Africa

Liberia's psychiatric wasteland for ex-child soldiers

Isabelle Ligner

About 50 teenagers amble hollow-eyed on the lawn of Liberia's sole psychiatric hospital, drug-laced casualties of a civil war fought using children.

Like zombies from a nightmare, about 50 teenage boys and girls amble hollow-eyed on the lawn of Liberia’s sole psychiatric hospital, drug-laced casualties of a civil war fought using children.

“The majority come here to be treated for drug addiction, some also for schizophrenia,” says John Philip, a psychiatric nurse at the facility in Paynesville, on the outskirts of the capital Monrovia.

“During the war, the rebels who abducted them and forced them to fight fed them with alcohol and drugs—mainly crack cocaine, and they could never stop,” he said.

Liberia’s 1989-2003 conflict left a population bearing both physical and emotional scars of the ruinous war—and decimated the infrastructure that could help them. Almost six years later, the health system is still limping along.

Experts calculate that more than half the population of 3,5-million have psychological problems, 80% of them war-related, often the legacy of rape and the conscription of 21 000 children, some as young as nine, who were used as soldiers or sex slaves.

High-profile attention has been given to the use of child soldiers. The award-winning 2008 film Johnny Mad Dog, set in an unnamed African country, used one-time Liberian child soldiers to recreate the life of boys taken from their families, fed crack and handed AK47 rifles.

The film was showcased last July at the United Nations headquarters in New York, but the story it did not tell was the shocking aftermath on such youngsters shorn of their innocence and their families.

The teens at the Paynesville centre, which is run by the German NGO Capanamour, are treated under the watchful eye of German psychiatrist Reiner Merkel.

For many, the drugs help “ease the suffering engendered by war atrocities,” said Merkel.

“It helped them to survive in conditions that were not human during the conflict, and they cannot live without drugs because being conscious would mean remembering the terrible things they did.”

“Now I take drugs to end my life”
“Before, I was taking drugs to forget, to be strong, now it is to end my life,” said one youth named Lansana, lying listlessly on a bed.

Liberian officials leading the fight against drugs deplore their availability and relative low cost, saying a wrap of Latin American cocaine in Monrovia costs just $5. And cocal cannabis can be bought for just 50 cents.

During the war, child soldiers from the age of nine upwards were mainly served up a type of crack known locally as “brown-brown”, which leaves “irreversible consequences on the brain,” Philip said.

According to the nurse, many among the Paynesville patients have been driven to self-mutilation, attempted suicide and violence against those closest to them.

Some patients have fled the centre by jumping the perimeter walls, only for their families to bring them back—in some cases naked and bound at the wrists and ankles.

While the hospital’s white and turquoise interior—and the replacement drugs they are administered—lends an air of calm to the scene, Philip said the problems are numerous.

“We treat them with drugs and individual and group counselling for up to three months, and then when they can talk logically, they are given back to their family,” he explained.

The centre can’t keep them any longer because it doesn’t have enough beds, he added.

Families—often reluctant to re-engage with offspring considered “crazy, dangerous and inhabited by evil”—must then return to the hospital three months later for fresh supplies of the legal drugs used “to control” their children.

Experts have said that mental health issues were not taken into account in Liberia’s UN-backed demobilisation programme, which focused on the handing in of weapons.

“For the moment we are counting on the backing of NGOs,” Bernice Dahn, a senior official at the Health Ministry, said recently, with budgets severely limited in a country beset by massive unemployment and poverty. - Sapa

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