War torn

Jun 21, 2000 at 12:00 am
To quiet her crying 9-month-old daughter, Wissedi Sio Njoh regularly dosed her with a syrup that made her sleep. The damage the sedative may have caused her still haunts Njoh 10 years later, but at the time, she had no choice: A weeping baby meant danger.

Government troops, known to brutalize citizens, roamed the streets of Liberia’s capital enforcing a nightly curfew as the nation began its descent into seven horrendous years of civil war. Noise of any kind – even a child’s sobs – might have attracted troops and trouble.

A mother of four, a nurse, the wife of a doctor, Njoh watched her relatively affluent life in Monrovia disintegrate. She says an uncle was tortured and killed; she encountered gun-toting children and watched as insurgents threatened to kill her husband; along with the rest of her family, she often went hungry.

But Njoh says the most painful part of the war came when she had to leave her four daughters with relatives in Africa while she headed to the United States to forge a better life. Eventually the girls were reunited with their mother in the States, but Njoh’s family, now in Oak Park – and about 10,000 to 15,000 other Liberians who fled to the United States during the war – may be forced to return to Liberia in September unless Congress overrules the Clinton administration and grants them permanent residency.

Though Liberia’s civil war officially ended in 1996, claiming about 200,000 lives, Njoh and others fear that if they return, they may meet a similar fate in a country still plagued with lawlessness, and ruled by the same man who started the civil war.


Njoh’s journey to the United States began in late 1989, when the African-American Institute in New York granted her a two-year scholarship to study at Wayne State University. The scholarship would enable the then 33-year-old Njoh to earn her master’s of science degree in nursing with an emphasis on parenting and families.

But as the civil war moved into Monrovia, Njoh’s hometown, it became impossible to even contact the institute to accept the scholarship.

Friends disappeared. Mass killings were rumored. The chaos crept closer.

In mid-1990, Njoh’s family and many others in Monrovia moved into the Catholic Hospital, which was run by missionaries and less likely to be attacked by warring factions. Njoh, who speaks with a thick accent, recounts the final days before abandoning her home.

"We lied awake at night and were afraid to go to sleep because we hear bullets and hear them breaking into homes and you wonder when your home will be attacked at night," she says.

The day before Njoh’s family moved into the hospital, she says she saw a woman who had been shot and killed the previous night, buried with one arm extended out of the ground.

"That was their trademark," says Njoh about the rebels headed by Charles Taylor. His troops eventually seized control of the country from then President Samuel K. Doe. According to news reports, Taylor’s tactics were barbaric, with countless women raped, men beheaded and many other victims mutilated, tortured and, in some instances, eaten.

"If you have never experienced a war, you cannot know," says Njoh, who recalls seeing human skulls mounted on fence posts.

"I could talk on and on," she says, then closes her intelligent brown eyes and shakes her head as if trying to erase the memories.

For about a month Njoh’s family lived at the hospital. To keep busy, Njoh’s husband, Joseph, a doctor, treated wounded rebels, while Njoh watched over her children. There was little food except for rotten potatoes and cereal, which she smashed and fed to her baby, Miriam.

"She had terrible diarrhea," as a result, says Njoh. To nurse Miriam back to health, a friend of Njoh’s fed her intravenously. The equipment had to be set up by candlelight because the hospital dorm rooms did not have electricity.

In August 1990, Taylor’s forces attacked the hospital, sending its occupants scurrying. About 50 of them, the Njohs included, fled for safety in a convoy of cars. Along the way, Taylor’s forces confronted the group, and threatened to kill Njoh’s husband when they discovered he was Nigerian. (Hundreds of Nigerians and foreigners from other African nations were ultimately executed during the war to retaliate against a Nigerian-led mission of African peacekeepers with which Taylor clashed.)

"I cried and the women told me not to because I would be associated with my Nigerian husband and possibly killed too," says Njoh.

But Joseph escaped death when Taylor’s crew learned the doctor had helped treat their wounded tribesmen.

War wounds

After traveling 300 miles, the group settled in Phoebe, a town in central Liberia, and lived at the hospital there for three months. During that time, Njoh twice returned to Monrovia, though the daylong trip was extremely dangerous.

She made the second trip home because she wanted to encourage her parents and siblings to leave the besieged city; she also wanted to see them before heading to the United States. With the help of a missionary, Njoh managed to send a letter to New York accepting the scholarship. It was September, and she was to start school the following spring.

In October 1990, Njoh’s husband left Liberia with several other doctors to travel to the Ivory Coast, and then to visit his family in Nigeria. The two oldest daughters, Agnes and Josephine, then 9 and 7, went with him.

"Josephine cried and cried and begged me not to make her go," says Njoh, looking at her daughter, now 16. "For a long time she hated me for that."

In December 1990, Njoh and her youngest daughters, Patrice, 3, and Miriam, 15 months, also fled to the Ivory Coast. And in February 1991, they arrived in Nigeria.

