When Liberian Child Soldiers Grow Up

In the Magazine
Glenna Gordon

Mary Goll is asleep in a white plastic chair. Around her, in the modest bar by the sea that she owns, the sandy ground is flecked with cigarette butts and shiny cracker wrappers glinting in the dull morning light. Plastic bags that once held white rice have been stitched up to cover parts of the shambolic structure, made from odd corrugated zinc plates and bits of chicken wire. Farther up the beach a cluster of canoes lie face-down by the water as if asleep. Mary’s bar—known as Ma Mary's—resembles a makeshift vessel that, carrying a motley crew and cargo, has crashed onto the shoreline and is slowly falling apart.

The morning light sharpens the contours of the bar. Mary, now awake, languidly gets up from her chair. She is dressed in a loose white tank top that accentuates her broad shoulders and thick arms. A yellow piece of fabric with blue stars is wrapped around her waist. Her short hair is braided in cornrows.

ClairMacDougall-FE0328-LiberianGirlSoldier-Embed3 Liberia’s complex civil war became known around the world for its atrocities, often involving children and teenagers as both perpetrators and victims. Glenna Gordon (Top); Issouf Sanogo--AFP-Getty Images (Above)

A bare-chested young man comes into the bar, orders a shot of gana gana, a bitter cane juice known as “African whisky,” swallows it without saying a word, then resumes his walk toward Cape Montserrado, where the first black immigrants from America landed in 1822, the vanguard of a settlement that eventually became the Republic of Liberia, its capital, Monrovia, named after U.S. President James Monroe.

This desolate stretch of land, where echoes of Liberia’s past still play out, is known as Poto Corner in the local Liberian-English vernacular, meaning a place for those without use. It is situated within Monrovia’s largest slum, West Point, on a peninsula home to migrants, fishermen, crack addicts, street kids, and many Liberians who, like Mary, fought and were displaced by the successive and complex civil wars that ravaged the country during most of the 1990s, pitting Charles Taylor and his militia, known as the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, against the repressive government of Samuel Doe. Taylor eventually gained control of most of the country and, following Doe’s execution and a subsequent peace deal, became president in 1997. Two years later, though, the country slid back into civil war. The fighting lasted another four years.

Mary was 13 when she joined up on the side of the pro-Taylor government militias, and her scars tell the story of a girl who saw close combat. A bullet grazed her right knee during a fierce battle in northeastern Liberia near the border with Guinea. Puckered skin between her shoulders bears witness to a bullet that came dangerously close to her spine. And then there are the self-made markings of war: crude, roughly drawn tattoos that serve as totemic reminders of her deeds. An octopus spreads its tentacles across her lower back; another covers her right knee. The octopus is a “wicked animal,” Mary says, and “I was wicked.”

For three years, Mary fought in a civil war that became known around the world for its atrocities, often involving children and teenagers as both perpetrators and victims. Mary commanded about 30 boys and girls, women and men, attaining the status of women’s artillery commander before being captured and forced to fight on the rebel side. She was 16 when the war ended.

When a Comprehensive Peace Agreement finally brought an end to the fighting in August 2003, she disarmed—but peace did not follow. Like many of her generation, Mary has been unable to quiet the battles that still rage in her mind.

ClairMacDougall-FE0328-LiberianGirlSoldier-Wide1 Many former child soldiers have been unable to build normal lives—especially the girls and women whose violent past is seen as more of a transgression. Riccardo Venturi/Contrasto/Redux

Neighboring Sierra Leone went through its own civil war when forces supported by Taylor sought to overthrow the government in 1991. That war ended in 2002. Last year a U.N.-backed tribunal for Sierra Leone sentenced Taylor to 50 years in prison for murder, rape, sexual slavery, the use of child soldiers, and other war crimes. The court is expected to make a ruling on his appeal in September.

