Please be warned that the content in this article is disturbing. It is written in respect of those who have no means to speak for themselves about the horrors they’ve survived and those not so fortunate to have escaped.
There’s hell on earth…where atrocities are committed everyday, where life has no value, where mercy and compassion do not exist; where fear reigns and survival depends on the dialect you speak; the ethnic group you belong to. Helena reveals the trauma of escaping hell.
‘Australia is such a friendly country,’ says Helena, describing her new home.
Helena, husband Anthony, and their five children aged 12, 11, 10, 9 and 3, immigrated to Australia from Guinea, West Africa, in 2004. They were refugees who had escaped unimaginable horrors and hardship. They narrowly escaped death numerous times; watched family members get gunned down, and were forced to leave their country, fleeing on foot – hiding from rebel soldiers – constantly fearing for their lives.
‘When we arrived in Australia, we thought we were in heaven.’
Poised on the couch in her new Australian home, Helena cradles a fluorescent pink mobile phone on her lap. Her hairstyle – a work of art – is intricately braided with a splash of gold faux hair braided along one side of her head. As a means of survival, she learnt to braid hair at a young age in exchange for money or food.
Born in Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, Helena and husband Anthony, are descendants of the Krahn ethnic group, indigenous to the area known as Liberia before the formation of the country in the sixteenth century. The Republic of Liberia is a country located on the West Coast of Africa, bordered by Guinea, Sierra Leone and Côte d’Ivoire. Liberia’s population at that time (1990) was 2.1 million. The official language is English, although there are 16 indigenous languages, Krahn being one of them.
Liberia was founded in 1820 by free African-Americans and slaves freed from the United States. On July 26, 1847, the Americo-Liberian settlers declared the independence of the Republic of Liberia and soon after, the elite monopolised political power, restricting the voting rights of the indigenous population. Liberia’s first President, Joseph Jenkins Roberts was born and raised in the United States. On April 12, 1980, after 133 years of Americo-Liberian political domination, Master Sergeant Samuel Kanyon Doe – from the Krahn ethnic group – seized power, executing the current President, William R. Tolbert and several of his Americo-Liberian officials. Doe then began promoting members of the Krahn ethnic group who soon dominated political and military life. This caused tension with the other ethnic groups in the country. Trouble began in 1989 when on December 24, a band of rebels led by Charles Taylor, an Americo-Liberian, invaded Liberia from the Ivory Coast.
Helena’s upbringing was poor. She was the first of nine children. School was expensive so she stayed home, helping her mother with the daily chores and braided hair as a small source of income. Unemployment was high and it was very difficult to get a job, especially if you were unskilled. Helena’s father managed to get a government job as a soldier two years before the civil war began. This meant that Helena was finally able to attend school at the age of 14. She learnt English and things were going well until her third year when war broke out and her father was shot dead by rebel troupes. Soon after President Doe’s assassination on September 9, 1990, the Krahn government was overthrown and genocide proclaimed on the Krahn ethnic group. Rebel soldiers forced their way into homes murdering every occupant. Soldiers would corner people in the streets or break into their homes demanding to know which dialect they spoke. Speaking English was not enough to keep you safe, as it was not an African’s mother tongue.
‘If you only spoke Krahn, you were shot on the spot. You were only safe if you could fluently speak another dialect,’ said Helena. ‘They killed my grandfather. My uncle almost escaped when questioned, until an onlooker told soldiers that he had heard him speak Krahn and they shot him, in front of me. When people were shot in front of you the soldiers would tell you to laugh. If you cried, they would know you were related and shoot you too.’
Learning to hide your emotions was imperative for survival. As Helena’s family only spoke Krahn, they had no choice but to flee the country as quickly as they could before the soldiers came for them. Many were killed in surprise attacks at night. When people were sleeping, soldiers would raid homes, before moving to the next house. People lived in constant fear, too scared to go out at night, yet locking their doors did not stop the rebels.
Shortly after Doe’s assassination, twenty-one of Helena’s family, including her mother, eight siblings and grandmother, fled Liberia with over a 1000 others, as rebel soldiers chased them in trucks, shooting wildly and throwing bombs. There was no time to collect personal documents, fleeing with only the clothes they were wearing. Helena, then 17, and her sister carried the two youngest siblings on their back. Hoping to find refuge in Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, 367km away, they walked under the scorching sun and at night hid in the bushes to sleep, always wary of rebel soldiers finding them. After weeks of walking, their swollen, cracked feet made each step excruciating.
‘My whole body was in pain. We were very tired. When we found a river, we would wash ourselves and scrub our clothes,’ said Helena.