"I remember that day was a day of freedom," says Njoh, of her reunion with her other daughters. But the reunion did not last long.

About two months later, Njoh headed to the States – alone. Her husband went to look for work in England, where he had received medical training. The couple decided to leave their daughters in Nigeria with Joseph’s family until he could get employment.

"That was the hardest decision, leaving my kids," says Njoh. "I knew it would be better, but it was the hardest decision."

Months passed and Joseph was unable to find work in England. He took a job in Saudi Arabia.

In December 1991, Njoh and her husband returned to Nigeria to pick up the girls; he took the oldest daughters with him to the Middle East, and she took the others to live in her dorm room on Wayne State’s campus.

The following July, Joseph, Agnes and Josephine visited their mother and sisters. Njoh says that her husband was frustrated with caring for the oldest girls, who no longer wanted to be separated from their mother and younger sisters. That’s when Njoh decided to keep all four with her in the States.

"I thought, ‘How will I finish my master’s and take care of my kids?’ But when you have to do it, you do it."

A new life

Njoh says that even though Joseph cut off all financial support after he returned to Saudi Arabia in 1992, she managed to care for the girls. (The couple divorced in 1996. )

In 1993, Njoh completed her education and passed her state board exams. And by that November, she had three jobs. In the evening, she worked full time at Grace Hospital, and was an adjunct instructor of nursing at Wayne State in the afternoon. She also worked a few hours a week teaching single mothers in transitional housing how to care for newborn babies.

"I was like a zombie," says Njoh, recalling countless days of exhaustion. "But I had to put food on the table."

Njoh worked virtually round the clock, and the family lived in the attic of a friend’s home on Detroit’s west side. Within seven months, she had raised a downpayment and purchased the Oak Park house where she and her daughters have lived since.

"We have made the United States our home," says Njoh. "I pay all the taxes though I am not a permanent resident ... and contribute to society."

Her oldest daughter, Agnes, who was in the sixth grade when she arrived in the states, is 18 and working on her bachelor’s degree in banking and finance at Wayne State. Josephine just graduated from high school, Patrice is in junior high, and Miriam, despite her mother’s worries, is now in good health and thriving in grade school.

Between borders

Though Njoh managed to escape the war and create a life for her family, her troubles are not over. Her family and about 10,000 to 15,000 other Liberians may be forced to leave the states and return to Liberia. After the civil war broke out in the West African country, the U.S. government granted Liberians a form of asylum, "temporary protected status."

Now, with the civil war over and a new government – with Taylor as president – in place (see sidebar), the Clinton administration says it is no longer necessary to allow these international refugees to remain in the United States. "Although conditions remain difficult, the overall situation is not sufficiently adverse to prevent most Liberian nationals in the U.S. from returning to Liberia in safety," according to a State Department memorandum supporting the decision. Liberians’ "protected" status ended last September. They have been given until this September to leave the country unless they can convince U.S. authorities "their particular circumstances" make returning unsafe.

Nonetheless, the State Department’s most recent human rights report on Liberia contains much that is troubling. The rights record is judged to be "poor": "The security forces committed many extrajudicial killings. ... Security forces tortured, beat, and otherwise abused or humiliated citizens. ... Security forces continues to use arbitrary arrest and detention. ..."

The National Liberian Working Group, which represents refugees in the United States, goes further, saying many Liberians may be killed if repatriated because Taylor may view them as siding with the former ruling party.

The NLWG is pushing lawmakers, particularly U.S. Sen. Spencer Abraham, R-Mich., to grant Liberians permanent residency by passing Senate Bill 656. As chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Immigration, Abraham can determine whether the bill moves forward at all and could help guide it through the Senate. (The politics for Abraham, however, may be complicated by the fact that he is already facing attack ads by the well-heeled Federation for American Immigration Reform. Abraham’s support for increased immigration for high-tech workers has raised the ire of the anti-immigration work).

Last April, NLWG members lobbied Congress about the bill. Though they received some support, Abraham has been silent on the issue, says Saa M’Tow, a NLWG member.

"This guy holds the key to heaven, and if we don’t get his blessing we will not see what heaven looks like," says M’Tow.

He points out that the Clinton administration advises U.S. citizens that Liberia is too dangerous to visit, yet is ordering Liberians to go home.

Margaret Murphy, director of communications for Abraham’s office, says the senator is still waiting on information about the bill before he decides whether or not to support it.

But U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., who is sponsoring the bill, says he has provided Abraham and his staff all the information requested.

Reed says that Congress must act fast.

"We have to resolve this issue," says Reed. "We have had Liberians in the U.S. for a decade now and (they) have established themselves in the community, work and have children. It’s time to give them permanent residency."

If the bill is not enacted, Njoh says she is not sure where she and her children will go, but she will not return to Liberia.

She asks: "How can anyone expect me to go back to a country that I ran from for my life, for my life and the lives of my children?"

Ann Mullen is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail [email protected]