Refugees Magazine Issue 107 (Refugee voices from exile) - Overcoming the Liberian nightmare

Refugees Magazine, 1 March 1997

The nightmare is finally beginning to fade for 16-year-old Grace Kerkula. For years she had seen her West African homeland of Liberia degenerate into a dangerous and lawless wasteland where the teenage gunman and his assault rifle reigned supreme. Then the civil war became personal.

Interview by Cynthia Jikpamu

"There had been a frenzy of killing and looting" all over the Liberian capital of Monrovia last year, the young schoolgirl recalls. Finally out-of-control gunmen targeted her family's house. "They threatened to kill us if we did not leave," she said. The family stood by helplessly as the guerrillas looted and then drove her father's car away as war booty.

Even though they had survived six years of increasing mayhem the Kerkula family decided it was finally time to make a dash for freedom. To reach Monrovia's port and a possible refugee ship to freedom they had to run a gauntlet of rampaging gunmen and dangerous checkpoints. It took them a day to cover only a few kilometres, but if the lawless streets were bad, the port was in even more turmoil.

There was one ship named the Bulk Challenge taking on board desperate Liberians attempting to flee to safety. "It became a matter of life or death to get on that ship," Grace said. As quickly as people tried to clamber onto the vessel, they were beaten off by desperate crewmen. "I don't know how I got on," she said, "but it was only later that I realized my mother was not with me. I don't know where she is now or whether she is even alive."

Eventually the ship put to sea but conditions were worse in some respects than on the streets of Monrovia. The vessel was so crowded with hundreds of escapees they were literally forced to sleep on top of each other. There was virtually no food or water. The ship became a maritime outcast as neighbouring countries each in turn refused to allow the Bulk Challenge to dock and unload its human cargo.

As international pressure mounted Ghana finally relented and allowed the dangerously listing ship to dock at the port of Takoradi. After an initial screening Grace was taken to a camp in Senzule in western Ghana. And there, fortune began to smile on the African teenager at last.

She heard about UNHCR's Education Fund for African Refugees launched in June 1996 by High Commissioner Sadako Ogata to provide scholarships for meritorious refugee students at secondary level. UNHCR was able to fund the programme with the 800,000 FF ($155,000) cash grant accompanying the 1995 UNESCO Felix Houphou√ęt-Boigny Peace Prize awarded Mrs. Ogata and her staff for their work with refugees and in promoting global peace. Most refugee children are desperate to attend school but Grace was one of the few lucky ones able to fight through a mountain of bureaucracy, complete an application form and win a scholarship.

Today she attends the Top Ridge School in Takoradi, the port where she first stepped ashore to safety. "I dream of becoming a nurse one day," she said. Thanks to the scholarship, a little luck and her own stubborn determination to overcome seemingly impossible odds she is well on her way to realizing that dream.

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 107 (1997)