Liberian orphanages steal, exploit children
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."
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."