War is the everyday reality of people all over the world. Will mankind ever stop fighting wars? Will there ever be an end to rape, murder, displacement and crimes against humanity? Will it ever end? There are always the fallen from war and then there are the survivors. There is something infinitely precious about the human spirit that makes survival miraculous.
During the period 1991-2002 Sierra Leone suffered from a grotesque civil war that tore apart the country. The death toll stands at about 70,000 and 2.6 million people (more than half the population) were displaced from their homes. The civil war was characterised by hideous atrocities including widespread execution, amputation, systematic gang rapes, and the abduction and recruitment of children. It was more than a living hell.
It is unbelievable that anyone can survive war. Yet Memuna Barnes survived both the civil wars of Liberia and Sierra Leone. In April 2000 at nineteen years of age Memuna arrived in New Zealand. She is a vivacious woman with a lovely smile and sad eyes and what a story she has to tell.
Born in Monrovia, Liberia in 1980, Memuna had something of an idyllic early childhood.
I lived with my parents and one of my younger sisters and we had everything provided. Both my parents worked, and we had a nanny. At Christmas Mum took us shopping and we could choose toys and dolls and an outfit each and shoes for church on Christmas Day. We didn’t have our gifts wrapped. We chose them but could only play with them from Christmas Day. On birthdays I celebrated at home while my sister sometimes took the party to school. I remember Mum making gallons of non-alcoholic punch with cool aid, popcorn, cakes and other little party finger foods and she bought large packets of candy and chiclets (a popular brand of Liberian gum in the 80s) and made goodie bags for our friends. If there were hard times our parents never let us know and I can say I had a happy childhood before the war.
Civil war in Liberia put an end to Memuna’s idyllic childhood. Her father secured passage for Memuna and her sister on a Sierra Leone army boat and sent them to his sister for safekeeping. At nine years old, after a year of living through the Liberian civil war, Memuna said goodbye to her home and family. She never saw her mother again.
In Sierra Leone, just before her fifteenth birthday, Memuna was captured by rebel soldiers. She became the property of a commanding officer of the rebel forces. After almost two years of captivity, a hunter finally brought her home. In 2000 Memuna arrived in New Zealand with her father and younger sister Mamawa. Unsurprisingly, it has taken years for Memuna to come to terms with her grief.
My life is similar to most young women. But I am different in the way I perceive situations and obstacles. I am always optimistic as I don’t think life can get any worse than it did in the war. This mindset has brought me through tough times. I have moments where I throw in the towel and have a good cry. Thanks to my family in other countries, my siblings and good friends, I get up and dust myself off and get on with what I need to do.
Settling in a new country takes time and it took Memuna eight years to consider New Zealand home.
New Zealand has been good to me. It has given me an education. In New Zealand I have learned to be independent. I have a job. My life here has been a time of serious growth and positive anticipation.
Through the grieving process and in settling in New Zealand, Memuna wrote through her pain and the result is her biography Survived; The Journey. I asked Memuna the difficult question about her losses.
What can I say? Life as I knew it was lost. I lost the most important human being in my life. My mother. We lost contact with her in 1989 and could only find her in 2001. It was strange and surreal hearing her voice on the phone. I have no friends from my early years. I lost my home, my uncle Ansu in Sierra Leone who followed the rebels to get us back. And of equal importance, I lost my innocence.
Did Memuna get the happy ending we all wish for survivors?
This is not the end I was hoping for as I am reaching milestones which I wish I could share with my mother. My mother laid the foundations for my life and I would have loved to have shared my life with her. Life has been a lonely walk without my mother. I am still growing and I am positive it will get better for me.
Memuna’s book is written in the same spirit of A Town Like Alice and Anne Franks’ Diary. It tells of her terrifying upheaval and her daily trauma at the hands of her captors. It is a woman’s war story and her hope for freedom.
Survived; The Journey is Memuna’s personal view. It is a voice that deserves to be heard. Memuna is one of the innocents that are the constants in all wars.
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