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Last updated on April 24, 2014 at 17:35 EDT

Liberian orphanages steal, exploit children

November 4, 2005

By Katharine Houreld

MONROVIA (Reuters) – When social workers found the starving
children at the Hannah B. Williams orphanage in Monrovia, they
were eating frogs because the owner had sold the food donated
by aid agencies at a market in Liberia’s capital.

“Sometimes, we went into the swamp to eat chicken green
weeds (swamp weeds) because of hunger,” said 17-year-old
Michael, who was beaten if he was caught outside the orphanage.

“Some children, 7 or older, would go outside to ask for
help from anybody,” he added.

When authorities closed the building earlier this year, 89
of the 102 so-called “orphans” were reunited with their
families. Many parents believed they had sent their children to
a boarding school and some were even paying fees.

Such tales are becoming increasingly common as a
U.N.-backed task force tries to clean up Liberia’s orphanages
and reunite thousands of families across the West African
country, crippled by 14 years of sporadic civil war.

The war displaced nearly a third of Liberia’s 3.4 million
people and caused more than 250,000 deaths. As terrified
families fled bush battles, children were lost. Some joined the
ranks of drugged-up child soldiers, either by choice or
coercion; others were taken into orphanages, but there, too,
some were exploited.

Many rogue orphanages are “recruiting” Liberian children
from their families and keeping them in appalling conditions in
order to increase the aid they receive, authorities say.

“We have this problem all over the country,” said Vivian
Cherue, Liberia’s deputy minister for health. “So far, we have
only assessed two out of 15 counties and we have found 35
orphanages that need to be closed.”

Children from closed orphanages would be moved to
accredited institutions if their families could not be found,
Cherue said.

Laurie Galan, a child protection worker in the north of
Africa’s oldest independent republic, said she had had problems
with two out of three orphanages where families had been
traced.

“I’ve come across orphanages that have just taken kids and
the families have no idea what happened to them,” said Galan.
“They know the task force wants to do family tracing, but some
are deliberately obstructing it.”

POST-WAR CHAOS

Last month, Liberia held its first elections since the 2003
peace deal, a vote meant to bring stability to a country
founded by freed American slaves in 1847.

A presidential run-off on November 8 pits soccer star
George Weah against former World Bank economist Ellen
Johnson-Sirleaf.

Slowly, people are rebuilding their lives in a country
where the capital is still without piped water or mains
electricity.

However, some children in orphanages are still waiting to
start new lives. Some institutions are reluctant to give up
children they cared for when their parents were missing.

United Nations police intervened earlier this year after a
nun, who ran an orphanage in the northeastern town of Saclepea,
refused to give back children she gathered from refugee camps
in neighboring Guinea. Eventually 57 of 61 children were
reunited with their parents.

In another institution in the northern city of Ganta, Galan
said she saw severely malnourished children forced to sell
bulgur wheat by the side of the road. Bulgur wheat is the
staple food supplied to the orphanages by the U.N. World Food
Program.

“It’s a shame because there are genuine orphanages that are
losing out (on aid),” Galan said.

LIVED IN GRAVEYARD

Sometimes, it is difficult to tell whether conditions are
the result of poverty and years of war or corruption.

At the Teemas Orphanage on the outskirts of Monrovia, 46
boys sleep in one room on a urine-stained concrete floor with
six thin foam mattresses between them.

Conditions are barely better in the girls’ room. The roof
of the derelict building has collapsed and plastic tarpaulins
stretched over sticks protect the children from the rain and
fierce sun.

In a tattered tent outside, an epileptic girl lives by
herself. She says she is 15, although she has the high fluting
voice and the stature of an 8 year old.

“I thank God for this,” said the orphanage’s director,
Doris Weefar, gesturing to her shabby surroundings. “For three
weeks we lived in a graveyard. It was terrible.”

The children have been displaced four times by war, most
recently by the battle known by local residents as “World War
Three” where rebel LURD forces and child soldiers loyal to
then- President Charles Taylor laid waste to central Monrovia.

Yet here, too, many of the “orphans” were left by their
parents. Weefar found at least two of them wandering the street
while Monrovia was under attack and collected them as she fled.

The orphanage has records for 57 of its 79 children. Of
those, half had a living relative, often their mother or
father.

“Father left in war,” reads one hand-written form. “No
assistance.” “Needs educational help,” says another.

Weefar insists that, despite the poor living conditions,
her children are fed three times a day — more than many
families can afford — and she is doing her best to educate
them.

She says she is using a grant from the former U.S.
ambassador to build a new institution. But the Ministry of
Health is not satisfied: the orphanage is slated for closure.

“She has had a year since we first inspected her,” said
Cherue. “Ten other orphanages have made improvements in that
time and the point remains, an orphanage is not a school. If
these children have parents, then they belong at home.”