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From war survivor to community leader

Liberia, March 17, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Nancy Farese for Mercy Corps  </span>
    “I wish I had enough money to send my children to school,” Ellen says. “Then I could forget the past and have some joy.” Photo: Nancy Farese for Mercy Corps

Ellen Joe is 36 and divorced, with two daughters and two sons. She’s the chairwoman of the Gbarpaywhea Community Development Committee, which oversees the village peace, education, agriculture and health working groups.

Ellen is a survivor, and today has assumed a position of leadership in her community. She has come a long way. Her experiences during Liberia’s long war years were, to say the least, harrowing.

When war broke out on December 24, 1990, Ellen was married, with one baby daughter. In the chaos, she was separated her from her husband. She fled Grand Bassa County on foot with her child on her back, covering 500 kilometers in about two weeks to make her way to the far north of neighboring Nimba County.

“I did not know anybody there,” Ellen says in the whispery voice she slides into when remembering the years of her suffering. “I was just looking for safety.”

Ellen traveled with her sister, who also carried her baby on her back. “The rebels took her baby and killed it,” she recounts, her eyes gone somber and flat with the memory. “While we were escaping, one of my friends was captured and raped by five soldiers.” Ellen herself was beaten and tortured. At one point the rebels strung her up from the rafters of a hut’s kitchen area and lit a fire underneath her. Somehow, she survived these horrors.

“We did not have food to eat,” she continues. “We were beggars in a strange land.” To survive, Ellen became a “bush wife,” trading sex for food – and life. “I was forced to,” she says in the same monotone, eyes cast down as if to avoid replaying the images in her head. The soldier held her for two years. Ellen is thankful that no children resulted from that time.

“After the war,” she relates, “I left the soldier. I had to find my husband.” The two were reunited, and they had three more children. But the marriage didn’t last, and now Ellen is on her own. “I have no support,” she says.

With all the pain and sadness she has endured, Ellen is clear about what needs to come next. “I wish I had enough money to send my children to school,” she says. “Then I could forget the past and have some joy.”

Ellen has taken advantage of peace-building activities, training and resources offered by Mercy Corps in Gbarpaywhea, and has learned the skills to become a leader in her community. Her village is slowly rebuilding – a process to which she is making positive contributions. Ellen is one of many, many Liberian women who are trying hard to put the long war years behind them and build a better life for their children.