A year after Liberia's bloody civil war

The sound of machine-gun fire shatters the night silence of Chocolate City. Cecilia cowers in her bed as the cacophony draws nearer. Suddenly three masked soldiers burst through her front door and, as her husband rises to protect his family, he is shot in the head. The gunmen then reach for Cecilia, pull out a knife and slice off her underwear.

The rape lasts two hours. The soldiers violate Cecilia and her daughters, aged 15 and 18, more times than they can count. She remembers the screams, and her husband’s bloodied remains crumpled on the floor beside her. A fourth soldier is standing guard outside. "Anybody come here, I will kill you," he warns the neighbours. Afterwards, the soldiers empty the house of its valuables and disappear into the night.

Rape, murder and plunder: an average night at the height of Liberia’s bloody civil war last summer. Charles Taylor, the country’s warlord-cum-president, is under siege. Rebels have surrounded the seaside capital, Monrovia, pushing Taylor’s rag-tag forces out of the port, over the city bridges and towards the Atlantic Ocean. The rebels’ shells rain down on the terrified city, where hundreds of thousands of refugees cram into churches, schools and houses. Several thousand of them have already died. Aid workers have deserted the city in helicopters that touched down behind the barbed wire of the US embassy. The besieged locals left behind call the conflict World War Three.

In the presidential mansion Taylor - gun runner, diamond smuggler and pioneer in the dark art of training drugged-up child soldiers - is running out of options. The rebel shells cannot touch him, but the US is exerting massive pressure for his departure into exile. Two battleships packed with Marines lurk offshore. The famously wily president is getting desperate. And, on the chaotic streets outside, so are his notoriously ill-disciplined soldiers.

As it becomes clear that their leader - fondly referred to as Pappy - is preparing to jump ship, the government soldiers run riot in neighbourhoods such as Chocolate City, a suburb of Monrovia. They call it Operation Pay Yourself, a semi-official military strategy that essentially involves stealing as much as possible from defenceless civilians at gunpoint. The tactic has been employed many times over Liberia’s 14 years of conflict, by both government and rebel soldiers. In the violent chaos of the closing weeks of the war, it is accompanied by mass, brutal rape.

Days before Cecilia was attacked, the government fighters hit the house a few doors down, where three sisters crowded into a tiny room. "We started hearing people yelling, ‘They are coming! They are coming!’" recalls 28-year-old Rhoda. There was no mercy, not even for her sister Patience, who was nine months pregnant. As they raped Rhoda, her sister screamed in fear. The soldiers hit her so hard she went into convulsions.

The following night, a grandmother watched as soldiers raped 16-year-old Lucy. One bit her in the face, leaving an imprint of his teeth on her cheek, still visible today. As was their habit, they crowned the violence with theft, departing with everything they had the strength to carry - clothes, dishes, mattresses.

Chocolate City is probably little different to many other parts of Liberia, where rape and pillage have become everyday events. Still, the scale of sexual assault during last summer’s battle was particularly horrifying, says Heidi Lehman, of the International Rescue Committee, a charity which offers counselling and helps victims find missing relatives through the International Red Cross. "There is no doubt that this was a huge part of the conflict," she says.

Today Liberia is enjoying a fragile peace. President Taylor has fled into exile in nearby Nigeria. The world’s largest peacekeeping force - 15,000 UN soldiers from 45 countries - has fanned out across the country. The former fighters are disarming, lured by the promise of a 300 payment. During the first week of a recent UN-led disarmament programme, over 2,000 fighters handed their weapons in. Many more are expected to follow.

But for the rape victims of Chocolate City there are no rewards, only continuing pain and poverty. The chairman of the transitional government, Gyude Bryant, a local businessman, has urged Liberians to forgive the decommissioned soldiers. But women such as Cecilia live in terror of bumping into the men who so casually destroyed their lives.

For months many victims did not voice their trauma, assuming rape was a burden to be endured alone. Social stigma, fuelled by fear and shame, cemented the silence. But there was one courageous exception. Rita’s ten-year-old daughter Nannu died while being raped by a government fighter. The last thing the little girl said was, "Mummy, help me. He’s killing me."

But Rita was powerless to help because she too was being assaulted, as were another daughter and her 16-year-old son. When they realised they had killed Nannu, the soldiers grabbed what they could of the family goods and left. Rita ran to her daughter. "I saw blood. I saw vomit. He raped her to death," she says.

A month later, wild with grief and still wearing the dress she was attacked in, Rita found her way to a support group run by the Concerned Christian Community (CCC). Throughout the war CCC provided counselling and medical care for up to 1,500 women. Now they meet under a crude bamboo-and-tarpaulin shelter to sing songs and perform plays. "Therapy brings back memories of home and keeps their minds busy," says counsellor Melissa Wilson.

