A story from Liberia.
It was not always this way. Normal days were the times when the sun was not so searing; and the hunger ate into her battered mind. Why did the revolution hit her innards, and the freedom fighters steal her freedom? She had developed a consistent habit for more than ten years, pinching herself to ensure that she was alive; and she did this once again. She was not sure if she was alive or was perhaps a ghost among the living, searching like the freedom fighters for that elusive prize: freedom from the daily torture of poverty and pain.
Outside, through the hole in the wall, a space she called window, the young people returned from the video club. The laughter-filled arguments did not reach her ears where she sat and listened to the darkness. Like a thick, uncomfortable blanket, it covered the town. For ten years, it had been this way. A thick, murky blackness enveloped the collective fears of the people. It hovered like a blatant billboard for the eyes of people who had power but no compassion.
She slipped into her past again, groping for the present, which was no different. Every time this happened, she knew her sanity was buried somewhere in 1990, clutched in the unwritten story of the checkpoints, surrounded by armed soldiers who used guns to show who was in control. She experienced the flashback again. It is so real – she feels beads of sweat at the back of her neck. The visceral reaction makes her scream at her children to go to bed.
Sometimes people call her “that crazy woman”, the one who talks to herself and no one else. She did not understand why and asked no questions. Maybe this is what she had become. Crazy and pain-filled.
Then she laughed to herself quietly as if overwhelmed by an obvious epiphany. Liberians were all crazy and pain-filled; a tortured, sad-eyed country craving catharsis, needing to exorcise the demons of the checkpoints.
The noise and laughter push into the room. She does not care about leagues and teams and colors. No matter who wins the game, her battle continues. Her children know not to disturb her. They had just eaten a late night meal of bulgur wheat and rice, mixed in equal parts, with vegetable oil, courtesy of a friend working in the nearby displacement camp. She and her four children live in a zinc house owned by one Congau old lady whose children had sent for her to go to America, a few days before Kakata fell to the rebels in 1990. She was not coming back. Kwita heard that the old lady lived in a nursing home in America. Before the war, the old lady used the house as storage for her goats and tools. Today, it was her home.
In the daily flashback, Kwita summarized one hundred and twenty gory minutes of revulsion and brutality into ten. She and her fiancé James had completed high school in December 1988 and enrolled at the University of Liberia the following year. Surely their plans were certain. In fact, they had gone through the traditional marriage ceremony in Gbartala in January 1990. Her mother did not want her staying with James without some form of commitment from his family.
They thought they were walking to freedom, she and James, from Monrovia to home, Gbartala. They said that area was safe. So they walked to freedom, in flight from the midnight clutches of marauding death squads in Monrovia. She was dark and tall, with thick black hair braided in bonsway. When the fighting was over, she told herself, she would spend two hours in Miss Nanu beauty salon on the Chugbor Road, getting herself back together. She walked like a woman who knew her purpose, making her stand out in any crowd. James walked with her, carrying a small load on his head.
The crowd was unforgettable. Hungry and petrified people, moving like a dam had broken, except that they did not touch like flowing water. They moved like the monthly flow of a woman . . . in clots and blood and pain. The silence from the walking groups was like a mournful hum. The instant disappointment of seeing human bodies splayed in different and cruel positions was etched on their faces. Their need to hide these feelings made everyone appear lost. The fighters’ hostile exuberance completed the picture. Everything was upside down and everyone was protecting and presenting a façade that could be broken in seconds by the sound of an AK-47, sending another soul to heaven.
‘O Geh! Geh whay la piay’! She heard the voice before she was at the checkpoint in the curve. It rang deep in her stomach, forcing her heart to question her safety.
At the checkpoint, a tall soldier called aloud, “All the Krahn and Mandingo people – yor move from the group now. We gah special flight for yor.” He said it twice and she noticed him twitching as she and James neared him. “Halt,” he screamed. According to him, his ring, given to him by the old medicine man in Butuo was hot and burning his finger, a sign enemies were nearby – Krahn or Mandingo enemies, simple.
He wore a loose-fitting green jacket with black jeans, two sizes larger than his normal fit. Around his neck were red and black ropes, the locket, a black stone wrapped tightly. Remove all of these clothing and the AK-47, he looked like one of the young boys from her village that had helped them during the marriage ceremony, cutting sticks for the tarpaulin and bringing water for the cooking.
When they stopped, she tried to smile and in a shaky voice she told him that they were going to the other side. High on marijuana, cane juice and power, he separated her and James, taking Kwita to the Commanding Officer. The CO had a toothy grin and a half-filled bottle of palm wine. CO Dead Body Perfume, they called him. She looked at his jacket and thought she saw bloodstains but did not have the chance to inspect further. He took her into a dark room for “investigation”. In the outer room, a group of teenage boys held on to their guns, knives and x-rated magazines.
In the room, the CO asked no questions. He pushed her on a grimy bed and with a smile on his face, placed the bloodstained knife at her throat. The first tear transformed the primary colors in her mind from an unhealthy golden yellow of fear to red of violence.
