MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, the latest music fashion and art from Africa, it might be the next big thing. But first we're going to continue our international briefing to Liberia. We have often spoken about the bloody decade long civil war that left more than 250,000 people dead and another half million displaced. Today though, the challenge is peace, and to the degree that the world has paid attention - much of the attention has been focused on the challenge of reintegrating returning warriors back into society, and of caring for women victims of sexual violence.
But some women are both - by some accounts as many as 30,000 of them, a third of the fighting forces were women, many were victims of sexual abuse, many were both witness to and participants in other forms of violence. Their struggle is now chronicled in a new documentary, "Women of Liberia: Fighting for Peace," it highlights the struggle of several women fighters now trying to reclaim their lives and find a place in society. We're pleased to welcome two of them, Jackie Redd and Florence Ballah. Welcome and thank you for talking to us.
Ms. JACKIE REDD (Former Soldier, Liberia): Thank you, too.
Ms. FLORENCE BALLAH (Former Soldier, Liberia): Thank you, too.
MARTIN: When I watched the film the first thing that struck me about both of you was the strength of your posture, you both seemed very strong within yourselves. And Florence, I'm going to play a short clip of you talking about why women took up arms.
(Soundbite of documentary "Women of Liberia: Fighting for Peace")
Ms. BALLAH: When I had my own gun with me when you come you are not going to come and throw me out. You are not coming to say to me because, I myself are my only girl, so, that's why I'm going to go.
MARTIN: And I have to say that you're very feminine, you know you have a lovely face, and a lovely...
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: You're lovely - you're a very lovely woman.
Ms. BALLAH: Thank you.
MARTIN: But do you remember why you became a soldier? Can you say?
Ms. BALLAH: Yeah, it happened on the 22 of December, 1983, when we went to the border to fetch for food when we were in Guinea around the border. We never had food to eat and people were dying in a part of that place. And when went to go for food - why in that process when a guy saw us - we never knew their motive, really we never knew that they had bad motive for us. And they say we need to cross over to Liberia in order for us to get what we want, and that's why we were forced to cross because, we were hungry and we needed food. So, we crossed over and when we crossed over we just - know people already ambushed, and we saw this commander at a time he was called Blood Sucker and when we met him we even forgot about the food that we went for.
We were all on the ground and they put us on a gunpoint - we were on a gunpoint. They tried to rape us and why in that move my father was trying to resist the acts and he got shot and killed. And my mother was screaming and was screaming for what is happening - while crying she also got shot and then she was taken later into a bush and let her die because she couldn't make it. And they killed my sisters, and then my brother, and I was badly raped. And I was taken to their camp where I was kept in a house for about three days, and he would just go on having me, having me, having me - on and on, on and on.
MARTIN: How old were you?
Ms. BALLAH: At the time I was just 13, going to 14.
Ms. BALLAH: Yeah, 13 going to 14. He was the guy who took my womanhood away. My pride, my virginity, he was the one who took it away. And he said you will be a (unintelligible) with me, and whether or not you like it or not, you must be a (unintelligible) with that - commander (unintelligible).
MARTIN: Did they ever give you any reason for doing what they do?
Ms. BALLAH: They never give any reason, and they couldn't give me any reason because, they had no reason to do that. I was not a criminal. I was just a child. And my parents didn't do anything to them, so, they had no reason of killing them. But they just felt like doing it because, they say WARO was defined as our right so, no one had a right at that time.
MARTIN: Jackie, I'd like to hear your story. And Florence thank you for that, it cannot be easy to have to continually tell this to people that you don't know.
Ms. BALLAH: Yeah.
MARTIN: So, I thank you for this.
Ms. BALLAH: Thank you.
MARTIN: Jackie, can you tell me your story?
