Monrovia, where she found shelter in the Mount Barclay camp.

"I still get sick from the rape," said Alice, who was worried that she might not be able to have any more children. "I want a job. I want Able to go to school, to become a doctor, but I have nothing. No money, not even enough to go back home."

Life in the camp was tough, and the dampness of the floor on which they slept in her mud-and-thatch house was bad for Able. But at least there were no attacks, and she felt safe.

Coumba F-

Coumba F- was 60 years old. She could not see clearly. In fact, she had not been able to see well ever since she lost her daughter and one of her grandchildren during their flight from Foya.

Coumba had been helping her daughter to take her three children to school. The youngest was tied to her mother's back. As they walked, LURD rebels attacked the village. They ran into the bush, pursued by some of the rebels, but her daughter tripped and fell. Coumba kept on running with the two other children, aged four and six, leaving her daughter and youngest grandchild behind. They kept going until they reached the IDP camp in Monrovia.

She doesn't remember much about the journey. The children had had to guide her as she could not see where to go.

She is still unable to see clearly.
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