“My name is Matthew…. I was crawling when my mother died….then at age of seven my father died…. at eight, I became known as small boy soldier.” Handsome and innocent as he could be with a bright shining smile, with his head bow, as he rub feet and hands against each other, Matthew narrated his short life story as an ex-combatant and a child growing up without his parents (see picture attached).
In February of 1999, a group of Liberian refugees residing in Guinea organized themselves into a rebel group calling themselves Liberian United for Reconciliation Development (LURD) headed by its leader Mr. Sekou D. Conneh. With support from Guinea, by May of 2003, LURD forces were on the outskirts of Monrovia and everyone was rushing to the central part of the city to seek refuge.
Among the people rushing to the central part of the city was eight years old Matthew and his grandmother who was now his guidance. Matthew and his folks arrived at a displace camp in central Monrovia where they sought refuge. While at the displaced camp, a day or two later, Matthew’s uncle went missing, so his grandmother decided to leave the camp in search of her son and left Matthew in the care of his cousin also living in the displacement camp. Few days later, the cousin decided to go and look for her husband and she never returns.
Without food, guidance, or help in the displacement camp, Matthew decided to venture out of the displaced camp in search of food. Outside of the displaced camp, Matthew was order arrested, tied, beaten by Charles Taylor government troop in June of 2003 at the age of eight. While in the process to tie and beat Matthew, the troop commander Gen. Michael High Grade, order that Matthew should not be tied or beating, but rather be place in the back of his pickup truck. Few hours later of his patrol at various frontlines of the battle ground, Matthew was taken to the military based. While at the military base, he slept on the floor, on tables, cardboards, not knowing if he would wake up the next day to tell his story.
“Every night, I only sleep for small time, because we were going to the battlefront all the time”. Matthew said his main job was military potter carrying ammunition. Once the troops are exchanging fire on the frontlines, “I hide under the bridge, behind big big buildings, because I do not want to die”. During the war, Matthew witnessed atrocity at best. Civilians escaping from the war were usually harassed, beaten, and their possession taken away from them. Civilians suspected of being enemies, were also molested without any due process of the law. Women refusing to be gang rape by rebels were also killed. Rebels refusing to take command from their senior officers were also killed. This is the life short of 14 years old Matthew.
As he narrates his life story, he kept his head bowed, as he robed his feet against each other while playing with his fingers – rarely making any eye contact. As I looked into the eyes of young Matthew, I see a child who live was stolen, corrupted, and abused. Today, nothing Matthew knows, with the exception of violence and war as he listed the different kinds of weapons and rebel tactics.
When the Liberian civil war cease fire was signed in August of 2003, General Michel High Grade took Matthew to his home in oldest Congo town on the outskirts of Monrovia. At his home, Matthew was cleaning and sweeping from before dawn until late at night. He was ill-treated, beaten, and not well feed as Matthew recalled. Life was miserable for young Matthew. Few months later, “one morning, Michel High Grade give me $60.00 dollars (equivalent $1.00 USD) to buy him some bread”. As Matthew makes his way out of the house into the streets, he knew that this was the only chance he had to escape the wrath of his oppressor.
“As soon as I was far from the house, I started running to red-light market” (a commercial area on the outskirts of Monrovia known for commercial parking lots). “When I get to red-light market, I started asking for Duala market (a commercial area also on the outskirt of Monrovia, but closer to Matthew’s grandmother house). “I used $30.00 for transportation. At first, I did not know where I was, but when I got closer to Duala Market, I started to know the area. When I arrived to Duala, I used the balance $30.00 dollars to buy me some bread because I was hungry. Then I started walking to St. Paul Bridge community to my grandmother house” (about 25 min walk). “While on the way, I saw my aunty, who took me to my grandmother house.” I asked Matthew, if he was afraid that one day Gen. Michel High Grade will come looking for him for his money, since he was a thieve. “I am not afraid. I just could not take it anymore. I was really suffering. I was going to die.”
Today, Matthew has been reunited with his grandmother for approximately five years. The grandmother is unemployed, without social services like welfare system (food stamp, Medicare, rental assistance) life is very difficult. Matthew’s grandmother cannot afford his school registration, materials (books, pens, pencils, clothes) lunch, let alone transportation.
I asked Matthew if he knew any of his friends who were ex-combatants. “Yes I know some of my friends who were rebels”. Matthew then walked into his community and came back with one of his friends called Larry. The same story as Matthew, but he was fighting on the opposite side, LURD headed by Sekou D. Conneh.
Today, there are many Matthews and Marys all across Liberia. Throughout their short lives, all they have known is war and violence. Their minds are the template of terror. As I looked into the eyes of these children, I see nothing but a group of innocent children who are suffering from the violence either as perpetrators or as victims. This generation is a lost generation which is longing for a group identity, in fact a national identify, which I strongly believe a peaceful Liberia and the world at large can provide.
Can you spell your name? With his head bowed, Mathew replied in a soft voice saying “No”. Do want to go to school? For the first time during our conversion, Matthew looked directly into my eyes with a big smile and said, “I really want to go to school”. I then asked why? “I want to be like you, to help children.” I then, told Matthew that I will do my best to get few university students and high school graduates in the community who will help to tutor him and other children like him in the community to get ready for the fall semester. In addition to preparing these students for their fall entrance in various schools, I will also introduce them to the concept of the peace education. By making them to understand that we all make mistakes, but even more importantly, teaching them ways on how to manage anger, problem solving, to be a better listener, understanding the felling of others, appreciation of the environment, acceptance of diversity, fairness, the cause and effect of hate words, awareness of right and wrong, awareness of the symptoms of conflict, hence, teaching them how to live a peaceful or non-violence life through peace songs, dances, arts, and theater.
Today, I have returned to Liberia to do just that: to introduce, develop, and teach peace education in Liberian grade schools and in communities for children who are not in schools – for sustainable peace and development. As I take on this challenge, I will need your support spiritually, morally, or financially to help me through. Thank you so much for your generous contribution in making this noble cause a success.