John Perry, a Candian Jesuit who teaches in Liberia, sends along this report from Decoration Day in the country's interior:
The second Wednesday of March is a national holiday in Liberia. It is called “Decoration Day” and Liberians spend the day refurbishing the graves of deceased family members, clearing away the brush that has accumulated and scrubbing the headstones with water and, if they can afford them, with store-bought cleansing agents.
Introduced into the Republic of Liberia in 1916, this was one national festival that enjoyed popular support among the people inhabiting the interior of Liberia, also known as the “country people,” who are never adverse to honoring their ancestors and to spending a day communing with their spirits.
This year Decoration Day in our Township of Caldwell outside of Monrovia had special significance. Early in the morning the Caldwell Community Watch Team captured some members of a gang of armed robbers in a graveyard where they had retreated after having been caught in flagrante delicto by a roving unit of the community force. A trap was set for the armed robbers in the graveyard and a number were captured. After having been beaten they revealed the names of their partners in crime, some of whom lived in the area. Eventually police officers of the Liberian National Police (LNP) and their international colleagues serving with the United Nations Police (UNPOL) became involved and the suspects were taken into custody.
Armed robbery has become such a problem in Liberia that in 2008 the Liberian Senate annulled its recent law banning executions and introduced robbery—as well as rape, treason and murder—as capital offenses, much to the dismay of Amnesty International and other human rights organizations. Although I had taught a course on human rights at the University of Liberia, I found myself rejoicing at the news of the early morning events on Decoration Day. Having experienced an armed robbery myself in Caldwell late in 2008, I was happy that at least one gang had been captured, but disturbed that the suspects were beaten by our community watchdogs.
The armed robbers who attacked us announced their arrival by shooting their guns and by shouting their frightening war cries. Fully awake, I said to myself, “Now it is our turn.” We are three Jesuit priests and live in a well-protected rectory across the lane from the small parish church that we serve. Though our kitchen door was locked it took only a few minutes for the robbers to break it open. They first attacked Ranjit, a Sri Lankan Jesuit, cut him with their bayonets, and stole his cell phone and money. I and the third member of our community were physically unharmed. They found little cash in my room, but they did unfortunately take my laptop computer.
The LNP and UNPOL were on the scene shortly after the thieves left and eventually took formal statements from us near our metal gate, which I had inadvertently left open that night and which seemed to be glaring reproachfully at me for my unfortunate negligence. On the way to a hospital Ranjit and I were stopped on the road by another LNP officer who, realizing that we were among the victims of armed robbers that night, wanted to know to what tribe we belonged. We surmised that this was for their police statistics. To date, none of the stolen articles has been recovered and the investigation is ongoing. Perhaps the suspects apprehended on Decoration Day may be able to shed some light on our unsolved case.
The plague of armed robbery in Liberia follows a fourteen-year civil war that ended with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2003. Many armed robbers are former combatants of the rebel militias that had ruled most of the Republic. After the war, some of their comrades became mercenaries in neighboring countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where their military skills are much in demand; but others have opted to stay in Liberia where honest work is scarce.
Less than ten years ago Liberia was a “failed state,” a term which means nations where the elected government has lost control over most of its territory and has ceased delivering even the most basic services to its people. Scholars agree that state failure is one of the world’s gravest challenges. The World Bank worries about 30 “low-income countries under stress” (LICUS) including Liberia.
Thanks to international police officers and the election in 2005 of a remarkable president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the dire situation here is changing for the better. With the help of President Johnson Sirleaf’s poverty reduction strategy and her diplomatic and economic skills honed in her previous employment at the World Bank, the future looks brighter. Foreign debt, for one, has decreased dramatically. However, the incidents of armed robbery, widespread gender violence and endemic corruption raise concerns about what would happen to Liberia if the U.N. peacekeepers were withdrawn.
And so we lock our gate every night, have added metal doors to the wooden ones, and hope for the best. Decoration Day reminds us in Liberia that life is fragile. More than 300,000 of our brothers and sisters died in a senseless conflict that thankfully has ended. Most, if not all, Liberians sincerely hope that it will never begin again.
Peter Schineller, S.J.