And Still Peace Did Not Come

A Memoir of Reconciliation


By Agnes Kamara-Umunna

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When bullets hit Agnes Kamara-Umunna’s home in Monrovia, Liberia, she and her father hastily piled whatever they could carry into their car and drove toward the border, along with thousands of others. An army of children was approaching, under the leadership of Charles Taylor. It seemed like the end of the world.

Slowly, they made their way to the safety of Sierra Leone. They were the lucky ones.

After years of exile, with the fighting seemingly over, Agnes returned to Liberia–a country now devastated by years of civil war. Families have been torn apart, villages destroyed, and it seems as though no one has been spared. Reeling, and unsure of what to do in this place so different from the home of her memories, Agnes accepted a job at the local UN-run radio station. Their mission is peace and their method is reconciliation through understanding and communication. Soon, she came up with a daring plan: Find the former child soldiers, and record their stories. And so Agnes, then a 43-year-old single mother of four, headed out to the ghettos of Monrovia and befriended them, drinking Club Beer and smoking Dunhill cigarettes with them, earning their trust. One by one, they spoke on her program, Straight from the Heart, and slowly, it seemed like reconciliation and forgiveness might be possible.

From Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Africa’s first female president, to Butt Naked, a warlord whose horrific story is as unforgettable as his nickname–everyone has a story to tell. Victims and perpetrators. Boys and girls, mothers and fathers. Agnes comforts rape survivors, elicits testimonials from warlords, and is targeted with death threats–all live on the air.

Set in a place where monkeys, not raccoons, are the scourge of homeowners; the trees have roots like elephant legs; and peacebuilding is happening from the ground-up. Harrowing, bleak, hopeful, humorous, and deeply moving–And Still Peace Did Not Come is not only Agnes’s memoir: It is also her testimony to a nation’s descent into the horrors of civil war, and its subsequent rise out of the ashes.


Chapter 1

MY FAMILY IS Gio. We lived in Monrovia when the soldiers started hunting people from our tribe. I was two years old and lived with my auntie. When the soldiers came, my parents ran to the church and we were going to run with them, but my auntie said we should wait. While we were waiting, we heard on the news that they were carrying on a massacre at the church. Everyone was being slaughtered. My mother, my father, my little sister! When this happened, my auntie screamed, “I am a Gio woman! See what they did to your mother, your father, and your little sister? If the people come and find out we are Gio, they will kill us, too!”

We could not stay there any longer. We ran to Nimba, which is where the revolution started and where my family comes from. My auntie thought we would be safe there. But she was an old woman, and when we got to Nimba she could not take the gunshots anymore. As soon as we got to our village, she died.

I remember crying, crying, my auntie dead and wondering who would take care of a little boy like me? People were running into the forest, so I followed them. I didn’t know nobody, nobody know me. Suddenly, one of Charles Taylor’s leaders jerked his thumb in my direction. He said I should follow him. He said he loved me because I was a bright child and had high-headed ways. He would promote me to the Small Boys Unit, which is what they called “The Marines” back then. And you know, as a child, you don’t have any sense, so I ran with that group until I was four or five years old.

At seven years, he gave me gun. I didn’t even know about guns, but he taught me to shoot and I did some things I still regret. Once, I was standing there and my commander and one of his deputies starting arguing. They made a bet about a pregnant woman—and if anybody is related to that woman, please forgive me. The rebel leader said the woman had a boy child in her stomach. His deputy said she had a girl child. They bet two hundred U.S. dollars.

Then my commander called me over. He said, “Jefferson!” I said, “Sir chief?” He say, “Open that woman! I want to see which child is in her stomach!” She was screaming. Crying “Lord, Lord, Lord.” But because we were all on drugs, we didn’t do things normally. I opened that woman raw to see what sex she was having. And the child was a male child, so my commander was happy. He got two hundred dollars U.S. for his trouble. And the woman died. And her baby died. And after I cleaned up the operation my commander said, “You are good to go.”



