IT IS a peaceful afternoon at St Dominic parish and mission in Tubmanburg, Western Liberia and birds and butterflies flit among the shrubbery as Father Garry Jenkins leads us into a tranquil grove behind the church.
Some of the children from the school, one of 364 in Liberia where Scottish charity Mary’s Meals provides a daily meal, chase each other around the palm trees, giggling.
“We are walking on the remains of 325 people, mainly children,” he says. He is standing next to a large whitewashed stone cross erected in memory of those who starved in the church grounds in one episode during the brutal civil wars that lasted from 1989 to 2003 and killed more than a quarter of a million people. A further 1.3 million were displaced.
“These children here died in 1996. They starved to death. That’s why I wanted Mary’s Meals to be close to the cemetery. I never want children to die again of starvation,” Fr Jenkins says.
Now aged 70, Fr Jenkins, who is from Aldershot in England, has been in Liberia since 1973. After being pushed into the army by his father at 15, he was posted to Aden where the work of priests so impressed him he trained for the priesthood.
Arriving in Bomi County, an hour north of Liberia’s capital Monrovia, he set up a mission that became a displacement camp when war broke out and warlord Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia militia battled with splintering rebel groups, the Liberian army and West African peacekeepers. In 1995, a peace agreement was signed and Taylor elected president, but respite was brief and fighting raged again between rebel groups and government forces until 2003.
“In January 1996 I couldn’t get back in to St Dominic’s because the road was closed by soldiers,” says Fr Jenkins.
“It stayed closed for nine months. Everyone was herded at gun point on to the mission and stayed here. The children were afraid to go into the bush to find food because boys were taken to hold guns and we know what happened to girls. All the palm trees were headless because they ate them, then they started dying.
“When the road opened in September it was like pictures of when the Allies went in to concentration camps at the end of the Second World War.
“There were 1,000 or more people here, in the church, in the classrooms… These were the survivors. We buried the bodies of 300 children and ten to 15 adults.”
With Taylor in power and various rebel groups fighting to overthrow him, Fr Jenkins ignored advice to flee. Then in 2002 the rebels came for him.
“They carried me into the forest and I was with them for a month and a bit, with 16 of them guarding me. I had resented being in the army as a child and having to carry a gun, so I wasn’t judgmental.
“These children were victims as well as perpetrators. They were children playing football who were taken away and forced to carry weapons,” he says.
Ten years after the end of the war, many of the former child soldiers and displaced children have now graduated from St Dominic’s school, set up by Fr Jenkins in 2004.
Mary’s Meals became involved with the school as Fr Jenkins had worked with founder Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow when his charity, which was then known as Scottish International Relief, sent aid shipments during the war.
“I called Magnus and said ‘We’re all hungry, can you help us?’ He told us to go ahead and buy some rice,” says Fr Jenkins. “In war there are no winners. The poor suffer always.”
Today, however poor, 113,000 children will eat a meal at schools in Liberia, and a total of 600,000 at schools in 16 countries worldwide. All for a global average cost of £10.70 per child per year, thanks to Mary’s Meals, the beneficiary of this year’s Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday Christmas appeal.
• You can make a difference. Go to www.marysmeals.org.uk