A separate war-crimes trial has not taken place in Liberia, where Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has governed since 2006. Johnson Sirleaf has received international acclaim as the first elected female African head of state, but she was also an early supporter of Taylor during the civil war, and her government has proven disappointing to those who had hoped for a meaningful healing process. A 2009 report from the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) included Johnson Sirleaf among those who should be barred from holding office for 30 years on account of her association with Taylor. But she refused to step down. Instead she apologized to the Liberian people for having been “fooled” by Taylor early on.

The country’s reconciliation process was further damaged in the fall, when the Nobel Peace Prize–winning activist Leymah Gbowee resigned as head of the separate Reconciliation Initiative after sharply criticizing Johnson Sirleaf for nepotism and her failure to address present-day issues such as corruption. In a statement, Gbowee referred to “differences in opinion on the pathway for national healing and reconciliation” as her reason for stepping down. (Beast Books, The Daily Beast’s imprint, published Gbowee’s memoir, Mighty Be Our Powers, in 2011.)

This June the government launched a new road map that lays out an 18-year plan for reconciliation. But to date, only one of the many recommendations of the 2009 TRC report has been implemented, and though almost 10 years have passed since the end of the fighting that left more than a quarter of a million people dead, Liberia has yet to fully reckon with its history.

When I go to see Gbowee at a farm just outside Monrovia, where she is hosting a camp for disadvantaged youth, she says that if the country is to move forward, Liberians must not only focus on the injustices of the past but also look to the present. “We can’t talk reconciliation from 1990 if we don’t look at some of the issues of social justice now,” she argues. “If you look around Monrovia, we have a very angry population. How do we start to address some of these things that are making people angry before we start to address some of the issues of the war? How do we address these issues simultaneously?”

ClairMacDougall-FE0328-LiberianGirlSoldier-Embed4 One of the most famous fighters in Liberia's civil war was a woman known as Black Diamond. Raped by forces loyal to Charles Taylor, who was later convicted of war crimes, she joined the other side. Tim Hetherington/Magnum

A big part of the challenge is that many Liberians are former child soldiers. More than 38,000 children are estimated to have taken part in the war as fighters, porters, ammunition carriers, cooks, and sex slaves. What they saw and did—and what was done to them—is an unredeemable reality. But the future is still open. In fact, this is a crucial moment: Liberia’s generation of child soldiers is now coming of age. And how they deal with their history is going to have major consequences for their country.

Mary tells me her story in a fragmented fashion over the course of several weeks, but ultimately weaves a narrative of overcoming: she chose to be a fighter, she disarmed, and now her life has turned around.

Yet her actions tell a different story. Like many former child soldiers, she is trapped between the past and the future, still unwilling or unable to let go of her wartime identity as a fighter, which, if nothing else, offered a sense of purpose and direction. She has a boyfriend and two children but has never married. The war taught her independence. “I’m the man for the family,” she says. “I’m the man because I fought.”

While she surrendered her arms years ago, Mary still has the swagger of a commander fiercely guarding her corner of the world. Homeless, crack-smoking teenagers and men known as gronna boys hang out near the bar, and Mary sometimes orders them to settle things “the gronna way”—to dole out beatings to customers who don’t behave.

On this morning, a tall middle-aged man with bloodshot eyes walks in. Scrunching his face in pain, he asks for gana gana on credit. He has been here before. “Move your stink self from here,” she yells in her Liberian-English, chin cocked out. The man walks away before she can push him out. “You have to have sharp mouth because the people, they love fighting [and are] quick to take weapon,” she says. “You have to be careful.”

Mary runs her bar with a 10-year-old girl whom she refers to as “the manager.” Tiny with a dark, pretty, wide face, the girl works at the bar day and night, throwing shots of liquor into grubby tumblers. She also does most of the household chores and cares for Mary’s 1-year-old daughter, Desire.

Mary says she adopted the young girl when she found her toward the end of the war—a baby, abandoned in an empty house. She calls the girl her daughter and claims to care for her, but one night, when the girl breaks a bottle of whisky while handling the wires to turn on the lights in the bar, Mary beats her to the ground and kicks her in the stomach as customers sit in silence, continuing to drink. “That little girl thinks she knows everything!” she yells. When I ask her about her violent outburst later, she defends herself, saying she was only trying to teach her a lesson and that she feared the girl would electrocute herself by fumbling with the wires.

