Who will lead Liberia?

Anne Richard, IRC’s vice president of government relations and advocacy, reports on her recent trip to Liberia in today’s edition of The Globalist.

On a visit to Liberia in December 2004, I came away asking, “Who will step forward to lead this country?”

I met with a variety of officials — from teachers and health clinic workers in remote Nimba County to the Minister of Planning and senior UN advisers in Monrovia — to discuss the prospects for lasting peace in Liberia after 14 years of conflict and war.

Adult soldiers turned in weapons so they could return to — what? Without jobs, without health care or prospects, they are a disaster waiting to happen, a mob waiting to riot.

The memory of a conversation with one Liberian colleague lingers — Franklin King is a water and sanitation engineer with the International Rescue Committee (IRC).

Touring a crowded displaced persons camp outside Monrovia, he pointed out wells and latrines built to help the displaced lead healthier lives.

On the trip back to town, Franklin explained that he was descended from the former American slaves who had settled the country, part of the Americo-Liberian elite that had ruled Liberia since its independence in 1847.

A tragic past

His grandfather had been President and his father was in the House of Representatives during the Tolbert government. The last time Franklin had seen his father alive was on the beach in Monrovia in 1980. The families of 13 ousted government officials were brought there to watch the executions of these men.

Franklin seemed almost apologetic when he explained that he had shunned politics to work as a sanitation engineer.

Franklin’s choice

Franklin’s choice struck me then as a very sane decision, but has worried me since. Few families in Liberia have been untouched by war and displacement.

The number of people in Liberia with the education, energy and optimism to work for positive change and not just whatever they can extort, appears very small.

The number of people with the education, energy and optimism to work for positive change in that country — and not just whatever they can extort or skim off the top — appears very small indeed.

For now, Liberia is run by a “transitional chairman,” businessman Gyude Bryant, and a power-sharing government that includes ex-rebels. Security is maintained by UNMIL (United Nations Mission in Liberia), the UN’s integrated peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance mission.

UNMIL is led by Jacques Klein, the voluble American diplomat who had served as the UN Secretary General’s special representative in Bosnia and Eastern Slavonia before being recruited again for UNMIL.

Engineering a government

Bryant and Klein have their hands full trying to maintain the peace on a shoestring budget, yet they and UNMIL are somehow also expected to engineer a government that can pay salaries to public servants, take actions to curb corruption and manage public funds and agencies in a transparent manner.

In October 2005, an election will be held to choose a new president and parliament, and power will (knock on wood) shift. The field of more than 45 likely candidates for the office of president is crowded and uneven.

Presidential contenders

Leading contenders include Winston Tubman, a former UN envoy to Somalia (and nephew of a former president), Varney Sherman, a legal consultant and advisor to Bryant, and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf — a former World Bank and UN official.

After he had witnessed the execution of his father and other members of parliament, Franklin shunned politics to work as a sanitation engineer.

Perhaps the candidate with the greatest name recognition and public appeal in Liberia is George Weah, a former professional soccer player who left school at an early age.

Ex-President Charles Taylor is not on the scene, but is still very much on the minds of the people with whom I met.

While many Liberians are grateful that U.S. President George W. Bush’s involvement helped remove Taylor from power in August 2003, there is much suspicion that Taylor still has the economic and political reach to influence events in Liberia from his exile in Nigeria.

More than just elections

Meanwhile, about 100,000 ex-combatant men, women and children from several warring factions have been disarmed. Adult soldiers who turned in weapons were given a small cash payout so they could return to — what? Without jobs, without health care, without prospects, they are a disaster waiting to happen, a mob waiting to riot.

In Liberia, the “DD” part — disarmament and demobilization — of the peace operation has been successfully concluded. However, the “RR” — rehabilitation and reintegration into society — has been under-funded and requires urgent attention.

A call for leaders

Where are the caring leaders who will step forward to engage in construction — and not destruction?

In Liberia, the “DD” part — disarmament and demobilization — of the peace operation has been successful. However, the “RR” part — rehabilitation and reintegration into society — requires urgent attention.

They are battered and bruised, but they are there in Liberia or in neighboring countries or among the 400,000 Liberians in the United States and Canada, waiting to see what will emerge from the October 2005 elections.

The United States, the European Union and the United Nations have agreed to help pay for the elections, but more than just elections is needed.

Programs that help to mend societies, put people back to work and keep them healthy also deserve support.

And Liberians need the assurance that the United States and others in the international community will stick with them, follow through on funding commitments and work together to restore peace and stability, democracy and prosperity.

