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Jion’s one leg is carrying him as fast as it can go. As he races down the field on his crutches the stadium is silent, waiting to see if the goalie can block his shot. Jion kicks. The goalie catches the ball and throws it back onto the field. Jion turns around and runs again, swinging his body to gain momentum.
Jion plays soccer for the Amputee All Stars, a team made up of former fighters and war-affected youth, all of whom lost limbs in Liberia’s fourteen-year civil war. On a recent Thursday morning, the Antoinette Tubman Stadium in downtown Monrovia is filled with cheering fans as the Mighty Conquerors’ one-armed goalie misses the ball and the other team scores. Suddenly, the Rev. Jervis Witherspoon, executive director of the National Commission for Disarmament, Demobilization, Rehabilitation and Reintegration (DDRR), stands up and shouts half-jokingly, “We need to get those guys off the street so they can really play soccer!”
Two days later in his office, Reverend Witherspoon explains what he meant. “It looks bad that the soccer players are going around representing the country, and they don’t have work and they’re living on the beach. Even if we sit them behind a desk, it will keep them off the streets.”
Indeed, while the soccer players are held up around the world as the new hope of Liberia, in reality many of these young men sleep on the streets at night, and beg for money to buy food, even showing their soccer identification cards so people might have pity on them and donate some extra cash.
Even as the international press cheers the soccer players on, aid from the global community for the reintegration and skills-building programs that would help these young men make a living is tied up in bureaucratic snafus or in aid packages with too many strings attached. Security sector reform is a higher priority for the Bush Administration, with $45 million provided in June to rebuild the Liberian Armed Forces, support the training of the national police force and equip the protective detail for the president. This imbalance in favor of military aid persists despite the plea of Liberia’s president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who asked the US Congress on March 15, 2006, for more funding for training and rehabilitation programs. “What is the return on an investment that trains young combatants for life, rather than death? What is the yield when our young men can exchange their guns for jobs?”
Could the $800,000 allocated to DynCorp, the private US military contractor, to train the new army have been used to feed, house and provide healthcare to former fighters? Sure. But let’s not forget that the US government’s policy of beefing up Liberia’s army goes back to Ronald Reagan, who provided military aid that ultimately fueled President Samuel Doe’s brutal regime, leading to the civil war that left 250,000 dead and up to half the country’s population displaced. When the cold war waned, Liberia was moved to the back burner. Now, with the “war on terror” in full swing, Liberia is back at the forefront of America’s military imagination, vying to be the headquarters for Africom, the new US Africa Command, which will coordinate all the US military and security interests on the continent.