Out of Africa

There are new victims of 9-11. After escaping terror in a brutal civil war, a refugee family booked on a flight to Sacramento were stopped in their tracks by new restrictions. No one told their son.

Amos Gbeintor waits for the eight members of his family.

Amos Gbeintor waits for the eight members of his family.

Photo by Larry Dalton

It was to be the most monumental day in the life of Amos Gbeintor.

While waiting 15 years to be reunited with the eight members of his family, he had endured incredible fear and hardship: the fear of his own death in the troubled country of Liberia; the murder of his brother during that country’s hateful, gruesome civil war; years of trying to reunite his family in a squalid refugee camp in Ghana; months of bureaucratic wrangling, including interviews and investigations, with immigration officials—and yet the day had come when they would be able to look into one another’s eyes.

The refugee family was finally escaping a fearful uncertainty and flying toward freedom and a peaceful life in Sacramento. The joyful ending to his struggle would be a testament to Amos’ endurance and commitment to his family.

The 42-year-old man rode in a friend’s van on the way to the Sacramento International Airport, feeling that a tortuous journey, which began years ago, thousands of miles away, was about to end. And as the day of his family’s arrival from Africa had crept forward, his anticipation grew with preparation for their arrival. He found himself renting a bigger house for his parents, sister, sons and daughters. A space for transition into an American way of life. They would have dinners and talk.

He strode into the terminal knowing he had done what a responsible man would do. Amos had figured out a way to get his entire extended family out from one of the worst refugee camps in West Africa, in one of the worst war-torn areas of the world. Unspeakable atrocities had been committed where his family had lived— it was still hard for them to talk of a brother who was massacred—yet now they would be away from brutish dictators and finally be safe.

A refugee resettlement organization and U.S. immigration officials had finished the investigations and cleared their leaving, the airline reservations were made, and the itinerary had been set. First a flight to Europe, transit to the United States, clear immigration in Chicago and take the final leg to their new home in Sacramento, California, United States of America. The U.S.A. that Amos had told them about for years. A place of plentiful food, freedom and opportunity, all concepts foreign to his family. Amos was already working with computers and taking advantage of educational opportunities, and he hoped they too would thrive here and finally find some fulfillment.

The paperwork indicated they would arrive from Chicago at 5 p.m. Leading the pack would be his father, Sylvester, and mother, Bigme. His sons, Chester, Harry and Dane, would be with his daughters, Yvonne and Robel, and his sister Olive would be there too. He watched as the people filed past the security point. He scanned the faces and waited, figuring his family was held up by security or some paperwork. Surely all the T’s were crossed during the months of applications, interviews and the waiting period that had gone before. But he also knew that very little about international refugee immigration is easy. First Amos and then his younger brother, Edward, had emigrated from Africa and been through the process.

Then as the last people filed out after the flight had emptied, and no one with the airline was providing an explanation, the nausea started to set in as his brain told his body that something terrible had happened. An arrest? A plane crash?

But it was none of those. It was fear that kept his family off the plane. A different kind of fear than the type Amos or his family had experienced in Africa, but fear nonetheless. His family didn’t get off the plane because they had never gotten on. It was post-9-11, and all the rules regarding refugee immigration had changed. But no one had told Amos.

It was October 1, 2001, and President George W. Bush had effectively stopped the flow of refugees from entering this country, despite their dire circumstances. The immigration door that had been pried open for years by faith-based refugee organizations and international law had been shut by the White House.

Terrorism had caused his family to flee their home and now it had caused them to be stuck in limbo without a home. The terrorist attack on New York City had still other victims, those who believed this country would back up those words on the statue in the city’s harbor, the words about accepting the tired, poor, hungry, those yearning to breathe free. Refugees fleeing persecution had now been caught up in the terrorist paranoia and faced a new, unknown challenge.