PEOPLE THOUGHT IT was Judgment Day. The end of the world. Suddenly everything we heard would happen if we didn’t live more righteously—Turn to God! Before it’s too late!—was raining down on our tiny African nation. Brother killed brother. Sons were forced to rape their mothers. Fathers were forced to sleep with their daughters just to save their lives. Children were sacrificed. Those who weren’t sacrificed or kidnapped stayed close to their parents. It was too dangerous for them to play outdoors. The beaches, the jungle, even the schoolyards, were full of bullets. For fourteen years, it was like the last day on earth.

Why God had chosen to start with Liberia was a mystery. So far as we knew we had done little and mattered less in the world’s eyes. We had waged no wars, built no nuclear weapons. The average Liberian’s salary would make you shake your heads in piteous disbelief. Still, we looked for answers: Would this be happening if I had worked harder? Been kinder to my loved ones? It took a long time for us to understand that the darkness swallowing our country had been building for a long time. We were demanding answers for actions that went back decades and, in some cases, centuries.

If you do not know Liberia, you are not alone. Most people can’t point to it on a map or know about the nightmare that for fourteen years tore our country apart. The few who do often lump it together with Africa’s other fifty-two countries and island nations and dismiss us. In telling you this story, I hope to change that perception, but not for the reasons you might think. What’s done can never be undone. We are responsible for our sorrow, and it is up to us, the Liberian people, to look back, look past, and move on. No one can do that for us. Still, everyone knows history’s talent for repeating itself. I am an optimist, but we live in a world where terrible things can and do recur. While I hope with all my heart that what happened to us never happens to you, we can learn from Liberia’s tragedy. If we don’t, someday our grief could be yours.

Of course, to understand the story of the Liberian child soldiers you first have to understand the story of our land. The Liberian people have a unique past. No matter what side of the war we were on, we possess a shared story. I am no historian. Or, rather, we are all historians in Liberia, and this gets us into trouble. Nevertheless, to help you grasp Liberia’s child soldiers, and also myself, a little better, I will do my best to lay down briefly the events and individuals that led to Liberia’s civil war. That war being two wars that left as many as three-fourths of our women raped, more than 250,000 people killed out of a population of 2.5 million, thousands more killers, and everyone knowing somebody buried under the earth.

Most people trace our nation’s beginning back to the early 1820s. It was then that a group of Americans decided the best way to manage freed black slaves and slaves coming into their freedom was to ship them roughly six thousand miles away to Africa. The American Colonization Society sent former slaves from the sweltering plantations of the southern United States to the sultry shores of modern-day Monrovia. Slaves freed from slave ships were also directed there. The settlers who didn’t die from malaria, yellow fever, hunger, or poisonous arrows courtesy of the native peoples went on to Christianize and subdue the natives and purchase or seize their land. In 1847, the colony of Liberia (meaning “liberty”) was founded. Its constitution was drafted in the United States. The freed slaves, now called “Americo-Liberians,” formed the True Whig Party and would dominate Liberian politics for the next 133 years.

As their dreams of independence took hold in a jewel-green land of jungles, snaking rivers, and a turquoise sea, the political and socioeconomic differences between the Americo-Liberian settlers and the natives grew. Draconian rule was punctuated by periods of diplomacy. The inequality increased and tensions built and built, and finally sparked the bloody war that devastated families, decimated communities, obliterated Liberia’s economy, and left profound physical and psychological scars. We called the first war, the one fought from 1989–1996, “World War I.” We called the second war, the one fought from 1999–2003, “World War II.” Which goes to show you just how horrific they were.

War doesn’t happen overnight, of course, and there were many good years before it came. At least that’s how it seemed to me, a small child whose world was shaped by the usual things: food, sleep, and smiling faces. In those early days, we had electricity in our house. Light shone from the streetlamps. Even the poor Liberians living in the zinc houses had freezers, rugs, and television sets. I remember a market near Randall Street where huge trucks would rumble in from Guinea, the Ivory Coast, and Sierra Leone. Townsfolk bustled about to buy and barter goods imported from America. For a time, among African nations, Liberia was seemingly a model of wealth and peace.

