Christopher Jacob lives in a boxy, red-brick apartment building in a low-income housing complex on Staten Island. His home is spare and immaculate; the cream-colored carpet stain-free, the furniture cheap but new. Above an oversized flat-screen TV hangs a painting of Jesus and Mary. The walls are otherwise bare, save a family photo by the door. But these simple surroundings belie a complicated and horrific past.
Jacob pulls his short black dreadlocks away from his face as he begins to speak, revealing two badly mangled ears. Back in Liberia, where Jacob was born, those short dreadlocks were known as “rebel hair.” Here in New York’s Little Liberia, home to over 6,000 refugees from Liberia’s civil war, Jacob’s dreadlocks mark him as a former child soldier.
“It begins in 1990…”
Jacob recounts his story to Agnes Umunna, a fellow Liberian who has spent the years since Liberia’s brutal civil war ended in 2003 collecting the testimony of both victims and perpetrators, first as the host of a radio program, then as a statement taker for the Liberia Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Most recently, she wrote And Still Peace Did Not Come, a personal history interwoven with stories of former child soldiers and other victims of the war.
“I was thirteen years old when the war hit Monrovia,” continues Jacob, now 30. “We ran all the way from Monrovia to Kokoyah District, one of eight districts located in Bong County, Liberia.”
As Jacob’s family was trying to escape, his mother was lost in the chaos and fighting. Jacob and his sister found their way to an aunt’s house in a nearby town, and began dividing their time between working in their aunt’s restaurant and retracing their steps, looking for their mother.
“During walking looking for my mother I saw the most horrifying things,” he says. “Dead bodies of children who were as young as one month, their mothers leaving them on the road side running for their own lives; young girls been raped near the dead bodies of the young children.”
His aunt’s restaurant was on the road to Gbanga — where rebel leader Charles Taylor had his headquarters — and rebel fighters would stop by to eat. When his aunt’s town was attacked, Jacob and his sister had to flee yet again because the rebels knew them from the restaurant and assumed they had money.
“We walked during the day, hiding when night came,” says Jacob. “We slept in the forest with other displaced people who were fleeing their homes. We ate roots and leaves from different plants, some of which we did not know. There was not enough food, and the water we drank was not safe for drinking. No clothes, no shoes, no toys, no story books, nothing that a child my age would need was available. All this while we did not know the whereabouts of my mother.”
Jacob and his sister headed towards the town of Sanniquellie, near the border with Guinea. Along the way he noticed that as each village was attacked, the rebels would abduct the surviving boys and turn them into combatants, messengers, guards and spies. Once subsumed into Charles Taylor’s army, the boys were afforded a certain level of protection, as well as food, shelter, and a family, of sorts, to replace the ones they’d lost.
Eventually Jacob joined the army so that he, too, could enjoy that protection. “I became a guard and porter in order to survive,” he says.
Jacob insists that he never wielded a weapon. “I found salvation through the grace of one woman who was the wife of one of the generals who was talking care of Charles Taylor’s mother while she was hiding in Sanniquellie.”
Jacob washed the woman’s clothes, helped her carry food from the market, and, he says, eventually gained the confidence of both the woman and her husband, the general. They entrusted Jacob with the key to a warehouse where they were storing food for the men fighting at the front.
“I remember the day I decided to open the food house for people who were starving to come and collect rice, oil and corn meal,” he says. “Children were dying because there was no drinking water. They had nowhere to go and no food to eat.”
“That was how I lost my two ears,” Jacob says, pulling his dreadlocks back again for us to examine.
“When the general came and found that I opened the warehouse where the rice and other things were kept, he asked his bodyguard to tie me up with my two hands both tied behind my back and my chest sticking out,” Jacob says. “In two seconds my two ears were cut off and they were both lying on the ground in front of me.”
“I was fortunate,” he continues. “The general’s wife came pleading on my behalf to her husband to tell his bodyguard not to kill me. I was taken to the nearby hospital but there were no doctors — all the doctors had been murdered. My sister took care of my ears using native leaves as medicines.”
Finally, in 1998, eight years after he had fled his home, Jacob returned to Monrovia to look for his family and learned that his aunt had escaped to Ghana and a brother had made it to New York.
“I came to the U.S. on September 12, 2000 when my brother filed for me as refugee from Liberia.”
Dozens of former child soldiers are thought to be living on Staten Island alongside people from all sides of the conflict back home. Most live in the same anonymous housing project as Jacob. Though the complex has been dubbed “Little Liberia,” the only distinguishing feature is an informal outdoor market where older Liberian ladies sell bottles of bright red palm nut oil, bags of hot peppers and slabs of dried fish.
No one knows for sure how many former child soldiers live here. A few have made themselves known, and people within the community have their suspicions, but most hide behind the trappings of their new American lives. Jacob works as a manager of a construction company, goes to church, and leads a relatively quiet life. But recently he’s decided to speak up about his past in the hopes that his story can help others, both Liberian immigrants and other urban youth, choose a non-violent path.
“The stigma of violence hangs over most of these boys, particularly among members of the Liberian community who, a few years ago, might have been terrorized by the same kids who are now living side by side with them,” Jacob says. “People hate them. They say they killed their people and they think they are wicked boys.”
Jacob says that he doesn’t blame people for feeling this way, but wishes that instead of judging someone based on their haircut or a visible scar, people would talk to these boy soldiers, now young men, and find out what really happened to them as children.
“I cried then and I cry now as I drag out of the shadows of memory the horrors I witnessed during the war in my county,” he says. But despite the pain it brings, Jacob has decided that his story is worth sharing.