Voices from the Field – IRC Blog

International Rescue Committee (IRC) Refugee, Staff & Volunteer Blog

Archive for January, 2008

Hocus Pocus – Ann Jones in Liberia

Posted by Ann Jones on 31 January, 2008

Christianity is a powerful force in Liberia, as is Islam.
Christianity is a powerful force in Liberia, as is Islam. Photo: Anna Snyder
The International Rescue Committee is working with women’s advocate Ann Jones to help women in war zones — survivors of conflict, displacement and sexual and domestic violence — use photography to make their voices heard. Ann is blogging the year-long project from West Africa.Their story continues in Liberia, where Ann is posting updates and photos on Mondays and Thursdays into February.Talk about women’s rights in Liberia and it’s not long before some man marches out God. He’ll say, “Men are in charge of women because that’s the way God wants it.”Women answer back. Kebeh, who is not literate and has never heard of Shakespeare, says, “Women and men are the same: born in the same way in the same place. If you cut us, we bleed.”Sangai says, “If God wanted woman to be under man, he could have made her from Adam’s foot. But no, he took the man’s rib—to show we supposed to be side by side.”Annie says, “We supposed to be a helper. You want to move that table, I help you. I want to move that table, you help me. That’s how that works.”Kormassa says, “It’s not God saying we supposed to be under men. It’s culture.”Annie says, “Yeah, we used to have to walk on our knees because of culture. And we did it because we always have to look to feed our children. But now we stand up.”

Kubor says, “It was only culture that made the boy child ‘better’ in the first place.”

“What is this ‘culture’?” I ask. “Where did it come from?”

Oritha says, “Human beings made culture.”

“What if women made culture?” I ask.

Kebeh says, “Women made culture already, but men don’t respect it. They use their power to keep it down.”

Oritha says, “They use violence to keep it down. That’s what this gender-based violence is for.”

God and Allah don’t come into the equation as these women analyze life. It’s men, not gods, who keep women down. Yet standing up is not easy.

Sangai says, “We know about our rights now. But men say the GBV program will go away, and then our rights won’t do us any good because we be left without men of our own to take care of us.”

Oritha tosses her head. “I don’t care,” she says. “I’ll carry my soap to market and sell it and buy food for my children.”

These women are defiant, but they tell me of other man-made rules harder to challenge. God and Allah, it seems, are nothing compared to the power of witchcraft or the spirit world or what these women call “African signs.”

“Women are not allowed to cut in the palms,” Sangai says. She means that women and girls are forbidden to climb palm trees and cut the fruit from which valuable palm oil is made. Some women have tried, and all of them have come to a bad end. First they are said to be not women but “monkeys” who climb trees. Then, if they persist, they are killed.

“How are they killed,” I ask. “Who kills them?”

“They just die,” Sangai says. “They are killed with spirits.”

This phenomenon has been well documented in Africa: a person violates a taboo, then quickly sickens and dies for no discernable physical reason. Western observers attribute such inexplicable deaths to the power of belief.

“But why would women be killed for climbing palms?” I ask.

“Ah,” says Kebeh. “There’s money there.”

Simple as that.

The Masonic Temple, heavily damaged during the wars
The Masonic Temple, heavily damaged during the wars, is Monrovia’s most impressive building.
The secret brotherhood still influences Liberian life, to the detriment of women. Photo: Ann Jones

Yet not simple at all. Liberia is layered with “culture” and traditions of different origins, different vintages, different potencies—all of them arrayed against women. The largest building in the capital is an immense Masonic Temple, built by members of the secret fraternity. One more tradition, like Christianity, that the Americo-Liberians brought back with them from the New World. Until the reign of Americo-Liberians ended in 1980, every Liberian president was a master Mason. Some of their secrets spilled into the streets, and to this day the simple act of shaking hands is an intricate exercise in finger-snapping interdigitation that separates the elite from the excluded. Speaking of a rape case, one woman tells me: “A man walks into court, shakes hands with the judge, and the case is decided right there.”

