New York Times: Liberia’s Split Families Heal (2003)

Liberia’s Split Families Heal, Child by Lost Child

August 23, 2003, Saturday
FOREIGN DESK

Liberia’s Split Families Heal, Child by Lost Child

By TIM WEINER (NYT) 1036 words

MONROVIA, Liberia, Aug. 22 — ”Good evening,” said the voice of Radio Veritas, the Roman Catholic broadcast service in Liberia. ”This is the Red Cross family tracing program. We bring you the names of children who are looking for their parents.

”Shaka Toe is 3 years old. His father’s name is unknown. His mother’s name is unknown. His last address before he was lost is unknown.”

The list went on, and on, and on into the night. Fifteen miles away, in Banjor, a village of tiny, scattered, bullet-pocked homes, Comfort K. Toe was listening in hope and fear, for her child, another child, not Shaka.

All over Liberia, hundreds of thousands of families have been torn apart by 14 years of war. In the latest fighting, which began in June and died down when President Charles G. Taylor, an indicted war criminal, resigned 11 days ago, many hundreds of children disappeared. Some were torn from their mothers’ arms as the forces of the rulers and the rebels clashed in the capital, Monrovia, and surrounding villages.

The names of more than 1,400 of these lost children, from infants to teenagers, are in a laptop computer at the looted offices of the Red Cross in Monrovia, where a small team of Liberians led by a Swiss, Marcus Stössel, 30, is trying to help those children find their parents.

This week, the Red Cross’s family tracing program, which dates back to World War I, has been winning some small battles in Liberia.

Krubo Toe, a small, scared girl of 12, was sitting on a couch next to Mr. Stössel’s office on Wednesday, far from home. Her mother, Comfort, runs an orphanage for about 70 children in Banjor. All are from Bopolu, a district in northern Liberia about 70 miles away, which was torn apart by fighting 18 months ago. All had fled for their lives.

Toe is a common name in Liberia, and Comfort had looked for her child for five weeks until she heard about the family tracing program and reached the Red Cross workers, who had been driven away by the looting and fighting until a few days ago.
Krubo became lost five weeks ago, caught in the crossfire as the rebels swept into the outskirts of Monrovia. This is her story, in her own words:
”I was with my ma in town. The people were many and the firings were many, and this was where my ma and I parted. While we were running, I was pushed by a boy and when I got up, I couldn’t find my mama or my aunt.

”A man named Dennis brought me to town, and we went all the way in the night to Firestone,” a rubber plantation 40 miles away, where the man, Dennis Fahn, had a sister who had a house of refuge.

The Red Cross managed to get the family retracing program fully running again on Tuesday, when Radio Veritas, knocked out last month by government shelling, came back on the air. On Wednesday, the program determined that Comfort Toe and Krubo Toe were indeed mother and daughter. The child was taken off the list of the lost.

On Wednesday morning, Krubo was driven to her village in a Red Cross truck. The whole orphanage erupted with joy as Krubo walked out and her mother wept with relief.
”This war has taken everything,” Mrs. Toe said, speaking in her native tongue, Loma. ”The children have no food, no clothes, no medicine.”
The Red Cross workers then drove across Monrovia, to Paynesville, on the edge of the urban sprawl, and to the home of Fouad and Doris Russ Fares, who were sheltering a dozen lost and orphaned children, including a little boy who called himself Tutu and who turned out to be Chuku Kpehei David, age 4.

Two months ago, as fighting erupted in Paynesville, ”a soldier boy came to me, gave me this child and said, ‘Carry him, Ma!’ ” Mrs. Fares said. ”They were running away from the rebels’ shooting.” The boy was reunited that afternoon with his parents, who believed he was dead.

In Monrovia, few wounds are healing quickly; death, both slow and quick, still stalks the countryside, where people are still living on handfuls of wild cassava roots, dying of cholera and hunger, and dodging bullets.

In Lower Johnsonville, four miles up a rough road from the edge of Monrovia, Our Lady of Fatima clinic is home to 180 severely handicapped children and adults, 120 young war orphans and about 3,000 people of all ages displaced by the war.

In the absence of its founder, Sister Sponsa, a tough 78-year-old nun from Wilkes-Barre, Pa., who has worked in Liberia since 1970 and was far away, raising money in the United States, when Liberia erupted 11 weeks ago, it was run by Victor Wilson, 30, a Liberian crippled by polio.

In June, the clinic was robbed of $2,500 by government militiamen and by mid-July it was down to its last four bags of rice.

Sister Sponsa, on crutches and with sight in only one eye, is in Hazelton, Pa., trying to fly back to Monrovia. She was reached by telephone Thursday morning from her clinic as a United Nations World Food Program truck with rations of corn meal struggled up the road.

”Even in the last war, in 1990, we have never wanted for food,” she said. ”They managed to survive, somehow. I almost cried last week. And I don’t cry too easily.”

A World Food Program official who delivered the corn meal, Ramin Rafirasme, said far more desperate places than this clinic would be found as aid workers push into the countryside.

”It’s going to take years of work,” he said, ”and thousands of peacekeepers to secure this country.”

CAPTIONS: Photo: Doris Russ Fares takes Chuku Kpehei David, 4, who showed up with a soldier as crowds fled Liberia’s war, to his parents after two months apart. (Photo by Jehad Nga/Corbis, for The New York Times)