ClairMacDougall-FE0328-LiberianGirlSoldier-Embed5 Today many of the women who went to war are shunned and live in slums, scraping by for survival, often by prostituting themselves for a few dollars. Tim Hetherington/Magnum

But violence is clearly visceral, Mary’s first response. At one point, walking through a market, she attacks a man, believing he has called her a beggar. Over and over again, she smashes his head with a motorbike helmet while threatening to cut him up and drag him out to her beach where they can settle it “the gronna way.” After bystanders break up the fight, Mary calls the police and, greasing the palm of a policeman with 100 Liberian dollars, gets the man locked up. “He can’t fight, he can only scratch,” she says later. When I ask her why she got into the fight in the first place, she says that because of her past serving as a commander in the war she is “his superior.” “People like that, during the war, they stay hiding,” she says.

In the aftermath of the wars, the government and Western aid agencies created programs to help former child soldiers reenter society, but many have been unable to build normal lives—especially the girls and women whose soldier past is seen by Liberian society as more of a transgression.

While many male commanders negotiated government positions after the war, female combatants were largely excluded from the process. Today many of the women who went to war are shunned and live in slums, scraping by for survival, often by prostituting themselves for a few dollars. Leena Kotilainen from the University of Turku in Finland, who is conducting a study on the reintegration of former girl soldiers, found that almost half of those she interviewed were involved in prostitution, most of them in ghettos throughout Monrovia. “Some of them are so destitute and disempowered that they don’t believe they are human beings anymore,” she says.

Former female combatants find it more difficult to get married, have families, and reintegrate back into society because they are seen as unfeminine, tainted, and depraved, says Irma Specht, an anthropologist who has studied the issue since the end of the war. “Girls who [fought] alongside boys in the bush are not regarded as decent. They have crossed the line of femininity, the norms in society on how women should behave. They are generally not regarded as potential candidates for marriage, and most employers are reluctant to hire them,” says Specht. As a result, “they live in ghettos and hide their past.”

ClairMacDougall-FE0328-LiberianGirlSoldier-Wide2 Many Liberians are former child soldiers. More than 38,000 children are estimated to have taken part in the war as fighters, porters, ammunition carriers, cooks, and sex slaves. Chris Hondros/Getty images

Mary will half-brag about her own cruelty and then, moments later, appear tormented by the horror of what she did. Her sense of guilt isn’t fully formed; it appears only partially realized.

The third in a family of seven, Mary was just 2 years old when Taylor’s militia set off the first civil war. Born in the rural town of White Plains just outside Monrovia, Mary was a child of conflict: she knew how to drop to the ground during crossfire and how to wait out violence in the surrounding scrub. Her mother, Patricia, sold grilled fish and ran a small video club to make ends meet. She had split from Mary’s father, Amos, because of “girlfriend business,” as Patricia puts it, and 9-year-old Mary was sent to live with her father and his new wife to ease the financial burden on her.

Mary says her stepmother abused her and took her out of school to sell chicken on the streets. She was also made to do most household chores, fetching water and pressing clothes with a coal iron before school. When she was disobedient, she says, her father and stepmother would tie her elbows together and rub hot pepper in her eyes, leaving her in the sun to suffer.

“Mary from her birth has been a bad kind of li’l girl,” her father tells me one day at a bodega near his home. He is ashamed of his daughter, he says, and wants her to reform. She should leave her beach bar, sew herself some nice dresses, and come with him to church, he says. (When asked about her father, Mary simply says he is “useless” and “insincere”—a sentiment echoed by her sister.)

Effectively orphaned, Mary went to stay with her grandmother in a quaint little housing community of brightly colored worker cottages just outside Monrovia. But to Mary, who had grown accustomed to fending for herself and who supported herself by sometimes turning tricks, her grandmother’s way was too strict.