Ms. REDD: My story was like, 1990 when the war started. I was living in Monrovia in Lita (ph) when the war started we decided to fled Monrovia to find a safety zone and everywhere everybody was in group. And a man just came outside and say - hey, you get off my line. I want you for to be my wife and he later carry me, he left me there. As he left another man would come and say he want to have me, he would do what he wanted to, he would go another person would come, like four persons (unintelligible) until I decided to find ways to run away and go and jump because, I need a protection because I feared that if I had gone nobody would be able to do that to me, and that why it made me to jump. But I was not able to explain that story to anybody because in Liberia it would sound so ugly and put a stigma on me. So I decided to jump, to protect my life. (Unintelligible) they was sexually abused.
MARTIN: And they want to protect themselves.
Ms. REDD: Themselves, yes.
MARTIN: How is this possible that seeing people who are raping these girls then allow you to become warriors alongside them, or is it different people?
Ms. REDD: Because, after they (unintelligible) I never knew them because, at that time I was 14. So, I ran away - I went and joined you got see I would be finished because my father was killed, his property, everything was taken from him. And when that happened like you are say - how would that be? Like you see people that abuse your right, or violate your right - you go on being with them. That's why it was just a normal thing what was happening. Jackie won't have to say - I will leave her here to the next rebel group. If you get to the next rebel group you are definitely going to be killed because they will call you a spy - because, they don't want you to see something here and take it back, so, that trust wouldn't be there. ..TEXT: MARTIN: I understand. Jackie you said something that there was a stigma about being a woman soldier. How so?
Ms. REDD: Like being a woman soldier a lot of people saw that I - everyone was joined together you were happy and joining to kill them or to do terrible things to them. But they never understand the aspect of it, of women joining. I joined because of protect myself and in protection- if I was ever to protect people too, because, I never joined it with my heart to say I will be cooler or I'll be holy army and be killing other people. But I just said that for self defense and to help other people.
MARTIN: How were you able to get out? Or did it only end when the war ended?
Ms. REDD: Yeah, I stayed with them because, why. I couldn't have (unintelligible) so I just have to stay there. I couldn't leave (unintelligible) so it's like where you find yourself, is where you stay. You don't have to move when you're in there. So, you like you pause to one place, and so you just have to stay with that group until everything get normal.
MARTIN: I want to play a short clip of Jackie - from you in the film and you talked about how you survived, and here it is.
(Soundbite of documentary "Women of Liberia: Fighting for Peace")
(Soundbite of birds chirping)
Ms. JACKIE REDD: I experienced (unintelligible) white people. It took a man and it took a woman to make it on bravery and challenges.
MARTIN: Did you feel at least while you were with the rebel group - did you feel safe?
Ms. REDD: By that time I had (unintelligible) from the starting I was raped, like four men have me (unintelligible) by that time nobody could talk for anybody. Everybody just finding their own way. At that time you see woman and men that would shoot, at that time it was tribal war. If you couldn't speak your dialect at that time you would be killed. So, it's like everybody fight for their self. You fight for your own survival.
MARTIN: How is it for you now? How do you live now?
Ms. REDD: Like I find myself first like war and going back into society it was like a stigma only by all the people wouldn't understand my problems. They would say they would say like oh they all justified to fight, this that.
MARTIN: They thought you were a killer?
Ms. REDD: Er?
MARTIN: Did they think you were a killer?
Ms. REDD: They thought I was a killer because all the people thought never honesty in the aspect that made me to join.
MARTIN: Are they - are other people afraid of you now?
Ms. REDD: No, people feel free because they know, I proved myself today in the areas there, I don't want you for to look at me this way. I am a person, you must calculate that from the beginning because you never knew my problem. So, now in my area, is like I'm happy a lot of people making them the honesty and talking to other people that they can transform their life and if they decided to be choose, they can make a better life for themselves.
MARTIN: Florence what about you, how were you able to come home again? Did you have any family to come home to?
Ms. BALLAH: I never had parents to turn, but I still tried to make myself to be part of society and it was hard really, because they thought like, Florence was a worrier, she was like this, she was like that. But it was not like the way they expected, or the way they were talking that's not how it was just like.
MARTIN: Do you think that people look down on you?