One of the photographers tells another story—about the firewood ceremony. Every so often the girls and women who are initiates of the Sande bush are required to carry firewood to the head woman. They must walk through the village wearing only skimpy panties. Village men stand by to ogle the procession of near-naked women. The photographer says the ceremony is humiliating. She wants to protest—to refuse to participate. But in recent years two women did so, and both of them died—killed by “African signs.” She believes that if she refuses, she too will be killed by “the spirits.”

Even to speak of these taboos is to risk certain death. Yet this woman speaks. Hocus pocus, you may say. But try to imagine the courage of this woman who believes in the power of witchcraft as surely as you believe in the law of gravity.

And the Sande bush? What is that? It’s another secret society, this one for girls whose mothers hand them over at a very young age to women called “Zoes,” who take them away into the bush and initiate them in secret knowledge and secret procedures. The Zoes slice off a girl’s clitoris and her labia, and then bind her legs together while her wounds seal as scars.

These girls may have a chance for a better future
The best alternative to the “Sande bush”—where girls are subjected to genital mutilation—is the public school. These girls may have a chance for a better future. Photo: Komassa Malay

Kuleh, a photographer from Montserrado County, was taken as a girl to the Sande bush and mutilated in this way. Years later, as a married woman, she felt the old scars torn, the old wounds ripped apart, each time she gave birth. Now she has a mission. She tells women: “Don’t send your daughters to the Sande bush. Send them to school.” Sometimes women listen, and sometimes girls are saved.

The Sande bush, Zoes, spirits, African signs, witchcraft, “tradition,” Masons, Allah, God, men. That’s what women are up against in Liberia.


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1933: Birth of the IRC [IRC at 75]

Posted by Kate Sands Adams on 31 January, 2008

Albert Einstein, Library of Congress
Photo: Library of Congress
As the International Rescue Committee observes our 75th anniversary this year, IRC president George Rupp plans to blog about one moment from IRC’s rich history each month. Read on to find out how Albert Einstein played a part in our founding:

In January 1933, Adolf Hitler, the head of the Nazi party, became chancellor of Germany. Within two months, the Nazis had gained virtually total control of the country and had begun what would be a 12-year nightmare eventually engulfing the entire world.  For starters, Germany’s labor unions and opposing political parties were banned.  Civil liberties were suspended.  And the purging of Jews from the German government and universities was launched. 

Although much of the world greeted the Nazi takeover with indifference or apathy, some people were alert to what was happening and the threat it represented.

In July 1933, a committee of 51 prominent Americans was established in New York at the request of German-born physicist Albert Einstein in his role as head of the International Relief Association.  The Americans included intellectuals, artists, and members of the clergy.  Among them were the philosopher John Dewey, the writer John Dos Passos, and the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. 

The committee established offices at 11 West 42nd St., opposite Bryant Park and not far from our current headquarters location.  Its mission, as The New York Times reported on July 24, 1933, was to “assist Germans suffering from the policies of the Hitler regime.”  And so came into being the organization that would grow into today’s International Rescue Committee.  Although the IRC today is vastly larger and more complex than it was at the beginning, we are still motivated by the same concern that led to our founding: a commitment to fellow human beings who are suffering as the result of persecution, war, or civil conflict.

Posted in Europe, history, refugees, UnitedStates, war | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Congo – “Mortal Hero”

Posted by The IRC on 31 January, 2008

Women and child, Congo 2
Photo: Peter Biro/The IRC
Colleen hardy, IRC - National Geographic5.4 million people dead. The number is staggering—the circumstances, far more so. As the enormity of this human tragedy remains overlooked, the IRC is working to raise alarms, stop the terrible toll and bring urgent aid to Congo’s survivors.

IRC epidemiologist Colleen Hardy (left) was part of an IRC survey team that traveled across Congo’s remotest jungles to visit 14,000 homes and gather data.

