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In the Shadows of Ivory Coast's War

In 1990, militias deployed Gaddafi's tactics to terrorize our home country, Liberia, and ignite a civil war that claimed the lives of a quarter million Liberians. Today, Gaddafi's nightmare lives on in Ivory Coast.
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Zwedru, Liberia -- As Colonel Gaddafi continues his pillage in North Africa, harrowing skeletons from his closet remain buried deep in the soil along the continent's western edge. The brutal conflicts of West Africa -- in Liberia and Sierra Leone -- were led by men, like Charles Taylor, who trained in camps sponsored by Gaddafi in the 1980s. In 1990, militias deployed those tactics to terrorize our home country, Liberia, and ignite a civil war that claimed the lives of a quarter million Liberians. The rest of us were turned into refugees.

Today, Gaddafi's West African nightmare lives on in Ivory Coast. Fighters he directly or indirectly trained, including Liberian mercenaries, waged violence in Ivory Coast when Laurent Gbagbo refused to yield the presidency he lost. His arrest earlier this month ushered a turning point in the political crisis. But, the violence continues. And, as wars typically are, this one has been depicted only through the eyes of powerful men.

The Ivorian women who fled the violence tell a different story. Over 170,000 Ivorians -- primarily women and their children -- have poured across Liberia's eastern border in recent months. A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report on April 9 revealed their horrific testimonies. They have seen their husbands shot point blank, their children raped in front of their eyes, and their villages burned to the dirt.

Last week, our colleagues at Tiyatien Health, a health organization founded by survivors of Liberia's civil war, provided care for one of those women, Marie, at a public hospital in Zwedru, a Liberian town near the border with Ivory Coast. Three weeks earlier, her village had suddenly been ambushed by rebels. As the guns fired, Marie took cover with her husband on the floor of their hut while shielding her three girls with her own body. The rebels then dragged her out of her hut into the open. Four bullets had already entered her chest -- one only four inches from her heart.

Somehow, the blood and sweat dripping from Marie's body convinced the gunman her fate was sealed -- "he told his men I'd die, so it wasn't worth wasting another bullet on me." She darted, children in tow, into the forest. That was the last she saw of her village and her husband. After carrying her girls through the bush and across a river, a man found her collapsed in a cassava field near Zwedru and brought her to our hospital.

Marie's bullet wounds are healing. We are her beginning to address her emotional pain. But, when she leaves the hospital, what will become of her? What of her three girls? Another report issued by HRW last week paints a grim prognosis.

According to HRW, refugee women and girls report "no choice but to engage in sex" with men who promise to give them food. The challenge is that most of the refugees have taken shelter, not in camps, but with their Liberian relatives, whom (ironically) they hosted not long ago when Liberians lived in exile in Ivory Coast. Food shortages were already rampant in southeastern Liberia, among the poorest places on earth according to the UN. The refugee influx has only made matters more desperate. Last week, a two-week-old Ivorian infant died at our hospital after her mother's breast milk ceased because the mother herself had gone hungry for weeks.

Writing, respectively, as a doctor and peace activist who have worked on the front lines of war, it is clear what's needed now is justice and aid. The international community should support justice on both sides of the border for the women and children who have suffered physical and sexual violence.

But, justice for the victims also requires meeting their basic needs. The international community must fill the UN's current $300 million emergency humanitarian appeal for food, shelter and medical assistance for the 170,000 Ivorian refugees in Liberia and the other million displaced within Ivory Coast. Thus far, only a fraction of the funds have been pledged. But individual Americans can do something too. Combined together, even small donations ($20 or $50), critical in relief efforts in places like Haiti and Japan, will help Ivorian refugees like Marie and her girls receive needed shelter, food and medicine. Simply put, dollars will save more lives.

We remember in 1990, after our families fled Liberia, when Taylor captured then Liberian President Samuel Doe. Many looked away after what they thought marked the beginning of the end of a conflict. It turned out be only the beginning of our war; many of our neighbors remained refugees for more than a decade. Today, two other men have been the center of attention in Ivory Coast. Let us not forget the women and children who have been left in their shadows.

Dr. Rajesh Panjabi is a physician at Harvard Medical School and Co-Founder of Tiyatien Health, a Liberia-based charity providing medical relief to Ivorian refugees; Leymah Gbowee is executive director of the Women Peace and Security Network Africa and the central character in the 2008 documentary film, Pray the Devil Back to Hell.

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