Only then will the local heroes — teachers, nurses, social workers, community activists, village elders, small businesspeople — come forward to lead Liberia.

Welcome to “Camp Refugee”

Cara Winters, who works with IRC’s refugee resettlement office in Phoenix, set up a 12-hour overnight program at Arizona State University designed to bring attention to the realities of refugee life. Students slept in makeshift tents and listened to actual refugees tell their stories:

Several IRC staff members arrived early to help set up, role play, and support the refugee speakers. All in all we had about 60 paying participants, of which about 40 stayed ALL NIGHT in shelters built from the provisions we distributed at the beginning.

We had over 20 volunteers who role-played, stayed most of the night, and arrived early Monday afternoon to build the camp itself. Most of the participants were college students, but we had quite a significant number of professors, community members, and people from the larger Phoenix community.

The most exciting part is that nearly all the people involved—both volunteers and participants—were totally clueless about refugee issues before the event. That means nearly 80 people were just introduced to refugee crises and how to help!

Every participant was put into a family group based on different conflict situations around the world, both past and present: Somalia, Cambodia, Liberia, Colombia, Afghanistan, and human trafficking situations.

After being assigned an identity, the participant was given an information sheet about who they were in relation to the family, the background of the conflict displacing them, and a “Things to Remember” sheet giving them additional information about the nature of being persecuted in their particular family, conflict, and age/gender role. Then they were given a map of the ASU campus marked with a path to follow and told to register themselves with the contract aid agency (IRC of course!). Then, they had to go through the registration process—half of which was an interview because the families were illiterate in the registration form’s language. The form was based on the United Nations refugee registration form I found online.

After that, the head of the family was given an ID card and one or two members were told to go to the health clinic. At the health clinic, the nurse had a list of all the identities and what their related diseases were going to be, based on the what was most prevalent in that part of the world. She did a “check-up,” used her stethoscope, weighed them, etc. After that, the family was directed to the shelter distribution site, then the food distribution site.

They had to build shelters out of 1 sheet, 2 dowel rods, 4 safety pins, 5 tent stakes, and 5 pieces of twine (1 was 10ft, 4 were 4.5ft). Most of the supplies were lent to me by family friends. We made the participants aware that this was not what refugees would actually receive in the camps, but what we as a non-profit could provide in the way of build-your-own-refugee-camp supplies.

I made large posters for each site that had pictures and statistical information about what real refugee shelter provisions were like, as well as food, health, and sanitation. After people built their shelters, they were invited to come listen to the guest speakers – which lasted about an hour. After that they had 15 mins to pack all their belongings in two pillow cases that I provided each family and our “militia” volunteers “attacked” the camp.

Then participants had to navigate their way through a road block, where they had to forfeit half their belongings and receive a second information sheet for each family member. Then they had to get through the “border crossing,” where we blocked off the main walkway through campus with chicken wire, lumber, and “no trespassing” signs—and stationed three military types to prevent passage (we got a lot of curious onlookers at that site!).

Each border guard was given specific instructions as to which family to work with and under what conditions they could cross—again, this was based on what happened in each of those countries.

Once they crossed the border, some families discovered their children had been trafficked and were then met by a UN convoy who gave them a third sheet of information and escorted the family to the “Joint Volunteer Agency office.” Once at the office, they had to show their letter of invitation and go through the interview.

After the interview they had to wait outside until the Department of Homeland Security character called them into his office and put them through another interview. Once that was over, they were instructed to return to the camp and wait for a response. Wait they did—and not until all families were back, did I make the rounds and reveal whether or not they were accepted for U.S. resettlement.

After the simulation ended (around 11 PM), we broke into discussion groups and answered a lot of the questions participants had about why or why not their “family” was resettled, why they had go through road blocks and border crossings, and why they had to go through three interviews before finding out about resettlement. We raised a little over $600 for the IRC, which isn’t a ton of money but I wanted to keep the cost accessible for the largest number of people.

We capped it off with small group debriefings and made everyone breakfast in the morning.

For a pilot program built on the time and energy of 20 different volunteers and designed to reach people who’ve never heard about or cared for refugee issues – it went quite well!

George Clooney Visits IRC Programs for Darfur Refugees

Photo: Melissa Winkler/International Rescue Committee

George Clooney and his father, journalist Nick Clooney, just got back from Sudan and Chad where they met up with International Rescue Committee aid workers in Sudan’s Bahr El Ghazal Province, where the IRC provides mobile medical services for communities struggling to recover from more than 20 years of civil war between the north and the south

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