Liberian Refugee Recalls Bloody Civil War

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The Liberian immigrant population in America continues to carry the burdens of Liberia's bloody civil war of the early 1990s. Activist Jacob Massaquoi speaks about his near-death experiences before he fled Liberia for the United States.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Just ahead, finding hope and humanity where there is none. A look at one child soldier's quest in a new novel by Chris Abani. That's next.

But first, in 1990, the West African nation of Liberia fell into civil war. Jacob Massaquoi found himself in the middle of the chaos. Before he would reach safety in the U.S., he would witness his brother's execution, lose his home and his father, and survive an attempt on his own life. He now lives on Staten Island, New York, and is the director of African Refuge, helping other Liberian refugees who also call America home.

He joins us from our NPR bureau in New York. Welcome, sir.

Mr. JACOB D. MASSAQUOI II (Founder; Director, African Refuge): Thank you.

MARTIN: So, I guess I'd just like to start by saying what was your life when Liberia fell into civil war? What were you doing? How old were you?

Mr. MASSAQUOI: I was just 17 years old. I graduated from high school with honors. I had passed a University of Liberia entrance examination with the view of going to the university to study physics.

But when I went home for a visit with my dad in Nimba County, my dad told me that, Jacob, I don't want you to go to Monrovia, the capital, upon graduation because there'll be a war in the country, and I don't want you to get caught up in the war. But I didn't listen to my father, and I decided to travel to Monrovia. So…

MARTIN: Were you able to go to school during this time?

Mr. MASSAQUOI: No. We went to class occasionally, but sometimes it would close - teachers, professors won't come to class because of insecurity.

MARTIN: Let us just go right to what happened at the St. Peter's Lutheran Church.

Mr. MASSAQUOI: On July 26, Mr. Charles Taylor had cut off the ELWA radio station, and he made an announcement, declaring himself president of the Republic of Liberia and ordering the arrest of Mr. Doe. So his speech really aggravated the government soldier, and they decided to go after all perceived supporters of the rebels. So in their mind, by then, that those who were staying at the church of St. Peter - St. Peter's Lutheran Church - were sympathizers of the rebel.

The soldiers came over that night at around 11 p.m. And they surrounded the building. Then, at about midnight, they ordered the guard to open the door. The guard refused, and they shot him. And they started shooting, came over the fence, and started shooting indiscriminately in the - I mean, all over the church. And it was very, very chaotic. People were screaming. People running everywhere for refuge. And for me - we were three together that night, and we lie behind a brick wall. So one of the guys lying with me, he got shot on the head. His whole head got blown up. And his blood splashed all over my body. And so it was like the bullet hit all of us lying there. We're lying in a pool of blood. So, at that moment, I thought I was dead.

What I noticed that night, the soldiers were coming around, making sure that people who they shot, they were actually dead. So those who were lying, crying, screaming, those who were lying, crying and screaming, they shot them over, to ensure that they were completely dead. Then, they came and took the bodies away in an attempt to destroy evidence.

MARTIN: How did you get out of there?

Mr. MASSAQUOI: Very good question.

In the morning, people were hiding all over - in the roof of the building, everywhere. And we all came out from our hiding places. And we saw people from Red Cross and other humanitarian organizations. International media organizations came around.

MARTIN: And I understand that that was not the last time that you were in harm's way.

Mr. MASSAQUOI: There were many occasions when I personally thought I would have died.

MARTIN: As I understand it, that a couple of years later, about four years later when you were a student, you returned to your studies at some point that - I don't know whether this is a targeted assassination attempt or was it like the earlier incident where you were in a crowd, but that you were shot several times and almost died.

Mr. MASSAQUOI: Yes. I was part of a student movement in the university campus advocating against this war, advocating against the use of children in the military. And a day following our rally at the house where I was staying around the airport, a group of armed men attacked the building. And in the process, I was shot seven times in my right leg. And when they managed to enter the building, they actually asked, where is Jacob.

MARTIN: Hmm.

Mr. MASSAQUOI: And fortunately for me, before they entered the building, they entered the house, I had escaped the scene, though I was in pool of blood. But I had escaped the scene, and I was hiding in one of the closets.

MARTIN: How did you finally come to leave the country?

Mr. MASSAQUOI: In December of 2001, I was detained by the men belonging to the Taylor security operators. I was arrested and taken for questioning. And they asked - they kept me for three days in a dark room. I was torture. And they charged me with sedition, spreading of negative propaganda against the Taylor regime. Friends and sympathizers mounted pressure on the government. And finally, I was finally released.

MARTIN: Now you live on Staten Island in New York. There is a pretty large Liberian population there. Do you think or do you know whether many other people who live there have gone through the things that you've gone through?

Mr. MASSAQUOI: There's no doubt about it. I work in a program that provides services and social support to victims of torture.

MARTIN: Africa Refuge?

Mr. MASSAQUOI: African Refuge.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MASSAQUOI: And some of our participants actually filled out a form, suggesting that they were tortured. It is highly traumatic when people who have gone through torture or being tortured talk about it. So…

MARTIN: I hear you're moving in your chair. Are you uncomfortable now?

Mr. MASSAQUOI: No, I'm uncomfortable because I think that the question of torture, it is a very important question. And the world needs to know about the impact of this horrible crime and the need to put an end to torture.

MARTIN: The other thing you talked about, Jacob, is the whole question of child soldiers, as like - Charles Taylor is accused before the international tribunal of kidnapping children or pressing children into service as child soldiers. Do you know whether any children who were pressed into service have gotten asylum in the U.S., and how they are adjusting?

Mr. MASSAQUOI: This is a very sensitive issue. There may be some case -children who were former child soldiers in Liberia. And during asylum process, they don't write on a form that they were former child soldiers. But based on our own experience in our work, we've beginning to see signs that - of signs which suggest that some of the clients we work with were indeed former child soldiers based on a story, based on the experiences they shared with us.

MARTIN: Jacob, as we're speaking now, you - you're so level headed. You know, you're so even handed in the way that you speak about these things, but as I understand it, you know, you personally experienced so much trauma. I think you've lost six family members in the war. Is that right?

Mr. MASSAQUOI: Yeah.

MARTIN: How do you go on?

Mr. MASSAQUOI: I've developed a personal philosophy. The mission in this war is to become the voice of the oppressed, and to provide services and help those who are unable to help themselves.

MARTIN: Jacob Massaquoi is the director of African Refuge. It's a volunteer-based organization in Staten Island, New York that works to help African refugees. He spoke to us from our bureau in New York.

Jacob Massaquoi, thank you so much for speaking with us and sharing your story.

Mr. MASSAQUOI: Thank you.

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