Only later did I learn the truth: that many Liberians who sold things at Randall Street or smiled and asked me my name in their native languages weren’t happy at all. They had few rights. They were treated like second-class citizens. Their futures weren’t futures, but shut doors. By the time these Liberians started advocating for their rights, however, we had moved to Sierra Leone. Although we made trips over the years, my memories of Liberia’s downward spiral are fleeting at best.

This prompts an obvious question: Who am I? Where do I fit into this picture? I am not a former child soldier. Nor an Americo-Liberian descended from slaves. Nor do I come from the bush. I am a forty-three-year-old woman and the daughter of two hardworking parents, a Sierra Leonean doctor and a Liberian nurse. If it weren’t for them, their good jobs and the modicum of privilege it brought me, I might be telling these child soldiers’ stories as my own. Heaven’s coin toss is mysterious, and why I was born at one time and children like Jefferson at another, no one knows. I share the details of my upbringing to give you some context, contrast my life with theirs, and tell you that, however complicated, my childhood was a paradise compared to his. It is the garden we Liberians are trying to get back to.

I entered the world on October 2, 1967, at Monrovia Catholic Hospital. When I turned two, my mother, Lucy, married a shy accountant named Reginald, who was not my father, and we moved to Sierra Leone. I grew up in a town called Kenema, which is located in the southeastern part of the country. It is a wet, tropical place with umbrella-like trees, impish monkeys, and cinnamon-colored roads. Hiding places abounded, which was perfect for me, a mischief-maker and frequent fugitive from dinner and bath-time.

Sierra Leone’s literacy rate isn’t anything to brag about now, nor was it then. A group of Peace Corps volunteers rented a house across from ours, and as a little girl, I was mesmerized by the smiling college graduates who taught in village schools. Motorcycles were the only way they could reach the remote places where they worked. Every day I would run to the big window in our living room and wait expectantly for them to return. I heard them shout, “Hello!” and “Good-bye! Safe journey!” It was like waiting for the ice-cream man.

Finally, one day I summoned my courage and made my move. Swishing my dress from side to side, I walked right over and recited the alphabet for the Americans. From that day forward, I was a welcome guest in the house across the street. I’d sing songs for them, flirt. They’d clap their hands encouragingly, let me touch their blond hair and try on their funny sandals. At one point, a woman who lived there came and asked my mother if she could take me back to America, where she lived. Sierra Leone was a peaceful place then, but perhaps this woman had a premonition of things to come. My mother considered her proposition, but in the end could not bear to part with me. What “international adoption” meant, and whether it would be a good thing for her daughter, were unclear.

As I grew older, I often thought about this missed opportunity. When I became a teenager, and later, when things got bad and people were desperate to leave Sierra Leone but couldn’t, I wished my mother had let me go. Now that I am in America, I realize that while it was my destiny to come here, that was not the time and way.

The trouble began when I was eleven. Sierra Leone’s president amended the constitution and banned all political parties aside from his. When this happened, my mother and stepfather exchanged concerned glances across the dinner table and clutched their newspapers with a tighter grip. One day, my stepfather had to come and rescue me from school when the president’s party started bombing the houses of people who supported his rivals and lived in our village. My stepsister and I were not allowed to play outside that day. The next morning, my worried mother stroked our hair and tried to do what adults everywhere, across the world, confronted with human cruelty, cannot: explain evil and assure us that everything would be all right. Later at school, I held my breath as I counted my classmates and breathed a sigh of relief to find all were present and accounted for.

When I turned twelve, like many African children, I nearly died from the measles. My grandmother ministered to me using native herbs, grinding up large-lobed leaves from the bush and mixing them with cane juice, rum, and sticky white clay, then smearing the paste all over my body. I looked like contemporary art. When my mother saw me, she scolded my grandmother for being “so backwards.” As a nurse, I think my grandmother’s techniques threatened her pride and sense of modernity.

