Girls barely in their teens described rape, enslavement and other brutality they had endured at the hands of anti-government soldiers. One 13-year-old lifted her skirt to show her leg, mutilated by a bullet - only the most visible scar from a physical and sexual assault. Another girl had seen her parents murdered before her eyes, and at 14 now had a child of her own, fathered by the soldier who raped her.
Adj. Asst. Prof. Paul Kline (GSSW): "The attitude people displayed was that they needed to return home with the best possible skills and abilities they had to rebuild their country. When you walked through the camp, you'd be inspired by the resolve and commitment."
The visit with the Sierra Leonese children was just one of many compelling experiences for Kline during the five weeks he spent in May working at a United Nations refugee camp in Sinje, Liberia. Kline was recruited as a consultant by the International Rescue Committee to help them assess the resources the camp's 16,000 people needed to begin rebuilding their lives, and their nation.
For Kline, it was a crash course in West Africa's complex, bloody geopolitics, which have been played out in the nine-year conflict between the Sierra Leone government and members and allies of the Revolutionary United Front. But amid the desperate scenes, Kline saw relatively little of the hopelessness and passivity so often associated with refugee camps.
"It's paradoxical," he explained. "There is tremendous deprivation, but there are also impressive levels of devotion to neighbors and community among the people there. What they've accomplished in building schools, organizing themselves and advocating for their own needs is remarkable.
"The attitude people displayed was that they needed to return home with the best possible skills and abilities they had to rebuild their country," he said. "When you walked through the camp, you'd be inspired by the resolve and commitment."
Kline was recruited by the International Rescue Committee through a former student of his now working with the organization, Erin Mone '99. Staying in a refugee camp in such close proximity to a war zone was a risky enough prospect, but the journey there was no less unnerving, Kline said. Liberia, still struggling with the aftermath of its own civil war, also has been a player in the Sierra Leonese conflict, he said, and the route to Sinje was full of "provocative and menacing" soldiers, some of them clearly intoxicated.
Kline's task was to help assist the IRC staff in counseling and needs assessment, as well as offer support to the refugees themselves. But the region's troubled history created an even greater degree of difficulty for undertaking the assignment, he said.
"Most of the IRC staff were Liberians, who, of course, had not long ago lived through many of the same conditions as the people in the refugee camp," Kline explained. By the same token, the teachers working with the children he visited were themselves recovering from physical and emotional distress.
"The children really wanted a chance to articulate their sense of isolation, their sadness and fear," he said. "We talked about how the school might help in ways other than teaching them to read and write."
Kline says his experience at the camp affirmed for him the positive role social work and human services professionals can play in such crises.
"The people in the refugee camp did not ask for the typical therapeutic intervention to deal with their trauma; it would've been contrary to long-standing cultural tradition," he said. "They wanted help in creating more natural settings and resources to accomplish that, and provide opportunities for citizens to work together, such as schools or adult vocational programs. These settings, in turn, offered a chance for members of the camp to share stories, commiserate and deal with their grief and loss.
"So what Western-educated and trained professionals need to ask themselves in these situations," Kline continued, "is how to shape resources and services so they draw upon the traditions and systems of the people being helped."
Even as the refugees labored to overcome their losses, Kline said, they knew these efforts could easily go for naught. The war could intensify and reach their fragile beachhead, he explained, or the Liberian government - observing an uneasy truce with the UN - might decide to relocate or disband the camp.
"They understand that everything could change overnight," Kline said. "The thing they wanted, most of all, was to let everyone know that they're alive and have stories to tell.
"They don't want to be forgotten."
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