They ate whatever they could find. Many died of spider or snake bites. On the most part, they were spared by wild animals, although lions and elephants were known to attack. Helena said the elephants were particularly frightening because of their size and the chance that they could become enraged if they felt threatened.
Disaster struck again when rebel troupes caught up with them. Storming through the bush in trucks, they began shooting blindly and throwing bombs, killing many. Some suffered heart failure from the loud explosions, usually infants, young children or the elderly. This was the case with Helena’s eight-year-old sister who dropped dead from shock and sheer exhaustion. In the panic of people scrambling for their lives, Helena’s sister was trampled, her small body left behind. Helena’s body tenses, the pitch in her voice changing as she recounts the incident.
Approximately six weeks later, they reached Sierra Leone. A country with a population, at the time, of 4 million, and problems of its own. In 1985, military leader, Joseph Momoh became president of Sierra Leone in a one-party election (the All Peoples Congress). One major opposition group consisted of students, many of them expelled from the country – amongst them was Foday Sankoh. Fleeing to Libya, they attended Muammar Gaddafi’s secret service training facility. Trouble was brewing.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) were placed in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, amongst other countries. Their aim was to aid refugees and ensure they became self-sufficient as quickly as possible. On arrival, Helena’s family registered their names with the UNHCR, and were supplied with tents, food, water, medicine, sanitation, and equipment such as kitchenware and tools. They also had access to medical assistance and schooling for children. Once settled in a camp, families had to manage as best they could on their own. There were no jobs, especially for refugees who had no identification documents. Helena would braid hair, wash clothes, or clean in exchange for food or money.
The two main ethnic groups in Sierra Leone were the Temne, being the largest group from the Northern Province of Sierra Leone, and the Mende, primarily residing in the Southern Province. The Mende were politically dominant. Refugees were not particularly welcome. To avoid harassment, it was imperative that they learn the local dialect, in this case the Temne dialect. The Temne dialect closely resembles the Sherbro language spoken in Sierra Leone and the Baga language spoken in the Republic of Guinea.
Foday Sanoh – previously exiled – and closely linked to Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia, formed a small band of men who called themselves the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). They sought control of Sierra Leone’s diamond mines as a means to overthrow the government. Millions of dollars of high quality diamonds were mined and smuggled out of the country to finance the rebels. Liberia’s brutal civil war also played an undeniable role for the outbreak of fighting in Sierra Leone.
In 1991, approximately a year after Helena’s family settled in Sierra Leone, the RUF began attacking villages in eastern Sierra Leone on the Liberian border. The RUF’s signature terror tactic was using machetes and axes to sever arms, legs, lips, and ears. An estimated 20,000 civilians suffered amputation.
‘The RUF would catch people and tell them they were tailors. They would ask “Do you want long sleeves or short sleeves?” Those who said long sleeves would have their arm cut at the wrist. Those who said short sleeves would be cut above the elbow. It was terrifying,’ recalled Helena.
Sierra Leone was no longer safe. As Foday Sanoh was Temne, the Mende and Temne tribes were now at war. Masses of people were being captured, hustled into the back of trucks, taken into the bush and shot. Women and children were brutally raped and killed. Eventually, government armed forces were overpowered when child soldiers were recruited for combat, some as young as seven years old. Many were constantly drugged in order to promote aggressive behaviour and control their fear. In this drugged state, they were made to shoot family members and commit horrific crimes.
At the height of the chaos, when the fighting became too violent, the UNHCR was ordered to evacuate the country, leaving masses of refugees begging for their help. Helena remembers when the UNHCR staff packed everything into their trucks.
‘We were all crying and begging them to stay, but they drove off and left us there.’
Helen’s family members and around 300 refugees, fled to Conakry, Guinea’s capital, 120km away. This time, their journey took approximately three months. The terrain was difficult. When they were too exhausted to continue they would camp for a few weeks to rest.
Guinea, with a population of approximately 6 million recorded in 1990, welcomed the refugees. In 1849, the French claimed it as a protectorate, calling it Rivieres du Sud and later rechristened it as French Guinea. Guinea achieved independence on October 2, 1958, under Sekou Toure as president. After 26 years as president, he died in March 1984 and a week later, a military regime headed by Lansana Conte took power. Conte ruled the country with an iron fist.
Once Helena’s family reached Guinea, they again sought the help of the UNHCR, as a means of security, and for supplies of shelter and food. As in Sierra Leone, it was imperative that they learn the regional dialect and French in order not to be harassed, beaten, or killed. They would ask the Guinean children how to say words and ask them questions to help them learn. Even though the UNHCR deployed staff to monitor and assist refugees against harassment by locals or Guinean police, the staffing was inadequate for the large numbers of refugees needing protection, especially in times of unrest.