Not that we were modern by your standards. Out behind the house, we had a big water tank where everyone took baths: children in the morning and adults in the evening when it was a bit more private. My little stepsister, Regina, was modest and didn’t want anyone to see her without clothes on. She took her baths at night by candlelight and arranged her hair for hours in front of the mirror my mother had hung from a rope above the sink. One night, while Regina was bathing, I took a white sheet and draped it over my body. Silent, lantern-like, I snuck behind the water tank and floated past her making chilling noises: “WhooOOOOoooo! WhoooOOOOOOoooo!

Regina screamed. She dropped the bar of soap and sprinted into our living room at breakneck speed. My mother and stepfather glanced up from their newspapers to find a very wet, terrified, and naked Regina struggling to cover herself and bawling. Sisters.

I would always make it up to Regina. At night, curled up on the mattress we shared, I defended her from mosquitoes and told her stories about noble princesses and wily hyenas. I walked her to school. Every morning, my mother gave us five cents each to buy our lunch, but I would give Regina mine, and she would buy the cassava cakes that she loved. We made a funny pair: me tall and thin, and Regina small and chubby.

When I was thirteen, I transferred to Queen of the Rosary Secondary School, a preparatory institution full of girls in starched dresses with their hair combed in cornrows. An obedience chart hung upon the wall of our classroom. If you did something naughty, such as talk in class or fail to finish your homework, the teacher scrawled a big, red X next to your name. More than 20 X’s a month resulted in a conduct card. If you received one of those, the principal called you up in front of the entire school at morning assembly to apologize. As if that weren’t enough, he called your parents in for a conference.

My mother had attended Queen of the Rosary Secondary School and still knew the principal and most of the teachers there. For that reason, I had to be extremely careful. When my friends got into trouble, they just went outside on the street and hired a total stranger to impersonate a relative: “When you come to school, make as if you are my uncle! Make as if you are my auntie! P.S. My name is Blessing!” But I had no such alternative. If I got ten X’s next to my name, I held my breath until the end of the month when, ahhh, our teacher took an eraser and wiped the slate clean.

One day, I don’t even remember what I did, but the principal called my mother in for a conference. When she arrived, without even hearing what I had done, my mother said the principal should flog me.

“Agnes is a good girl!” my teacher protested. “Don’t flog her! Her friends are to blame!”

My mother shook her head. “It’s not her friends, it’s Agnes,” she said, and pointed right at me. Her fists curled. Her eyes glowed like cooking coal. Collecting her handbag, she rose stiffly, exited the principal’s office, and proceeded to scan the schoolyard looking for someone man enough to do the deed. None of my teachers wanted to flog me, though. I grinned, believing I was in the clear. Only then, my mother found a teacher who had married one of her friends. He knew the consequences of crossing my mother, a woman whom no one in the community dared disobey. He flogged me twenty-four times with a switch. My classmates jeered. My backside was on fire!

It was moments like these when I wondered who my father was, and when he would come to rescue me. All these years, my mother had kept his identity a secret, and though I often asked about him, she refused to discuss the matter. I interviewed relatives, ransacked my mother’s closet, and even tried to bribe my stepfather, Reginald. All my sleuthing resulted in dead ends.

“Go ask Uncle Joe!” my mother would say, when I really started testing her patience. This seemed strange to me. Why would my mother send me to ask someone else? But of course, Uncle Joe was a wise doctor who taught anatomy at a medical school in Liberia and knew many things. It was highly possible he held the clue to my origins.

Joe had relatives in Sierra Leone and visited on a regular basis. There weren’t many African doctors in West Africa—there are few now—and his visits were always cause for celebration. Men admired his calm, amiable nature. Women, his movie star looks. To me, Joe was an easy hero who had been a part of my life for as long as I could remember. I adored his stories, his kind smile, and the chivalrous way he treated my mother. No one in our village made me feel as special or important as Joe did, and for no apparent reason, either!

