LIBERIA: Would you fight again?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Female ex-combatants are twice as likely as men to take up weapons again to escape poverty, based on a recent US-funded survey of more than 1,000 former fighters in Liberia. Almost 30 percent of the people surveyed said they were willing to take up arms again to earn a living wage, family and community acceptance, and respect for their tribe or religion.

Researchers concluded that ex-fighters at risk of returning to violence can destabilise a country still recovering from war.

Surveyors with the US-based non-profit CHF International, formerly known as Cooperative Housing Foundation, focused mostly on former fighters in rural Lofa county. The former seat of recruitment for both government and rebel forces and current home to many of Liberia’s former fighters is 65km northeast of the capital Monrovia.

Ex-combatants answered the following questions, among others, for the US Institute of Peace-funded study, released in September 2008: “Is life better now than before the war?” and “What events might make you decide to fight again?”

Mary Die Die

Mary Tarweh told IRIN she joined the government’s Liberian Armed Forces (AFL) in May 1988, when she was 24 years old, and that she came to be known as “Mary Die Die” for her fearlessness in combat during both phases of Liberia’s civil war.

Now, the 38-year-old mother of three said she is “likely” to fight again to support her three children, if economically things do not improve: “If the suffering persists and there is no sign of hope and people laugh at [mock] me, then it is likely that I can accept.”

One-third of those surveyed by CHF International said both the army and rebels had promised them cash, education or jobs for fighting during the civil war. Among these 312 respondents, 19 percent said they would be willing to fight again.

Tarweh told IRIN things have become progressively more difficult for her since rebel Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy forces killed her children’s father in 2001: “Although my current husband sometimes helps, he does not have a better [decent] paying job to meet all the family’s needs.”

She said her small business is not enough to feed her family, and she is looking for different ways to earn more money: “When someone approaches you and says, ‘I have a mission and I will give you US$15,000 or more. Here is at least US$10,000 of that amount let us go and fight,’ you could be moved by that,” Tarweh said.

Tens of thousands of Liberian fighters were registered with UN-led demobilisation, disarmament, rehabilitation and reintegration (DDRR) programmes at the end of both waves of fighting  in 1997 and in 2003. But a civil war in next-door Côte d’Ivoire that broke out in 2002, and deadly government protests in neighbouring Guinea, most recently in 2007, have presented restive Liberian ex-fighters nearby opportunities to make a living through violence.


The study’s authors concluded past DDRR programmes did not focus adequately on post-war trauma.

Tarweh said she has only a faint memory of trauma counseling. “I can remember when I was in the DDRR camps, counseling was provided [to] us for only five days. I do not think this is enough because some of us face physical and mental trauma.”

The authors noted that economic integration tends to train fighters for a market that does not have enough jobs. “Most rehabilitation and reintegration programming places immediate emphasis on skills training and only secondary emphasis on job creation,” CHF International wrote. “This order of operations is intuitive, but perhaps misguided…a push for immediate, state-supported job creation may be the best way to reduce the risk of impoverished, idle ex-combatants slipping back into violence.”

Tarweh said she briefly participated in both DDRR programmes’ skills training classes in tourism and typing. She dropped out of both before completion, discouraged with the low prospects of unemployment.

The World Bank has estimated Liberia’s unemployment rate to be as high as 70 percent, which government officials have disputed.

Tarweh told IRIN regardless of how many people are poor in Liberia, there are former fighters who are ready to resort to violence for the right price. “Money can convince people especially when [they] are not employed and the suffering is too much.”