‘There was always corruption. The UNHCR would give monthly food rations to the Guineans to pass onto the refugees. The Guinean’s would sell the food and then give us only one cup of rice to feed nine people,’ recalls Helena.
Helena was 20 when she met her husband Anthony in Guinea. He had also escaped Liberia after being captured by rebel soldiers and jailed in a cell so small, he was forced to crouch. He spent over a month crouched in his cell before an opportunity allowed him to escape. They settled down to life in Guinea where their five children were born and later attended the school run by the UNHCR.
Several international aid agencies, in an effort to promote self-sufficiency amongst the refugees developed income-generating activities such as baking, soap making, tie dying, and tailoring. Seeds and tools were widely distributed, making agriculture the principal source of income for many refugees. Many Sierra Leonean and Liberian refugees survived by crop sharing, working as contract laborers, or selling firewood in urban areas.
Guinea hosted more refugees in 1999 than any other country in Africa. However, in September of 2000, there was a total breakdown of security across the borders of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. There were always tensions between Guinea and Liberia. It was believed that Liberia was providing political and military support to the RUF. Guinea was accused of sheltering Liberian armed political groups. The RUF went to Guinea seeking out Liberian refugees to send back to Liberia. The Guinean government resisted the RUF until May 2001, when President Lansana Conte became angry with the large number of civilian casualties, massive destruction of civilian property, and the displacement of tens of thousands of civilians. He ordered all Liberian refugees to leave the country.
‘We could not go back to Liberia because my father had worked as a soldier under the Krahn government. The new government had recorded our family name on a list of people to be executed. Even today, it would not be safe to go back. They still want to kill all the Krahn people,’ said Helena.
Guinea changed from being a place of refuge to being a place of violence, death, and fear. The refugees were now sought after by the RUF and the Guinean police. There was chaos everywhere. Liberians were captured by the RUF, tied up, shoved into trucks to be taken away and shot. Many soldiers, both rebel and Guinean, raped and brutalised women and children.
‘If you spoke French, you could convince them that you weren’t a refugee and be spared,’ Helena explains. ‘We were all captured and separated. I didn’t know where the rest of my family was. I was very scared that we would all be killed but God answered my prayers.’
The UN intervened after successful negotiations between the US President, George Bush and the Guinean President, Lansana Conte to release the refugees. When Helena was reunited with her family, she was told that her sister Ruth had been shot dead during an open fire on refugees trying to flee. Ruth was only 21 and left behind four young children.
Helena and her husband Anthony applied through the UN Refugee program to seek asylum abroad. They were interviewed by a representative of the UN who recorded all the details of their lives over the past 11 years, explaining how it was not safe for them to return to Liberia, nor stay in Guinea since President Conte no longer welcomed refugees. Their application was submitted to the Department of Immigration for consideration. Almost two years later, they were granted an interview by the Department of Immigration.
‘We were excited. We knew that if the medical and blood tests were good, that our dream would come true,’ said Helena.
A list of names was displayed on a board once approvals came through from the Department of Immigration.
‘We always checked for our name on the list. Then one day we saw our names and we were so happy.’
In 2004, Helena, Anthony and their five children boarded Guinea Airways and flew to London. They transferred to Air France for their next stop in Singapore before arriving in Australia, where a representative from Anglicare welcomed them. They were given temporary accommodation for a few months until they were able to find permanent accommodation.
The Australian government provides displaced persons who arrive on 200 or 202 visas with a home start-up package which consists of all the necessary furnishings required to set up a home, right down to a vegetable peeler. Anglicare helps these families to settle in. They have accredited volunteer tutors who help migrants adjust to their new life in Australia. Volunteers choose how many hours they are able to commit to. It may be as little as one or two hours a week to help with simple things such as teaching how to cook using a stove, help with English language skills or showing families around the community.
Anglicare also conduct training sessions to help migrants manage their money and learn life skills that will help them settle into their new lifestyle. Anyone who may be interested in volunteering can contact, Anglicare, Volunteering Australia, or The Department of Immigration. These people have survived traumatic circumstances, yet they are not filled with bitterness or resentment. They are friendly and willing to work to support their families.
Helena and Anthony attended courses to help them with their English and improve their job prospects. Anthony spent the first few years picking blueberries which enabled him to buy a car. Helena braided hair and taught classes in African cooking and dancing. They sent money back to Africa to help their relatives and filed an application for other family members to join them in Australia. Their application was approved on the condition that they pay the airfares, and supported family members once they arrived.
Any person or business interested in becoming a proposer to help displaced persons settle in Australia can contact the Department of Immigration. A proposer needs to be an Australian or eligible New Zealand citizen, or an organisation that operates in Australia who agrees to pay for an applicant to travel to Australia, and then offer a level of support.