How I survived terror of Liberian Civil War to become an advocate for education and peacebuilding

I am a young person who believes that, whatever my status and wherever my location, I should have a positive role in drafting the future I want – a role that must also be approved by humanity. This is the story of my struggles during the Liberian war and of how I came out to form the organisation SADAD (Students Against Destructive Action and Decisions).

The worst years of my life were from 2002 to 2003. The Second Liberian Civil War erupted in 1999 in the north of Liberia, in the Lofa and Gbapolu Counties bordering Guinea. That same year I moved with my parents to live for the first time in the interior. But by 2002, the war had reached my home county, Grand Cape Mount. My family then had to move into a camp for the displaced in the suburb of Monrovia.

We walked for three days to the Plumkor Displaced Camp. It was terrible on the road. Many did not make it. Once in the camp, life revolved around finding food and shelter. Clothes were secondary. Education could not be counted upon.

In June 2003, the rebels reached Monrovia. They captured my family and we walked back to Cape Mount. By July, I was already having problems with the rebels. I refused to join them and they refused to give me peace. I was only 13 years old then but brave enough to stand up for my rights.

One day, I got into a fight with one of the child soldiers, wanting to defend my family. My parents and his colleagues quickly separated us. But I knew this battle was not over. Some days later, I was playing in the house with my small brother when I heard noises from outside. The rebel boy was calling for me and he had brought a gun. My mother and others started crying. I put my brother in the room and locked him safe. I was ready to give up my life.

Children wait for UN supplies in Liberia in 1995 Picture: UNICEF/Pirozzi

I was in the hallway when he entered the house. I propped on the wall. As he passed by me, I came from behind and jumped on the gun. It was terrifying. We tussled over the weapon. I managed to place the mouth up and the more than 10 bullets it carried were fired into the air. The commander intervened and the boy soldier was disarmed but he still threatened to kill me. I knew I was no longer safe. My freedom was seized. I spent 90% of my daily life indoors.

My situation of insecurity only changed when United Nations Peacekeepers were deployed to my area in September of 2003. I became very close friends with the Namibian contingent. My parents never had the funds to send me back to school but I got money from some of my Namibian friends and opened a small business to get the funds to achieve my dreams.

By March 2005, I was back in Monrovia to start school. I went alone. But I was having the best time in high school. I excelled in my classes. I headed the Press Club of every institution I attended and was a member of the debate and the quizzing teams. I also participated actively in student politics. Students, instructors and administrators respected my accomplishments. But I knew that it would be short-lived. Within three years I would be leaving high school. I needed to have a bigger impact in my society.

Bribery is a very big problem in the education sector of Liberia, which surely transcends to corruption in national society. I was fully conscious of these happenings on campuses and school-organised events. There were always riots whenever students’ elections, school balls and Inter-school Sports Association-ISSA League games were held. And an end had to be put to this situation.

In March of 2008, I met some of my classmates and friends to tell them my vision. They supported my idea. I met the school principal and he was happy to support me as well. I organised the first meeting with the Vice Principal for Student Affairs being present, along with over 50 other participants. I worked with friends to put all the documents and policies together. We had an Agent of Positive Change in every class to report cases of malpractice involving instructors, students and administrators. We started to conduct a chapel service and visited academic activities to create awareness on violence and academic malpractice.

Liberian football star George Weah plays in a match to promote children’s rights and education in 2004 Picture: UNICEF/Nesbitt 

These acts made things difficult for me and my colleagues in school. Instructors began targeting me because I was against the status quo of academic malpractice. I could not risk making mistakes in any test or I would pay the price.

In 2009, when I was in 11th grade, I got a scholarship for my service to the school. But that only made things worse as more threats kept coming my way from instructors and some administrators. Many of my friends started staying away from me, as they did not want to risk not being recognised and honoured in school. But I was incredibly thankful to those who worked with me. No one in this world will ever get ahead without the backing of lots of others.

That year, along with my team, and by investing my scholarship money, we able to start issuing press releases and holding meeting with stakeholders and government officials. We became more involved in national issues. Teachers directly threaten to fail me since this was now my graduation year. But this did not scare me as I had always been among the two best students in the school.

We launched SADAD as a national organisation two months before the national exams and graduation took place. After we had taken the national exams, it was announced by the school that I, and every other member of SADAD, had failed. All we could see in our results was that there was no school grade for biology, geography and history.

The following months were especially challenging for SADAD and me in particular. We managed to stand our ground and pushed forward. We waited for a year and retook the exams. All of us passed successfully. A year late, in 2012, SADAD became a key stakeholder in overseeing the exams that all of its members had previously failed. 78 of SADAD´s agents served as proctors and monitors. And I – as a Executive Director – served as an external monitor for the exams throughout Liberia and made recommendations to the Council on proper conduct.

Because of SADAD´s involvement, the exams became fraud and violent free; and Liberian students performed unprecedentedly well compared to the past 26 years. From 2012 onwards, SADAD has partnered with the West African Examinations Council to administer the national exams.

But we had to go further. Youth make up more than 60% of Liberia’s population. In a post-war country, youth are faced with many challenges ranging from unemployment, illiteracy, inequality, lack of participation and rights to peace and security, among others. As the solution to many of these problems remains distant, creating a medium of interaction to address them is also a major challenge for the youth themselves, national governments and other state actors.

Similarly, there is the question of who can represent young people. For many years, policymakers have attempted to solve the youths’ problems with little or no participation at all from young people themselves. Young people have for the most part served as beneficiaries rather than participants. This has resulted in failed results and has even worsened the problems in instances.

In order to respond to some of these challenges, SADAD developed a youth-led media outlet called “My Space”. The programme lasted for four months (July-October 2013) and was aired on one of Liberia’s biggest media outlets – the Sky Communication Corporation.

The programme brought youth to interact and have a face-to-face experience with stakeholders and policy makers in order to discuss and find lasting solutions to problems affecting them. The programme was held on a weekly basis with young people from diverse backgrounds and taking into account topics like gender equity, discussing issues of youth vulnerability and inequality; youth peace and security; youth employment and empowerment; youth education and development; youth sexuality, HIV/AIDs and STDs/STIs; youth participation in politics and governance; youth culture and tradition; youth roles in society; and other national and international issues.

Picture: Facebook/SADAD

These discussions allowed for youth to follow up with key stakeholders and afforded them the opportunity to be heard and taken seriously. The programme also used examples of successful young people to inspire others with their stories. Furthermore, it provided sources of information and linked youth with opportunities, like scholarships, seminars or conferences for youth.

It had a great impact on me as an individual. My role in society was defined and I was associated to the causes of young people. It linked me with other institutions working with and for youth. But the biggest impact the programme had on me was that I was able to serve humanity and amplify the voices of youth.

Since its formation in 2008 and subsequent registration in 2011, SADAD has played and continues to play a meaningful role in the peace process of our country. Over the years, SADAD has become an important youth organisation in the areas of peacebuilding, youth development, civic engagement, community service and gender mainstreaming, all while contributing to achieving higher standards in education.

I greatly enjoy my work as a peacebuilder. I have had to overcome many struggles but the work is worth it to make sure future generations do not suffer the same as me.

Alfred Mohammed Abdullah Foboi is a 25-year-old Liberian student of mass communication and sociology at the University of Liberia. He is also a youth leader involved with peace building, advocacy and social work. He is the founder of Students Against Destructive Action and Decisions (SADAD) and a Global Youth Ambassador for A World at School.