At 13, Mary became pregnant. The father was a handsome man she had watched play basketball in the moldy concrete ruins of the local community center. He was 25 and not prepared to be a father. (Today he lives in Boston and has some contact with her family, though Mary refuses to speak to him.)

Mary named her newborn Courage to help her find courage in God, but her mother took the baby girl away two weeks after she was born. Mary says she didn’t mind. She knew she was too young for “baby business.” And she had other plans.

In 2000 Mary’s mother decided that she and her children would escape the war by going to Ghana. But Mary was having none of it—and hid until they departed. Having just given birth to her daughter and seen her taken away, she wanted to escape her family. “I thought it better I go to the bush and fight,” she says. She also joined for “advantage,” she says, for protection and benefits. She had observed the power the soldiers enjoyed—and how they abused it, beating the men and harassing the women. She wanted their power, their air of being inviolate and untouchable.

As a younger child, Mary had seen a tall, strong-looking woman in fatigues standing outside the training barracks in downtown Monrovia, and her air of strength, control, and discipline left an indelible impression. She began to imagine herself a soldier in a national army or volunteering to become a U.S. Marine, marching along in a neat uniform.

ClairMacDougall-FE0328-LiberianGirlSoldier-Embed6 Former female combatants find it more difficult to get married, have families, and reintegrate back into society because they are seen as unfeminine, tainted, and depraved. Tim Hetherington/Magnum

One afternoon, she set off to meet Larry Mulvey, a local commander who was headquartered in a house on Somalia Drive, a dusty road lined with sad-looking palm trees. When the small girl, dressed in a yellow tank top and a short black skirt, told him she wanted to join the government Army, he readily agreed. Without saying goodbye to her grandmother, she left a week later on the back of a green pickup truck. She was taken to Camp Jackson in Naama, where she was taught basic target training and how to handle firearms. Discipline was a problem, though, and Mulvey named her “Disgruntled” because she was rude and wouldn’t take orders.

During her first foray to the front lines, she served under the command of another woman, nicknamed Tina Girl, who eventually became her friend. At first, the crackle of gunfire and pounding of rocket-propelled grenades made Mary tremble, but she says her fears subsided as she watched Tina Girl fight. “She was brave,” she says, “and I was [following in] her footsteps.” (After the war, Tina Girl died of an overdose in a derelict cemetery in downtown Monrovia where many former combatants slept in old graves.)

For three years—her most formative teenage years—she fought in a war so brutal it almost defies belief. One study of the mental-health effects of the intertwined wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone found that atrocities included “intentional hacking off of limbs, carving the initials of rebel factions into victims’ skin, slaughtering pregnant women to bet on the gender of the unborn child, and use of young girls as human sacrifices. Numerous people have reported that they were forced to cut, cook, eat, and serve human flesh and internal organs, including those of their own parents and infants. Countless numbers of children and teenagers were forced to watch the torture, rape, and brutal murders of their parents and siblings. In many cases, family members—including children—were forced to rape, murder, and mutilate each other. During these acts, victims were forbidden to show any emotion, or, in many cases, were commanded to laugh. In some instances, people who shed tears in response to these atrocities were punished by being permanently blinded.” Violence against women was so endemic during the civil war that some surveys suggest that between 60 percent and 90 percent of Liberia’s girls and women were raped.

In a study on child soldiers in neighboring Sierra Leone, Theresa Betancourt, an associate professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, found that girl soldiers, while often also victims themselves of sexual abuse, were as likely as the boys to have been involved in the injury and killing of others. But Betancourt found that the psychological toll was greater on girls, who had significantly higher levels of depression and anxiety than boys did.

Yet little attention has been paid to the experience of these girls. As Rosana Schaack, who heads one of the few programs aimed at former female child soldiers, puts it, after the war “when you said child soldiers, everybody looked at the boys.”

Mary recalls that she would cut off ears and fingers of those her unit captured. She and her soldiers even skinned a prisoner. But it is not these atrocities that appear to keep her awake at night. What troubles her is the recollection of an order she gave her soldiers to gang-rape a woman who had been caught, seemingly spying on their position.