Not knowing what had happened in Washington on that day, or at the airport, Amos was simply left standing there stunned and confused. Finally, he was told his family had reservations on the flight, but had not boarded the plane. The crushing disappointment set in.

As he left the airport he started his search for answers, and gathered his remaining hope. Amos left to return to an empty home.

Amos Gbeintor looked tired as he sat in his two-bedroom Oak Park bungalow. He should be fatigued. At night the sturdily built man fills the graveyard shift at the state’s Legislative Data Center working on computer systems. During the day he goes to classes at Sacramento City College. And full time he is the sole support of his family overseas. He sends a regular portion of his income to Ghana to pay for such life-preserving necessities as food, water and medicine for eight people. The continuing financial strain was just one of the reasons that the trip to the airport was such a letdown.

“There have been tough times, I’ve had to ask my friends for gas money. I must maintain myself here and take care of my entire family there. I don’t do a lot of socializing.” Indeed, he is a religious, no-nonsense person with an obvious overriding concern about one thing: moving his family to safety.

His other frustration stemmed from the knowledge that his family had been on the verge of finally getting through the bureaucratic maze. They had completed the initial interview with a representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and filed an affidavit of relationship regarding their son Amos. They’d also been X-rayed, photographed and fingerprinted and cleared the State Department’s security check. The nonprofit Lutheran agency in Sacramento had signed on as sponsors and notified Amos. The all-important paperwork package was complete.

Across the world his family proudly noted their name at the top of the departure list, were notified of the date and flight number, packed up their few belongings, and paid for bus transportation to the airport in Accra, Ghana.

But a confluence of forces had put up roadblocks to their trip, the main one being security concerns surrounding September 11. On the day of their planned departure a more significant event occurred, at least for 20,000 refugees around the world supposedly cleared to find safe harbor in the United States. Actually, it was more about what didn’t occur. President Bush was supposed to sign a “Presidential Determination” on October 1 that sets the number of refugees allowed into the country during the coming year. He didn’t sign it. All transit was postponed indefinitely. The INS also pulled back their “circuit riders,” the interviewers who would travel from refugee camp to refugee camp approving those set for travel. The INS employees were returned to Washington for security retraining. The State Department also wouldn’t allow their personnel to travel in unsafe areas, which refugee camps are most certainly in.

Ironically, two of the areas that were deemed safe enough to still process refugees were the embassies in the communist countries of Cuba and Vietnam.

So 20,000 people attempting to escape persecution and cleared for travel from Pakistan, Gambia, Iran, Russia and Ghana were stuck there, waiting word from Washington. The tragedy in New York City had justifiably created concern regarding anyone entering the country. But the pain of the attacks had now been compounded by restrictions placed on innocents. Refugees were vaguely branded as threats and concern for their plight was taking a backseat to Homeland Security. But according to immigration advocacy groups, refugees undergo the most stringent background checks of any people seeking admission into the United States and never has one proved to be a terrorist.

Amos understands the fear fomented by Al Qaeda and other terrorists, but claims his family escaped terror in the West African country of Liberia and has been fighting for their survival and nothing else. “They are too dirt poor to think about such things. They have no water or food. They can only think about surviving the next day, not fighting against a country.”

There are other forces driving his family to get out of the refugee camp and into America. The U.N. has quit providing food, water and medical facilities in neighboring Ghana for the Liberian refugees, hoping to pressure them back to their devastated homeland. After a decade, the people of Ghana are tired of hosting the Liberian refugees and are threatening to move the camps, hoping that too will force everyone to consider citizenship or repatriation back to Liberia.

But Amos’ family have seen and experienced too much. They will never go back to Liberia. It is dangerous for them there.

Liberia has always enjoyed a strong kinship with the United States. The country was founded by freed slaves from the U.S. and resettled by the American Colonization Society in the mid-1800s. The capital of Africa’s first republic, Monrovia was named after President James Monroe. The flag is red, white and blue.

Charles Taylor escaped prison in the U.S. and then started a civil war in Liberia in 1989.

