(Photo: Jason Margolis)
“This is where I live, sleep…”
He takes me to his home — a small, bare room that looks likes a public storage unit. A filthy mattress lies on a concrete floor. He says he sleeps here with two of his three children.
And I got two here with me..
And all three of you sleep in the bed?
Yea. We sleep here together.
Where is their mom?
Ummmm… We break up a long time.”
Jaloh’s story is typical of ex-combatants. He says he wants to work, but he says there are no jobs available.
“Sometimes I wash clothes, wash people’s clothes, sweep their yards.”
When he can’t make enough money washing clothes or sweeping yards… he begs.
It’s what people here call the hustle. Doing whatever you can, day by day, to get enough money to eat.
Jaloh is lucky at least. He survived the war with no major injuries. Many of the former child soldiers are missing arms or legs.
On the advice of the social workers who were with me, I gave Jaloh a small gift for his time, about a dollar. A few minutes later, Jaloh waved me over and showed me what looked like dirt. He snorted it up his nose.
“Yea, I just took that right now…”
He started waving his arms wildly, telling me how drugs keep soldiers alert.
“You moving, you moving, the bullet moving, all the equipment moving…”
I’m not exactly sure what drug Jaloh took. He said he took what’s called “brown-brown” – a potent mixture of gun powder and cocaine.
Drugs are a major problem among former child soldiers – marijuana, cocaine, heroin and alcohol.
Warlords used to give child soldiers amphetamines and tranquilizers to blunt fear.
Commanders subjected children to unimaginable horrors – cannibalism, or killing family members.
After speaking with men like Jaloh, the situation felt rather hopeless. Recovery for these men seemed unimaginable.
I offered my bleak assessment to Tricia Gonwa, with the U.S.-based non-profit organization, Innovations for Poverty Action. She works with the street youth in Monrovia.
“So you’re asking: How does somebody recover from being conscripted and having to kill their family members. And I think recover is the wrong word. You don’t… Recovering is not the goal. It’s like when people ask me, so, how is alleviating poverty? How’s that going? You have to actually narrow it down to something very specific that you want to achieve. For example, today, these kids, they’re very poor. But today I want them to be able eat two meals, or I want them to be able to sleep under a roof and I know a way to make that happen.”
Gonwa’s organization is conducting a study in Monrovia, exploring the economic and psychological roots of poverty here. Gonwa hopes the study will help change the live-for-today mentality that many of these ex-combatants have.
“There’s this idea of time preferences. So for example, If I could have $1 dollar now, or $2 an hour from now, would I wait? So that’s believing what I do today affects tomorrow. So, if I wait for something that it will actually come, which is not something that people who’ve been involved in a war might reasonably expect. It might be reasonable for them to think that whatever happens today happens today, and I have no control over the future.”
The study, which is due to start soon, will be putting small amounts of money in the hands of some of the former child soldiers. The idea is to get them thinking about the future by helping them start small businesses: something like a shoeshine stand or a street cart selling gum or towels.
Yale economist Chris Blattman, who visits Liberia regularly, is behind the study. He says they’ve set up their research like a medical trial.
“There’s two kinds of pills. One kind of pill is this basic economic intervention, which is here’s some cash. And some basic business skills to help you think thru a business plan. Usually they have some skills and some ideas and we just help facilitate that and basically finance it.”
The other kind of pill, so to speak, which a second group of youth will be getting, is psychological counseling. A third group in the study will get counseling AND money. And a fourth group will get nothing.
“What we can do is we can follow these four groups over time. And in each group, we’re still settling on the exact numbers, but may’be we’ll have about 300, or 400, or 500 in each of these groups, which allows us to get, statistically, at what are the long-term impacts of this program.”
Blattman says he doesn’t know how long the study will last. Or how successful the program will be, if at all.
But he has hope.
He’s seen former child soldiers transform their lives… with a little help.
Men, like Morlee Zawoo.
“Life is based on your understanding of where you came from. Once you understand your trauma, you can be able to cope with it.”
Zawoo was a child soldier, regularly using drugs and fighting in the jungles of Liberia. He took a bullet in his arm as a teenager. He says most people wrote him off as a lost cause. But when he was recovering from his wound and away from the fighting, he got some counseling.
“When we went to this training in order to know ourselves, know the kind of values attached to our lives, with the hope we can still make life better again.”
Zawoo says the help he was given allowed him to understand why he was fighting.
Today, Zawoo is a productive member of society, a committed husband and father. He runs his own organization where HE provides counseling for other former child soldiers.
He says ex-combatants can be transformed, he’s living proof. But, they also need jobs. He doesn’t have an answer for that. Unemployment in Liberia is estimated to be as high as 80 percent.
The Liberian government has created some temporary jobs through public works projects. But in the long-run, Liberia is going to have to do better, says Brooks Robinson the deputy chief of mission at the American Embassy in Monrovia.
“In the end, it’s all about jobs. If this government and this country can’t produce more jobs for the young people, than those people will destabilize this country again. And it’s really a race against time right now, in the next five years, maybe ten.”
Nobody wants Liberia to return to war. The last time that happened, it engulfed the whole region in violence.
So there are many watching eagerly to see if the young men on the streets of Monrovia can have their lives turned around.
For the World, I’m Jason Margolis, Monrovia, Liberia.
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