Esther Eastman Greene survived the war which broke out in Liberia in 1989. At the time, she lived in Monrovia, the capital city, with her husband, four kids, two stepdaughters and a foster daughter who were all under 15. She shares her story of living in a war-torn country, her struggles and her departure to the United States in 1995. How was she able to survive through the war and rebuild her life in a foreign country despite the atrocities she had experienced? Esther Eastman Greene’s story is definitely one of resilience and of the power of a mother’s love for her children.
How did you survive during the war? What did your days look like?
Well, it varied from day to day. We got up in the morning not knowing what the day would bring forth. I took the whole day looking for food. It was challenging finding food to feed the kids.
Were you able to stay together as a family throughout the war?
No, we were not. We lived in an area called Airfield. When the war started escalating, most people were trying to leave Liberia and they used that airport to leave. As a result, there was a lot of human traffic and the area became crowded. My husband and I had to go to work. We felt it was not safe to leave the kids home alone so we decided to send them to our parents in Gardnersville at the outskirts of Monrovia. While they were there, the Freedom Fighters moved closer and Gardnersville fell to those fighters. We lost communication and were separated from the kids for a couple of months. It is only when ECOMOG* came that we were able to reunite with the kids.
What were your worst experiences, if you wish to share?
There are too many. Where do I start? I think my worst experience was being separated from the kids. When we were separated, there was no communication. Whatever news we heard about Gardnersville, was what we heard on BBC. Sometimes there was news on BBC was that the entire Gardnersville area was flattened. Or somebody would come and say that everybody who lived behind rebel lines was dead. It was so difficult because I thought my whole family was gone. That was the most difficult time. It was just terrible. You had nobody and there was no news. When ECOMOG came to Liberia and my kids were able to return to Monrovia, they all came except one, my step daughter. I lost a child. One child didn’t come back with them. That was a very terrible time also.
We don’t know what happened to her. There are so many rumors. My Mom explained that she was in the house with the kids when Freedom Fighters ordered them to leave. They told all of them to go to Fendall. When they were walking towards Fendall, a fight broke out between the soldiers of the Liberian Army and the Freedom Fighters. My Mom lost everybody because everybody fled in different directions. For days, she did not know where the kids were. She took her time looking for the kids everywhere and fortunately she found them, except this one child. So we really don’t know what happened to her.
What are the feelings you experienced during these challenging times and how did you handle them?
I don’t even know if you would say you had feelings during that time. We were so much in a survival mode that I guess feelings didn’t come. You just took care of your family and moved on. I would get up in the morning and leave the house to look for food. It was a job. I didn’t know what I would find. It was difficult. Sometimes I came back with food. Sometimes I didn’t. I remember an incident… At the free port, they did a lot of looting. Once they looted a lot of canned tomato paste. I came home with only tomato paste so I made a tomato paste soup. So that day, that’s what we had. We had tomato paste soup.
Another time when I went looking for food, there was a man who had a bag of sugar. There were a lot of flies on the sugar. About 5 to 6 feet away from the bag of sugar, there was a decomposed body. There were flies on the body, flies on the sugar. I knew better not to buy this sugar but our situation was so difficult. My kids hadn’t had sugar for so long that I bought the sugar. I mean even now thinking about it, I can’t believe I did that. I bought the sugar. As I said, at the time we were in a survival mode and we were not thinking rationally. Now I think I should not have bought it but at the time, all rational thinking was out of the mind.
I lived with a lot of fear and anxiety all the time. All the time! We had to struggle for everything, even water. We didn’t even have water. There was a UN truck that went around giving water and we rationed that water. Sometimes somebody would come to visit all sweaty, exhausted and asked you for a glass of water. I would say I didn’t have water although I did but I could not give my water when I knew I had all these kids I needed to give water to. It was that bad.
What did your kids do while you went out looking for food with your husband?
They always stayed home. In the midst of the war, my husband and I separated when the kids were in Gardnersville. I later moved to a neighborhood called Mamba Point. So when the kids finally came, they came to stay with me. When I left in the morning to look for some food, I left them with my Mom who lived with the kids and me.
How did you occupy them when you were at home? Were there times of joy and laughter despite the atrocities?
They had come out of a terrible situation. They explained things to me that they went through when they were with the Freedom Fighters that broke my heart. They had experienced so much without me that when they came, I just tried to make life better for them. There were no toys, no electricity, there was nothing. I think the only thing I could do at the time to bring joy to their lives was to give them a decent meal once a day and I did everything in my power. I think it was the highlight of our living together, having a meal together. They couldn’t go out to play. They couldn’t go out to do anything because it wasn’t safe. They just stayed locked up in the house. Their joy was “Mummy went out to look for food!” Whenever I came, they were like, “Yeah! She brought us something!” That was the heart of our lives at the time.
Did you ever find yourself in a situation where your life was threatened?
Yes. I lived on the last floor of a two-story building. One day, I heard somebody call my name so I looked out of the window and I saw my husband’s brother with my children. I started yelling, “Oh, my God. My kids are here!” A man came with his gun and asked me, “Why are you yelling?” I replied, “My kids are here, my kids are here!” He said, “Shut up or I will shoot you.” You know in Africa, we express our joy by yelling, screaming. But on that particular occasion, after not seeing my kids for almost a year, I couldn’t yell, I couldn’t scream, I couldn’t express my joy because he was going to shoot me for yelling. When my kids came upstairs in the apartment, I was able to lift them up, hug them, kiss them.