On summer breaks and holidays, I would return home from school, and there Joe would be: in our living room, or standing at the gate with outstretched arms, waiting for me to run, zigzagging, into them. Every time he came to visit, my mother cooked a big meal. She brought out plates heaped with food—hills of check rice, pyramids of fried fish and plantains—and I would carry them to him. My mother and Joe talked quietly as I shoveled mouthfuls of rice with my fingers. I loved how she let her hair down, literally and figuratively, in Joe’s presence. What an effect he had on people! When I finished my plate, Joe would take me for a ride in his small car all over town. I would tell him what I was learning in school: poems, jokes, and multiplication tables. Joe would share funny stories about his village and the medical students he taught. His shining eyes would crinkle into a smile as I doubled over in laughter. At the end of the ride, Joe handed me money for a treat.

“Thank you plenty, Uncle Joe!” I would call after his car, clutching my coconut candy. I adored him.

Uncle Joe’s relatives lived nearby. Whenever I would pass by their houses, they would stop whatever they were doing and come outside and point at me. “That’s Joe’s child!” they would shout.

“Hello!” I would smile at them and wave.

“She smiles just like her father!” Uncle Joe’s relatives would slap their knees gleefully. “She is a replica of him!” And I would scamper off, never putting two and two together.

Until one day, when I was passing by one of these houses and saw Uncle Joe in the window.

“Hello, Uncle Joe!” I singsong shouted.

He waved. But then another man, I think it was his brother, walked out of the house and started shouting. “Why are you calling this man Uncle Joe? This is your Daddy!”

I stopped dead in my tracks. Images of Joe’s visits flashed through my mind like the movies broadcast at the village cinema. Suddenly, I realized I’d known all along.

“Is it true?” I asked Uncle Joe.

I didn’t need to. He was walking toward me with tears in his eyes, mirror images of my own.

I don’t know why he didn’t tell me before. We’ve never really talked about it. I think Joe wanted to, but was struggling to find a way. Now he saw that I was growing up and needed to know these things. It was strange, you know? I was thrilled to have a father . . . and not just any father: Uncle Joe! Still, I wondered why he had kept this secret from me, and what he had been worried about. Had Joe been testing me? Was he ever going to tell me? Had I not measured up to the daughter of his dreams? Our easy relationship was suddenly freighted with questions and alien emotions. Now that I came from Joe, I didn’t know how to act around him.

Then there was being Dr. Joseph Kamara’s daughter. When I did right, people clicked their tongues and pinched my cheeks and said I was destined for greatness, just like him! When I did wrong, which was more often, these same people reminded me how unlike Joe I was. It was like running a never-ending race. In those early days, I often grew exhausted and frustrated trying to live up to my new name: Agnes Fallah-KAMARA.

Still, there were perks. My school friends were dazzled. The principal was impressed. I quickly adapted to my newfound celebrity. As for Uncle Joe, from that day forward he introduced me proudly, using my first and middle name:

“This is Agnes Mam, my daughter. My first daughter.”

In Africa, it’s special to be the first child. We get the most privileges but feel the most pressure (you can think of it as favoritism with a hitch). Around his friends and relatives, Joe would brag about my achievements, however small, and not even mention his children by a different marriage. Everywhere we went, he introduced me like that.

Happiness doesn’t last forever, and new relationships are soon challenged. When I turned sixteen, my stepfather, Reginald, died from a heart attack. He had never treated me as a stepdaughter, but a daughter with full rights and privileges, and I was very sad to see him go. My mother held a funeral. My father, wearing a distinguished suit and tie, came to pay his respects. He returned a few days later with a proposal:

“I’m sorry your husband has died, Lucy,” he consoled my weeping mother. “Why don’t you let me take Agnes Mam to relieve some of the burden?”

My mother is the sort of woman who always seems to be wearing shoulder pads, even on holidays, even in the summertime—and certainly in crises. She put her foot down. In desperation, I reminded her she had nearly given me up for adoption when I was small, but she wouldn’t budge. At the time, I accused her of engaging in a “power struggle.” It wasn’t my fault my parents had broken up. I said it wasn’t fair for her to sacrifice my happiness and relationship with Joe, just because she hadn’t been able to make her own work. Now, knowing what I do about what was happening in Liberia, I wish I hadn’t said those things.