National Geographic chose Colleen as one of 15 “Adventurers of the Year” for 2007, calling her a “Mortal Hero” for her work in Congo:

“At first glance, it’s hard to picture Colleen Hardy in a disaster zone. From her wide smile and kind eyes, you’d never guess that the 40-year-old field epidemiologist spent seven weeks last spring tearing down dirt tracks in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, dodging Mai Mai rebels and crooked cops, and visiting as many forgotten villages as she could. Her grim goal: to ascertain the death rate in one of the world’s most dangerous countries…”

Read the full story at National Geographic.

Posted in Africa, health, news | Tagged: , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Changing Times – Ann Jones in Liberia

Posted by Ann Jones on 28 January, 2008

Men feel free to assault women in public, with complete impunity.
Men feel free to assault women in public, with complete impunity.  A Global Crescendo photographer caught this man beating his pregnant wife.  The man in the background looking on appears to be laughing. Photo: Kebeh Jallah
The International Rescue Committee is working with women’s advocate Ann Jones to help women in war zones — survivors of conflict, displacement and sexual and domestic violence — use photography to make their voices heard. Ann is blogging the year-long project from West Africa. If you’re just joining us, you can read her first series of posts from Cote d’Ivoire here.

The story continues in Liberia, where Ann is posting updates and photos on Mondays and Thursdays into February.  

Voinjama, Liberia  I board an IRC vehicle and catch a colleague, a Liberian man, in the middle of a story about his escape from Lofa County during the Charles Taylor war.

“So we got over the border, and we’re standing in the street, and a Guinea man steps on this Liberian lady’s foot.”

The other Liberian men in the car laugh in anticipation.  They can see trouble coming.

“So this Guinea man stands there.  He don’t know he’s standing on the Liberian lady’s foot.  So this lady tries to get her foot out from under the man’s boot, and she gives him a little bitty shove.  To call his attention to her foot, which is in a sorry condition.”

“Oh oh!” says a listener, laughing.

“So this Guinea man turns around and smashes her in the face—Boom!—like that, with his fist, and she falls down, and the blood comes spouting out her nose.  So then we all fight, and then the police come, and they was going to arrest us, but finally they let us go.  They said we was Liberians and didn’t know better than to fight.”

“Hee, hee, hee!”

This story, which seems so hilarious to Liberian men, has nothing really to do with the Liberian lady or her sorry foot. This is a story about Liberian men whose default response to any problem is violence—men who know that about themselves and laugh about it.
Liberian women, on the other hand, are supposed to blame themselves when men target them. Don’t men always tell them it’s their fault?  It gets to be a habit.  I sit with Women’s Action Groups and hear women describe beatings, rape, public humiliation.  I hear them struggle to explain the violence.  But now they begin to question the old excuses.

I’ve already told you about the entrepreneurial women of Logantown Women’s Development Association, doing business—selling fried cookies or water or peanuts—so their husbands won’t beat them for being “idle.”  (See Posting #5)  Some Logantown members, including Patience, the photographer, say that since they went into business their husbands have changed; they don’t beat them anymore, now that they’re making money.  But other women who work just as hard, sell just as much stuff, and make just as much money say their husbands beat them just the same.  Somebody says maybe women’s “idleness” is not the cause of violence after all.

Many women say men beat women because women are uneducated.  Men have to beat women to get them to do what’s “right.”  This, of course, is how men explain it.

women taking an evening literacy class work by the light of kerosene lamps
At a village women’s center, women taking an evening literacy class work by the
light of kerosene lamps. Photo: Kebeh Jallah

It’s one reason women want education: to relieve men of the duty of beating them.  Annie, a photographer from Voinjama, says that she enrolled in a literacy course for this reason, but every day her husband ripped the latest exercise from her notebook and used it as toilet paper.  Kebeh, a photographer from Dougoumai, says that when she disobeyed her husband’s order to give up her literacy class, he got out his gun—there are plenty left over from the wars—and tried to kill her.  Annie and Kebeh reach the same conclusion.  Kebeh says, “He doesn’t want me to be educated.”  Annie says, “He’d rather hit me.”

