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Feature: Liberian boy fights kidney disease after surviving war

Feature: Liberian boy fights kidney disease after surviving war

Dickson Gray has survived a rocket attack and a life in captivity in Liberia. Now in Sierra Leone, the 17-year-old refugee is fighting for his life and needs to be resettled urgently to a country with advanced medical care.
15 March 2004
Family reunion for Liberian refugee Dickson and his mother Esther at the airport in Freetown.

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone (UNHCR) - At 17, Dickson Gray has survived a rocket blast and months of captivity by rebel troops in Liberia. He has been shot at repeatedly and seen streets littered with bodies.

Now a refugee in Sierra Leone, he should be breathing a sigh of relief. But he is fighting the battle of his life - a disease that could damage his kidneys unless he can be resettled soon to a country with better medical care.

Up until June 2003, Dickson was like any other boy, living at home in the Liberian capital of Monrovia with his homemaker mother, businessman father and four siblings. When rebel troops attacked the capital in June, he and his family joined thousands of frightened Liberians and sought refuge in the US embassy in Monrovia. But the rebels fired rockets at the embassy, causing people to flee in all directions.

When Dickson came out of hiding, he found the area covered with dead bodies. He searched for his family in the embassy compound, in the streets and even among the corpses. But he found no one.

His choices were limited. Unable to seek help from people who were struggling to feed themselves, he realised his only chance for survival was to seek "protection" from rebels of the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD). "At least I would have food, otherwise I would have died of starvation," he says.

At first, the rebels thought he was a spy because he had no identification or luggage. They shot four rounds of bullets around him to get him to confess. When he didn't, they put him in a small room, where he was pushed against an auto engine with metallic parts that jutted into his side. He was fed a meagre serving of rice once a day and was rarely allowed a bathroom break. When he did go to the toilet, he was accompanied by an armed guard.

Dickson lived in that small room for over a month. Then in August, President Charles Taylor resigned and a cease-fire agreement was signed, forcing the rebels to retreat from Monrovia. The rebels took Dickson and fled to Bo-Waterside, near the border with Sierra Leone. He became an errand boy, and was responsible for cleaning after the soldiers. Eventually, he became the "man servant" of a seven-year-old rebel with a gun, who beat and taunted him, and constantly threatened to shoot him.

Looking back, Dickson describes this period in his life as "somehow difficult", an understatement that reflected his amazing resilience.

After some weeks at Bo-Waterside, the rebels asked him to fight with them. When he refused, they cut his food rations and deprived him of clothing and soap. The lack of food compounded his emerging health problems. He began to fear for his life, terrified that the rebels would strangle him in the night.

In October, he decided to escape when he was sent to wash clothes one night. Noting that the guard was not at his post, he fled until he found a group of Liberians who were crossing the border into Sierra Leone to seek refuge.

He was free at last.

Once in Sierra Leone, he knew he needed to speak to someone from UNHCR. He knew about the refugee agency after seeing Sierra Leonean refugees in his own country. Now he was a refugee in theirs.

After several extensive interviews with UNHCR, it was discovered that in addition to surviving rocket attacks on the US embassy and four months of living with LURD rebels, he was also suffering from a kidney disease which may have stunted his growth. The disease stopped him from urinating more than once a day and caused a lot of pain.

UNHCR doctors examined him and discovered that Dickson had a congenital malformation in the pelvic area. Without adequate medical treatment, he remains in extreme pain and the disease will eventually damage his kidney permanently.

As there are no facilities in Sierra Leone for treating Dickson's condition, UNHCR responded immediately by submitting him for resettlement to a country with advanced medical care. With proper medical treatment, he has an excellent chance of recovery and leading a normal life. But, as many resettlement countries are reluctant to accept unaccompanied minors, Dickson was rejected, even though the resettlement country was sympathetic to his medical needs.

To overcome this problem, UNHCR and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) launched an urgent search for his family members in Liberia and among refugee communities in Sierra Leone. Through intensive work combined with a stroke of luck, members of his extended family were found in a camp for internally displaced persons in the outskirts of Monrovia. They in turn traced his mother and brought her to Sierra Leone.

In early March 2004, a surprised Dickson was reunited with his mother and uncles in an emotional and joyful scene in Freetown. However, his father remains missing, lost in the chaos of war, and UNHCR and ICRC are continuing to search for him.

"I will do anything to save my son's life. I beg UNHCR to help him," pleads Dickson's mother, Esther.

The only hope of saving Dickson's life is if UNHCR can find a resettlement country willing to accept him and his newly reunited family.

"Despite only just emerging from its own devastating civil war, Sierra Leone is a generous asylum country, currently sheltering 67,000 Liberian refugees," says Maya Ameratunga, UNHCR's Senior Protection Officer. "But it lacks proper medical facilities for its own citizens as well as refugees. Medical resettlement is therefore extremely important in Sierra Leone - the only hope for saving the lives of the sickest and most vulnerable refugees who have a good chance of survival with medical care."

She adds, "In December, two of our refugees submitted for medical resettlement died while waiting for countries to accept them. One of them was a 10-year-old girl suffering from a congenital heart condition and who had recently survived a horrific gang rape by Liberian soldiers during the war. She was already accepted by a resettlement country, but just could not be moved there in time to save her life. We desperately need resettlement countries to have a flexible approach and move quickly to accept and resettle these refugees."

Dickson is an exceptionally bright, talented, resourceful and endearing young refugee who topped his class before war interrupted his life. He dreams of going back to school and of becoming a doctor some day. "I want to help sick children," he explains. He would make a model citizen in a resettlement country, if only his life can be saved by a country willing to accept him quickly.

This is a poem that Dickson recited from memory to UNHCR staff:

Poor Old Man
(Author Unknown)

Poor old man in the street
Begging for money and food to eat.
Why can't he go somewhere
To do things to help himself?

Homeless man just wandering aimlessly
All over town
He is somebody's father, brother
Have you thought which one?

Step on him
Walk around him
Ask him why he is sleeping in the street.

A homeless man was once like you.
Do you think about how he got that way?

Think hard and far, it may be you one day.