Mary can’t quite explain why this is worse than flaying someone, but she identified with the woman. And perhaps her prisoner’s helplessness reminded Mary of her own.

One day, in 2003, her unit came under heavy fire from LURD (Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy) rebels and began to retreat but was caught in an ambush. Three girls were killed when they tried to fight their way out. Along with two men, Mary surrendered. For days, they were beaten, humiliated, and jailed. Eventually they were forced to join the rebels.

ClairMacDougall-FE0328-LiberianGirlSoldier-Embed8 Mary, a former child soldier and a mother of two, recalls that she would cut off ears and fingers of those her unit captured. She and her soldiers even skinned a prisoner. Glenna Gordon

For several months, Mary fought for the other side—a fact that doesn’t seem to trouble her much today. Identification with any political cause was never the point. And when the rebels advanced on Monrovia for a final push, she recounts a celebratory mood. “The looting was too much, so the enjoyment was sweet,” she says. In the final days of the war, during the last battle for the capital, she managed to escape and run home to West Point.

After handing over her AK-47 and her RPG launcher during a disarmament drive, Mary returned to what she had known before the war: life on the streets, drugs, and prostitution.

When Schaack, a soft-spoken Liberian social worker with the evangelical humanitarian group Samaritan’s Purse, approached her in late 2003, just months after the ceasefire, Mary told her: “Move from here that shit. The whole day you passing around and lying to people.” But after a while, Schaack managed to persuade Mary and eight other girls to live for nine months at a Christian mission where they received counseling as well as courses in pastry making and tie dying.

The stay at the mission helped Mary kick her habit of smoking marijuana, and these days she doesn’t hustle for money. “I’ve moved my life forward,” she says. Schaack believes it’s an upward trajectory that will continue if Mary can just leave West Point. She has faith in the young woman and has nicknamed her “Bright Future.”

But Mary is less certain of her prospects. She says the bar is an anchor—it earns her about $45 a month, a princely sum in the slum—and she feels safe here, among her own people. “When I around them, no one can do nothing to me,” she says. “So for me to leave from this area would be too hard.”

And while Mary speaks about Schaack with affection, she says neither aid groups nor the government has done much for her or the other women who fought alongside her. “You looking at yourself, the years that you have been in the bush as a woman, taking risk,” she says. “They made a fool out of us, and today nothing will become of us.”

Mary’s daughter Courage is graduating from elementary school. At 13, she is the same age her mother was when she got pregnant, left her family, and went into the bush to fight. Patricia, Mary's mother, returned from Ghana in 2008. Today, Mary lives with her younger daughter Desire, though her mother won't allow Mary's oldest daughter Courage to live with Mary in West Point. “I don’t feel it is a good place for children to grow up,” Patricia tells me as we sit under a tree outside her home in Barnesville. “Even the little girl that is there, I want to take her ... That place is too full of former combatants ... That is why I took Courage, and I can’t give her back to her.”

In Liberia, graduations are big, noisy affairs, with food, alcohol, and dancing—an important ritual because school so often in the past was interrupted by fighting—and Mary has been saving for months for the occasion. “I want for her to be proud of me,” she says. “I don’t want to be like my father.”

On the evening of her graduation, Courage is strutting around in a bobbed wig and a backless pink-and-blue-striped halter top, short denim skirt, and shiny black shoes. Children dance while adults, reclining in their plastic chairs, chat and enjoy their drinks.

Though she has paid for the party, Mary is not there. She is having her own party a few miles away at Ma Mary’s. She doesn’t want her gronna friends embarrassing her daughter with their bad manners, smoking, and cursing.

Having retreated to Ma Mary’s, where she feels safe, she surveys the remains of the party: the food is gone, and the bar is almost dry. A lone fluorescent lightbulb shines starkly, defining the silhouettes in the bar. Mary notices a jumble of empty bottles on the table and starts to curse. It is her daughter’s graduation, and she has only a bottle of Club beer to toast with. She throws her head back for a swill. The music is still playing as night falls on Poto Corner.

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