At a meeting in Chocolate City, Montserrado County, a sharp old woman named Sarah
says that men beat women for refusing to have sex.  “They say it’s our duty to let them ‘pleasure themselves’ whenever they want,” she says.  “If you don’t want to, they beat you until you give up.  They think we are machines for their use.”

The only traditional recourse a woman has, besides “giving up” is to ask a close male relative to convene a family meeting to settle her complaint.  The husband can then invite his family to back him up.  Most of these family adjudications—or “home settlements”— find fault in the woman and advise her to change her behavior.  Some require the husband to apologize—and the wife to accept the apology.

By tradition, that’s the worst thing that can happen to a man who beats his wife.  He might have to say, “Sorry.”

successful fish saleswoman in the Voinjama market
Even making money, like this successful fish saleswoman in the Voinjama market,
may be no protection from a husband’s violence. Photo: Krubor Zeyzey

Now, under new family laws, a woman can report a battering husband to police or to the court.  What happens then varies from place to place.  In Dougoumai, women tell me the police won’t take a wife beater to court unless the woman is badly injured or at least bleeding.  Then the court might send the case back to the family for “home settlement.”  Or the magistrate might offer to hear the case in exchange for the sexual services of the bleeding wife.  He’s notorious for it.  

The Women’s Action Group of Dougoumai wrote a letter to their senator, asking that the corrupt magistrate be replaced.  If the senator doesn’t answer soon, they plan to write to President Sirleaf herself. 

Agnes, the GBV social worker at Dougoumai says, “If a woman speaks up to her husband, the violence can start right there.”
“You don’t even have to be speaking up,” says another woman. “Those men beat on us just because we be women.  That’s what it means, this ‘gender based violence.’”

“Yeah,” says another woman.  “They been doing it way too long.”

Posted in Africa, photos, women | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

‘Suffering Greatly’ – Ann Jones in Liberia

Posted by Ann Jones on 24 January, 2008

Liberian “leaders” such as Charles Taylor financed their wars by selling off timber in the country’s precious virgin rain forests.
Liberian “leaders” such as Charles Taylor financed their wars by selling off timber in the country’s precious virgin rain forests.  They are responsible for desolation like this. Photo: Ann Jones
The International Rescue Committee is working with women’s advocate Ann Jones to help women in war zones — survivors of conflict, displacement and sexual and domestic violence — use photography to make their voices heard.

Ann is blogging the year-long project from West Africa. If you’re just joining us, you can read her first series of posts from Cote d’Ivoire at theIRC.org/16days

The story continues in Liberia, where Ann is posting updates and photos on Mondays and Thursdays into February.

Voinjama, Liberia One day, after weeks of working with Global Crescendo photographers in and around Monrovia, I board a UN helicopter for Lofa County.  With me is Program Manager CarmenLeah Ascensio, from the New York office, lending a hand in Liberia.  It was Navanita Bhattacharya, the GBV Coordinator for Liberia, who asked us to work in both an urban and a rural setting.  Lofa County in the far north is definitely “rural.”  Hence, the helicopter.

It’s a spectacular flight, cruising at times over the canopy of intact rainforest.  But often we look down on forests decimated by logging—second growth, bush, and clearcut patches where forests may never grow again. Charles Taylor financed his war and his presidency by selling off virgin timber to foreign loggers.  It’s another kind of rape that cannot be repaired.

In the little town of Voinjama we meet ten Lofa County women named by their Women’s Action Groups to take part in the photo project.  Four of them are from Voinjama, the other six from two smaller towns an hour or so away by road.  The Montserrado County photographers worked solo in their home communities—and they continue to work with coordinator Marian Rogers while we’re away—but I want the Lofa County photographers to have a chance at teamwork.  I ask them to pick a partner from their own town, then give each partnership a camera and run through basic instructions: how to point and how to shoot.

