Liberian refugees who have fled the war-torn nation say the rape of an 8-year-old girl in Phoenix is a horrifying case of families trying to escape violence in their own country only to find it again in their new home.
The attack, which police say was committed by four young Liberian boys, also exposed the darkest sides of the country’s long civil war. Boys were recruited to rape, kill and torture, and experts and government leaders said sexual violence remains a challenge as the West African country rebuilds.
The assault also has revealed cultural attitudes about women and assault victims that could take a generation to change. Rape wasn’t even outlawed in Liberia until 2006, and victims are still made to feel shameful and even complicit in the attacks on them, aid workers say.
Phoenix police say the local case, which has garnered international attention, is no different. After the girl was attacked on July 16 in a shed at a Phoenix apartment complex, her parents told police to take her away, saying she had brought shame on the family.
“Look, my country is one that has been through quite a bit of trauma,” he [Liberia’s ambassador to the United States, Milton Nathaniel Barnes] told The Arizona Republic. “And many of the people who are here as refugees are still traumatized after several years, primarily because rape and sexual violence was used as a weapon of war during our crisis. People are still trying to reconcile their own lives with that. But to say that someone would disown a child, or blame a child, to me is unfathomable.
Raised amid rape
Many details remain unclear about when the families of the girl or the four boys accused in the attack settled in Phoenix. Nearly 1,200 Liberian refugees have settled in Arizona since fleeing the war, which ended in 2003, and its aftermath, according to the Arizona Refugee Resettlement Program.
Ali Keita, a Liberian who immigrated to the U.S. in 1997, said many refugees he has worked with lived amid rampant rape and brutal violence in Liberia.
He said many parents found it hard to maintain control over their children’s upbringing as rebel attacks forced them to relocate again and again, but “there is no excuse for the crime, for the behavior” of the four boys.
Tony Weedor, who fled Liberia and now helps efforts to rebuild the country, said the war changed his people in ways he still can’t understand.
“It was not like this before the war,” he said. “Since then, young men who were maybe 7 or 8 when it started, they saw their mothers and sisters raped and killed and then they joined the rebels, did the exact same thing. There are 60,000 or 70,000 young men who know nothing but looting and killing.”
‘Shame on the family’
Many rape victims in Liberia are children, according to the group Doctors Without Borders, which treats raped girls and women in Liberia. The group told the New York Times this year that of 275 sexual-violence cases treated from January to April, 28 percent involved children age 4 or younger and 33 percent involved children ages 5 through 12.
In 2008, the group said, 70 percent of the rape survivors treated in clinics were children.
“Some families don’t call the police because it will bring shame upon the family, which is wrong,” Weedor said. “They are more concerned with the name of the family than the harm done to the child.”
“We know for a fact that there may be some concerns with communications, in terms of understanding,” Barnes said. “These people speak English, yes, but there are certain nuances within the way Liberians express themselves through the English language that we need to make sure is understood.”
Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., who for years has worked on legislation supporting crime victims, said the dramatic culture clash complicates American comprehension of the situation in Phoenix.
“It’s practically impossible for us to understand a society which has precisely the opposite idea about who should be blamed and who should feel shame and who should be helped or not helped,” Kyl said Friday at his Phoenix office. “It’s not just a problem for Liberians. There are other people with a similar culture that is, frankly, the problem.”