Learning to talk about her daughter’s murder triggered a flood of emotion in Rita. Relating the tragic story to counsellors and visiting journalists helped her come to terms with the loss. That strength soon became an inspiration to other wounded women, and formed the seeds of their own organisation, War-Affected Women in Liberia.

By the end of October, 42 women and girls were meeting in an car park. It was a forum for wounds to be painfully re-opened, then healed. Rita led the way. She recalled dragging Nannu’s limp body amid gunfire and shelling to a swamp about 300 metres from her house. Her children hastily buried the girl’s remains in a shallow hole that was not even deep enough for her body. "They bury my daughter with her toes up. So my boy took the shovel and just beat her toes then poured sand over her," she says. "Then we had to run for our lives. We slept in the swamp that night."

Cecilia buried her husband in the same place. Over the following weeks she returned every day - not to pay her respects, but to feed her family. Limited emergency rations were available in a handful of refugee camps outside Monrovia, but Cecilia and her neighbours were trapped in Chocolate City. Under constant threat from stray bullets, they slogged through the thick, foul-smelling mud to collect "kissmeat" - small shells containing pea-sized mussels. It wasn’t particularly nutritious, she admits. "We just eat it so we don’t drop."

During the war, Monrovia’s only proper medical facility was in the John F Kennedy hospital, where Red Cross surgeons worked under extreme conditions to treat the war-wounded and civilian victims of rape, stray bullets and mortar attacks. But for many even the journey to hospital was too perilous, involving a trip through deserted streets where teenage militia high on drugs manned makeshift roadblocks. Martha saw her seven-year-old granddaughter raped by soldiers. She searched in vain for a doctor to help. In the end all she could do was watch helplessly as the girl bled to death.

Only when the fighting ended did it become clear how much the war had decimated Liberia’s social infrastructure. Schools had been shelled, government offices turned into rebel brothels, and there was barely a hospital left functioning. Liberia was officially the world’s most destitute country.

Last February international donors pledged 1 billion to help rebuild the country. Even so, it will be a struggle. "It’s about lifting sunken ships from the harbour, starting the electrical grid, healthcare and education - things that really need doing," says Jacques Klein, head of the UN mission.

The local health system in particular is struggling, unable to cope with a flood of sexually transmitted disease cases. The women of Chocolate City suffer from all manner of infections - including HIV or Aids. But most struggle to get even basic help.

Joyce, for example, was raped when she was five months pregnant. Now she is so weak she can barely move her head when she talks. But when she went to a local clinic looking for help, the nurses gave her aspirin.

"Local medical staff have probably not been trained to identify or deal with these cases. So the woman is sent away and the problems persist," says Heidi Lehman. The International Rescue Committee has set up its own clinic to start treating women for basic infections and sexually transmitted diseases.

Once their physical wounds are healed, the next logical step for the women will be justice. "All we have at the moment are horror stories," says Jon Pace, protection co-ordinator for the UN. "There is a need to address these cases at an individual level. But if there is a pattern of crimes against humanity, it becomes a war crime. And then the perpetrators need to answer to society."

Unfortunately it may not be that easy. Bryant says he is opposed to a war-crimes tribunal such as the one in neighbouring Sierra Leone. "It would do nothing to heal the wounds," he says. A court of this kind would also present other, perhaps more immediate, perils for the former businessman - the transitional administration he heads is packed with representatives from the militias responsible for some of the worst atrocities.

Western human-rights activists say a war-crimes tribunal is vital to break the cycle of impunity that has been a feature of wars across west Africa over the past decade. "These rapes were clearly a tactic to achieve political aims, just as they were in Sierra Leone," says Lehman. "They forced family members to watch because they knew it would tear communities apart."

For now, though, the new government is mainly concerned with keeping the demobilised fighters out of any new wars. The past two decades of instability in west Africa have created a generation of young guns-for-hire who wander from one conflict to another. Many come from Liberia itself, where Taylor set up a brigade of drugged-up child soldiers known as the Small Boys Unit.

Now Bryant is trying to help the gunmen find more gainful employment - but with an unemployment rate of 85%, it is a mammoth task. More trouble is brewing over the eastern border, meanwhile: an ominous impasse in Cte d’Ivoire’s peace process is threatening a vicious resumption of its civil war.

For rape victims, the political process has done little to heal their wounds. But it has given them a rare taste of peace and a chance to rebuild their shattered lives.

But War-Affected Women of Liberia remains a unique venture - a lone voice in the struggle against stigma and a powerful testament to the quiet heroism of the women of Chocolate City. u

If you would like to make a donation to help fund the International Rescue Committee’s work, see the How to Help page on its website, www.theirc.org/liberia/