Hajah Kamara (center) helps team mate Kpana Malay (right) take their first photographs.
Hajah Kamara (center) helps team mate Kpana Malay (right) take their first photographs. 
At left, looking on anxiously is IRC social worker Hannah Sammie, who assisted the
Global Crescendo project in Lofa County. Photo: Ann Jones

Then we’re off on a walk through town, shooting as we go.  The women take teamwork seriously: one points the camera, the other pushes the shutter release button.  One asks permission, the other composes the photo.  One shoots, the other explains to the photo subjects why the Women’s Action Group is taking pictures and what exactly is wrong with beating your wife.

For the next two weeks I’m scheduled to travel daily with IRC social worker Hannah Sammie to visit the teams in their home communities.  Sometimes CarmenLeah will come along, but often she’ll stay in the Voinjama office, attending to behind-the-scenes details that make this project possible. 

As I did in Montserrado County, I sit with the local Women’s Action Group to listen and learn, and then we walk through the community “snapping.”  But Lofa County is different.  It got the worst of Charles Taylor’s war.  Sitting with women’s groups, I hear stories that make me weep.

One day I return to the office to find CarmenLeah going up in flames. She’s been reading a report on Liberia from a prominent international organization.  It elaborates on a popular historical theory I mentioned before: that war sprang from the resentment of slighted young men.
Amid 92 pages of empathic explanation of the grievances of “marginalized young people” who wrecked their country, CarmenLeah has come upon a paragraph devoted to the sub-topic: “Gender.”  It includes this sentence: “Women suffered greatly during the war.”

“Suffered greatly?” CarmenLeah is shrieking.  “Is that all they can say?  What does it mean?”

I can tell her what it means because I’ve just come from Kolahun District where one member of the Women’s Action Group showed me the scars on the left side of her neck:  a series of parallel horizontal wounds starting just below the ear and moving down, toward the throat.  Some guerilla locked this thin whisper of a woman against his chest and slowly, inch by inch, laid open the flesh of her neck in ribbons of blood.

That wasn’t all they did to her.  Charles Taylor’s men broke all the fingers of her left hand so they point backward now, stuck at impossible angles.  They slammed her in the back with  rifle butts so that one leg is paralyzed, and one arm too, the one with the useless hand.  She can still walk, leaning on a home made wooden crutch.  But that leaves her no good arm; and she can’t carry anything on her head, having no good balance.  She has five children, some of them fathered by rape.  The soldiers held her a long time.  They made her cook for them.  How many raped her she cannot say.  She tells me she has a problem: the room in which she lives leaks.  Every day it rains hard, and every day her children get wet.  She would like to be able to keep her children dry.

Global Crescendo photographer Kebeh Jallah took this photo of her sister, the village “sick woman.”
Global Crescendo photographer Kebeh Jallah took this photo of her sister, the village “sick woman.” 
Gang raped by militia men, she is partially paralyzed and bed ridden. The white chalky substance
visible on her skin is said to relieve pain. Photo: Kebeh Jallah

CarmenLeah knows such things herself.  She was with me the day before in Dougoumai when Kebeh, one of the photographers, took us to meet her sister.  The woman people refer to only as “the sick lady” lay on a bed in the one-room house.  She sat up to greet us, using twisted hands to move her swollen useless legs. She was captured by a militia fighting against Charles Taylor and gang raped repeatedly by ten men.  Nobody can say how long they kept her. They rammed their gun butts into her back—a common technique it seems—so that her legs are paralyzed.  They smashed her hands.  She cannot stand or walk.  She cannot hold anything in her hands or feed herself or comb her hair.  Her face is oddly dislocated too from too many blows.  She speaks but I can’t make out her words. Her sister says she is asking if I can bring her a dish.  Her mother and her sisters cook for her and feed her by hand.  But she would like to have her own dish.  Her own spoon.

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