She knew now what was on his jacket. She screamed but it came out in high silence. He raped her and told her she was not even “sweet” enough to remain with him, as a wife. He pushed her outside, to the jeers and laughter of the small soldiers. Some of them nursed their erections. Her mind was blocked though she remembered one thing: James. How could she explain this when she did not even know the words that described this violation?
She walked out, and the scream and sunlight hit her simultaneously. Someone was calling her name. A painful wail; then dead silence. People moved faster, away from the sound and the checkpoint. Moving in the direction of the scream, she felt a hand take hers and pull her away.
“Let’s go this way. I will explain when we go far,” a fat man told her. She had seen this man in their neighborhood two weeks ago. So she followed him and he told her. James had been tied in a mat and beaten to death with a pestle. As the CO raped her, violating her insides with a penis that had functioned like this for months, violating strange women and girls; James was violated on the outside with a pestle. Death had come to the two of them, but she lived. Surely she had cheated herself into untold misery even though she did not know at the time.
She walked away from the man. The sugar cane dirt that covered the road was like a rug so she felt a false sense of comfort in her rage and pain. Fifty checkpoints later, at midnight, she went to the school in Kakata where the displaced people were. Someone had an old rusty bucket. She needed a bath more than she needed food or safety.
The flashback ends when she takes bath. She hears noise in the room and finds her children playing and laughing. Her oldest daughter reminds her of a bloodstained knife and a dark room. She tells them to keep quiet as she has to rest. Tomorrow, she was going to the main town to the Truth and Reconciliation hearings to explain her story – the one that did not end with the pain and rape but continued to ostracism, pregnancy and now hard time.
The people were coming to Gbartala for people to talk about what happened during the war. She kept saying no because the family had called her just before Christmas to warn her not to spoil their name. Some things are kept in secret. “The war business should not be town crier business,” they warned her. It was over and everybody should now live in peace. The people in the village had come from Garmu and Forquelleh way and did not know what happened at checkpoints.
Her mother called her in the room and cried. “My daughter, when people learn book they dress and act some kind of way that make men to lose control. If you had not dressed that way with all your legs showing and your breasts full in your chest, you would have been free and James would be here.” Her stomach sank deep into her pain, guilt and loneliness.
According to her mother, Ma Garmei and Uncle Drokonkro’s daughters came and nothing happened to them. Surely, Kwita did something to deserve this punishment so now she must keep quiet. The TRC was not the way they solved problems in the town. The family gave her an ultimatum. She did not accept their demands because the CO that raped her worked as a senator in Monrovia, helping to make laws. His aide was the one whom separated her and James. She needed to tell this story.
Kwita reached the crowded hall, a new town hall built by one of the NGOs working in Gbartala. There was a hush in the room and everyone looked at her askance. This craziness had gone so far that she could now stand in defiance of her family and the head of their quarter, people wondered. The town chief talked to the elders and they decided to hang head on the issue. This disgrace was not going to happen in their town.
Sensing the plan to thwart her participation, she asked one of the TRC staff to allow her to be the first on the stand that morning. And she spoke…slowly and painfully; her eyes moving through the crowd as she relived the curse of the checkpoints.
Today, she realized that she had blocked out an important part of her pain; the answer to the town’s involvement in silencing her. The town chief of Gbartala was one of the small soldiers who were with CO Dead Body Perfume. How did she forget that when his laughter was the loudest when she was pushed out of that room? She tried to make eye contact as she spoke her pain but he shut his eyes, as if asleep. She knew he too was reliving his pain – the one of young people who were used to fight a battle they knew nothing about.
Her children heard her story, too. The women in the town, including 80-year old Peso Korto, formed an imaginary circle of support around her children, as Kwita’s voice moved through the room. They hugged themselves as if it was cold, and their own stories moved up to their throats, from their stomachs, from their vaginas, from their pain. Their tears came slowly but steadily, stealing Kwita’s own river that built up in her heart. Kwita spoke and the town chief’s eyes remained shut.
Then the TRC lost control of the process and the women took over. Without an invitation to speak, each one went up and talked. Stories of the pain they had covered for years. One woman explained how she was made to have sex with her son at the checkpoint in Salala. The CO who worked there, liked to see those things. Her son was killed after the act, while she stood there like an invisible object. Another one had no story but she had to sing that song that she was forced to while the rebels raped her daughter after they had killed her husband. Like they were in line at the checkpoint, they came up and bared their souls. The town chief’s eyes remained shut.
Kwita joined the circle – the imaginary one. She was done crying and looked through the crowd to find the eyes of her mother who stood outside the circle. Her eyes pleaded with her for forgiveness, but she saw that her mother would do no such thing. In her eyes was the promise of more anger; Kwita would never be called her daughter again.
Then Kwita heard someone call her name and she walked from the room to the center of the town. The voice was near the trees where the old men sat. It was like a cool green canopy of comfort. The person who called her stood with his back turned and before he turned to smile, she saw that it was James. Where did he come from after all these years? She moved towards him slowly…to the green of her soul.
On the other side, the fat man continued to be the aide of the senator who was once called Dead Body Perfume. The senator was now running to be president. The women told their stories to themselves. Kwita moved on to nowhere; and the town chief’s eyes remained shut.
This article was first published by Action Aid.
Read other articles in the series, 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence 2012.