How did you find the strength and the courage to survive day by day when there was so much atrocity and when you felt that your life and the life of your loved ones could be taken at any time?
My kids. All my life, I wanted kids. It was what brought joy to my life. I always wanted babies and I felt that I had to do right by them. So whatever I did, my whole life, it was for my kids. I think I owed them that much to fight for them and that is what I did.
How were you able to leave Liberia to go to the United States?
I came to the United Stated in 1995 because I had lost my father who had been living there since 1992. I was supposed to go back to Liberia but before I could, there was another serious outbreak of violence in Liberia. My kids actually had to leave Liberia to go to Côte d’Ivoire to a refugee camp until I was able to get them to the United States in 1998.
How did you rebuild your life in the United States and what were the challenges you faced? What supported you during your journey?
Above all, I would say it was hard work, hard work, hard work. I’ve always done two jobs since I was legally able to work in the States. It’s been challenging. With hard work, we’ve come a long way. I also had a lot of support from family members. For instance, before my daughters came to the United States, I didn’t have my own place and I stayed with family. It is only when they joined me that I got my own place.
It was so challenging at times. I will tell you a story. When I was finally able to apply for my kids to migrate to the United States, they went to the Embassy in Côte d’Ivoire for an interview. They were asked a lot of questions. My youngest daughter was about 8 years old and the interviewer asked her, “Is your Mummy in the States?” She said, “Yes.” “Does your Mummy send you birthday cards?” She said, “No.” “Your Mummy is in the States, she doesn’t write to you, she doesn’t send you birthday cards?” My daughter said, “No.” So they didn’t get their papers because I guess the interviewer thought “How can she have kids and not write to them?”
The thing is they were in a little village in Côte d’Ivoire and there was no way I could write to that village so I called them. It was so difficult calling. Sometimes I would call and as soon as I said “Hello”, the line would cut off. To cut a long story short, every month, my phone bill was at least $500 just to try and talk to them once in a while. Luckily for me, I still had all my phone bills. I went to the State Department in Washington D.C. and they made a package that I sent to the Embassy in Côte d’Ivoire. I guess they saw how much I had spent on phone bills every month to talk to my kids. I always say that the phone bills brought my kids to America. I spent so much on phone bills just to say hello to them, just to hear their voices.
How were you able to manage during those three years not knowing what was happening to your children?
The joy in that was that I was able to send money to Côte d’Ivoire to make their lives a little bit better. That was a little bit rewarding. I did fear that my kids wouldn’t know me anymore. I had been away so long, three years. When they came though it was as if we were never separated.
How has going through the war in Liberia changed you and your outlook on life? What are the life tools that this experience of surviving the war have given you to face the hardships of life?
There is so much that I saw during the war. I feel blessed. I am here today and it is just the blessing of God. All the people who perished during the war, I wasn’t better than them. Through the mercy of God, He spared my life. So my outlook on life is to make the world a better place for somebody else, to live by doing good for people. I try to help others, to be out there in the community, to work hard, to do the best I can on my job, to go above the call of duty in Church. Every time I have to help someone back home for instance, I am willing to do that because I know how difficult it can be. Although I work so hard in the States, I leave in the morning and work two jobs, I still look at it as being easier than the hardships I faced during the war. As Americans would say, it’s a piece of cake for me. I work hard but I am able to meet my needs and my family’s. In Liberia, during the war, it was just blank. There was nothing. What I went through makes me appreciate life more.
What type of support do you think the women who went through the war and remained in Liberia would need to have a better life since during the war there was a lot of physical and psychological damage?
I came to the States in 1995 and never went back until last year in 2014. From what I gathered, women are still living in a survival mode. When I was there last year, a lot of women came to see me and they all had the same story. Life is so hard. I asked myself, “What can I do to help?” You feel so helpless. I remember a lady and her kids who came to visit me and all she wanted was for me to feed her kids. I bought breakfast for them, they ate and fell asleep. There is no more war but it is just hard for people to get back on their feet.
How can we help them today? I think that we need to help Liberian women make a living for themselves. A women’s group to teach them a trade, arts and crafts or another activity that would allow them some sort of financial independence could help them get started. Maybe that could help girls and women. Everybody is trying to survive there.
Is there anything else that you would like to add that I have not asked you about?
There are so many stories about the war that I don’t even know where to start. I will share this one with you. As I told you initially, during the war, I looked for food every single day. When the United Nations decided to bring food to Liberia, what a happy day it was! We had to stand in line to get our food. That day, for the first time, I was receiving food without having to look for it. I just stood in that line and cried. I got oil, corn meal, rice. The lady who was distributing the food gave me a hug and said, “I understand.” I said to myself, “No lady, you don’t understand.”
What message would you like to share with the women of the world based on your experience?
You have to do right by your children. If you bring children into this world, you have to go beyond everything that is in you to treat your children right because you brought them into this world and you are ultimately responsible for them. I think you should never give up. Do everything you can for them!
*Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) was a West African multilateral armed force established by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in 1990 to intervene in the civil war in Liberia.
To learn more about Liberia, I invite you to read the BBC Liberia Country Profile – Overview at the link http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-13729504
Interviewed by Aïda