Ms. BALLAH: Many did that, many did they feel like Florence won't be important in society, especially be a motherless and fatherless child. They felt like nothing was going to come out of me. Before the war, at my age, I was in the library and when the wars subsided in 1987, I decided to go back to school. And I went to school, I graduated and then I had never had the opportunity from the day I graduated from high school to get back to college. But, I also took that time to go to the church, I became a member of that church, I play many roles in the church, because of that the pastor, the congregation members, they are impressed about me. And right now, I'm working with the Women's Right Anti-war Crisis Center, where I go about educating women about the right of women. Because of that they started to know that Florence is not empty, there is something special about her, that's how they said to me.
MARTIN: Jackie, some of the - as you know of course, that we in the U.S. are fighting wars in two places now, in Iraq and Afghanistan. And some of the people who have come back, have come back changed and sometimes it's hard for them to put the war behind them. Is it ever like that for you?
Ms. REDD: I would say it was like that but I'd be so grateful to fight for common ground, it's the international endure that brought me on board on a program, like they had a program that they call it A Young Citizen by reintegrating children what have been affected in war and they brought me on board. And when I started working with them they took me, they encouraged me, so I was so proud, so I've decided to say if I stay they thinking about war, I won't have nothing to do. But I feel within myself I have a long way to go, I'm still young. I can do something better for myself and for the future and for another generation to come there. They will start from my force there a nation can be built, by maybe from two person and other people can come and carry on from there.
MARTIN: What do you want for the rest of your life?
Ms. REDD: I want to be a female lawyer, that I will be able to plead for women that unfortunately, they don't have money if they have been raped unjustly, I can stand for them and do that for them. But right now, we need education in everywhere that we are able to give, real quality education that we are able to achieve our dreams.
MARTIN: And forgive me for asking if this is too personal, but would you like to have a family?
Ms. REDD: I will, I have a son. My son will be graduating this year from high school. Yeah.
MARTIN: High school? You're too young to have a son in high school. Well, is he doing well?
Ms. REDD: Yeah, he's doing well.
MARTIN: Very good. All right, congratulations.
Ms. REDD: Thank you.
MARTIN: Florence, what about you, what do you want for the rest of your life?
Ms. BALLAH: Florence wants to be a medical doctor. She want to save life. So I can have a medical, I mean a medical center that would be called, some day, Redeemer Hospital. Yeah, that's the dream that I have and I want to believe that war has give me this inspiration and I want believe that. War will make everything possible for me to arrive there. And I would be able to train other people that want to follow my format. They will be train in a particular place because I can that is going to be a large compound where we will have medical schools, where people will go and learn and then when you are finished you will be able to work. So, I want to believe if I get it, I also will help to create job facilities for other people.
MARTIN: And may I ask you the same question, would you like to have a family?
Ms. BALLAH: I already have a family. I'm married with two children. Yeah, so I'm proud of myself because many days men came away and they play games with me, they feel that I was not important to them. And when Sabala (ph) came on my way, he - with all my story, with all that I told him, that men did this to me, men did that to me, he said come on Florence, I'm going to marry you. I took it for fun, because many people said that to me.
MARTIN: He wasn't part of the war?
Ms. BALLAH: No, he wasn't part of the war. He is scared for his life in Guinea and he was there until he came back and this guy and myself.
MARTIN: Do you ever feel mad at him though? That he did not have to live through what you went through?
Ms. BALLAH: No, I do no feel angry, I fell like he escaped for life because he had a chance to escape, where I didn't have a chance to escape, so that I don't have to be angry. It was meant that way, but now we are together as one.
MARTIN: I'm so glad.
Ms. BALLAH: Yeah.
MARTIN: Wonderful, congratulations.
Ms. BALLAH: Thank you very much.
MARTIN: Jackie Redd and Florence Ballah, are former women fighters from Liberia. They are featured as part of the Amnesty International documentary, "Women of Liberia: Fighting for Peace." They are here in Washington where they are having important meetings and telling their story. We are grateful to them for that. They were kind enough to join us here in our studio in Washington D.C. Ladies thank you so much and congratulations and good luck to you both.
Ms. BALLAH and Ms. REDD: Thank you.
MARTIN: To see pictures of our guests and watch a clip of the film you can go to our website at npr.org and click on Tell Me More.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.