The country of my birth was no more. Just three years earlier, a Liberian soldier with a sixth-grade education named Samuel Kanyon Doe, had seized power from Liberia’s president, William Tolbert. Doe and his fellow coup-makers assassinated Tolbert in cold blood inside his presidential mansion, incarcerated dozens of Tolbert’s officials, and executed thirteen of his cabinet members on a public beach. In that instant, the 133-year rule of the Americo-Liberians came to a close. So did life as Liberians knew it. Doe established a military government. The ethnic groups that had lived side by side in peace for generations drew lines around their homes, properties, and hearts. Over time, as resistance to Doe’s government intensified, human rights abuses escalated. Torture, disappearances, extrajudicial killings, and other forms of impunity became routine. Doe manipulated ethnic differences, laying the groundwork for the ethnic cleansing that would take place during the war. Although my father was in no immediate danger—he did not come from a tribe Doe targeted—people can make mistakes in wartime. I don’t know for certain, but I think these events might have played a role in my mother’s refusal to let me go and live with him. In typical teenage fashion, I couldn’t see past my own nose, however, and accused her of making me “suffer for her mistakes.”

My father was disappointed. Over the years, he would try to explain what had happened between him and my mother and get stuck. “It was true love in youthful thinking . . .” he used to say, dabbing his eyes with the hem of his white coat.

My mother kept a large wooden chest stashed in her closet, which I was forbidden to touch. One day, when she was out, I dug through her chest and found love letters they had written when they were teenagers. Lucy my love and Joe my darling . . . Triumphant and annoyed, I brought them to my mother.

“You see! He was my father all these years and you never told me!” I said. “What is going on between you two?”

My mother shrugged.

So, I don’t know what happened, but here is what I believe: My parents are still in love. And here is how I know: Anytime my mother sees a picture of my father, she grabs it from my hand, takes her stick of glue, and pastes it in her scrapbook. “Why are you stealing all my pictures?” I say. “You say you don’t love this man, but you do! It’s written in your face! It is there!” Closing her scrapbook, my mother shutters her face and smiles mysteriously, or she complains that my father spoils me and doesn’t spoil her. And when I tell my father this, he says, “I called your mother!” And when I tell my mother this, she just laughs.

I suppose I’ll never get an answer. Still, after all these years and all the things I’ve seen Liberian people confront and overcome, I want them to reconcile. I want to say, Mom, I love Dad. Dad, I love Mom. I just want peace between you two. There is too much war in the world as it is.

Chapter 2

THE REBELS CAME in the night to the village where I lived with my grandmother. They took me from my bed, just as they had done with so many other children. For the first two days, I had my hands tightly bound. But as we approached the Sierra Leone border, they loosened my hands and gave me bags to carry. All this time, I kept my eyes down. I was terrified. I knew that I would soon be given my first assignment. I didn’t have to wait long.

When ULIMO rebels saw anyone riding a bicycle, they had a policy of killing them. People on bicycles pose a threat, as they can ride to the next village and raise an alarm. We came across a man on a bike, and I was told to beat him to death with a piece of wood. I didn’t hesitate because doing so would have meant sacrificing my own life. Boys who were unable to kill—and there were many—were subsequently killed themselves.

After several months, I was given a gun. They told me to smear shea butter over my hands, feet, and forehead. This, the rebels said, would give me the courage to kill, but it would make me fall to the ground should I try and escape. Unfortunately, I believed them.


On Sale
Mar 22, 2011
Page Count
256 pages
Hachette Books

Agnes Kamara-Umunna

About the Author

Agnes Kamara-Umunna was born in Liberia, where she hosted the radio program Straight From the Heart and is a statement taker for the Liberia Truth & Reconciliation Commission. She lives in New York with her three children.

Emily Holland is an in-house producer and reporter for the International Rescue Committee (IRC), has contributed to Jane Magazine, the Princeton Alumni Weekly, and writes a “Dispatches from a Humanitarian Journalist” column for Dave Eggers’s online publication McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.

Learn more about this author