The freed slaves, known as “Americo-Liberians,” dominated politics and culture for a century and a half through establishment of churches, business associations, Freemasons, and the True Whig Party. The Americo community was small, close-knit, and full of prejudice. It considered the indigenous Liberians as second-class citizens, although they constitute 95 percent of the population.

The governments of President William Tubman (1943-71) and President William Tolbert (1971-80) brought some reforms, but the resentment of the Liberian natives was evident when the uneducated Master Sergeant Samuel Doe came along in April 1980 and seized power in a coup d’état. With him, the horror story that is Liberia had entered a lengthy chapter of despair and death.

Much like Americans hearing about the assassination of Kennedy, Amos distinctly remembers sitting in a classroom in 1980 and hearing about the execution of Tolbert over the BBC. School closed and people took to the streets. He also remembers Doe’s army men crawling all over Monrovia.

The tone was set when 13 prominent politicians in the Tolbert government were publicly executed on a beach immediately following the coup.

“From then, in 1980, it all went bad,” said Amos. “Everyone was tense, afraid. We don’t know who to answer to. What was going to happen next?”

The reign of Doe was characterized by a dramatic economic decline precipitated by widespread corruption. In an effort to keep communism out of Africa, the United States chipped in and sent Doe $60 million in military aid. Doe and his cronies skimmed millions. Rigged elections in 1985 secured Doe the presidency and then the purges of real and imagined enemies began in earnest. Amos eventually found himself on the wrong side, by birth.

Amos grew up in Nimba County in the northeast region of Liberia. He remembers the members of his Mano tribe surviving on subsistence farming, growing rice and yams. Amos fondly recalls swimming and fishing with his friends, knowing little about government and politics. It was only later that he went to the city to go to school.

There were people in Nimba County who had thoughts of overthrowing Doe because of the corruption. Many in the county supported the opposition Popular People’s Party. But it was risky because Doe, while unpopular, still had tight control of the army and the secret police.

Doe viciously suppressed an attempted military coup led by his former military chief and ally, Thomas Quiwonkpa. In what would become a horrific standard of behavior following a failed coup, Quiwonkpa was captured, tortured, castrated, dismembered, and parts of his body eaten in public by Doe’s troops.

Nimba County was the home and power base of the Mano and Gio tribes who supported Quiwonkpa. A suspicious Doe started appointing trusted members of the Krahn ethnic group to positions of power. Soon members of Amos’ tribe were out of favor, being pushed from office, and worse—people started to disappear.

A good friend of the family, J. Exeter Kerdo, was the deputy chief of immigration for the region. “He was arrested by members of the Doe army,” Amos recalled. “He went into the presidential mansion and he never came back. Nobody found his body or knew exactly what happened to him.”

Everyone in the tribe naturally started to fear for his or her life. Amos’ father, Sylvester, was a police officer, a civil servant. Yet Amos said no one in or out of the government knew whether they were thought of as a “potential political problem” or not. Paranoia hung like a blanket on the country, and it fit tightly over Nimba County. “It’s not something a normal person would like to experience. It’s a suppressing, depressing, an emotionally draining experience.”

Out of school and 25 years old, Amos got a good job in the Liberian foreign ministry, but he was always looking over his shoulder. While he wasn’t active politically, he felt that by simply coming from a certain tribe and an area, his days in Liberia were numbered. “There was killing every day and night, mostly people from my tribal group. You can’t change who you are.”

Amos would go to the library at the U.S. consulate to read and dream of escaping. He applied for an exit visa to the United States and it was awarded in 1986. Amos settled in New Jersey and went to college, and then eventually came to California to be near a friend and got a computer job in Sacramento with the state. His dream of personal fulfillment came true, but along with it came the pain of leaving the family behind.

“You have to survive. If I didn’t leave I would be dead.” The same could soon be said for his family.

Samuel Doe survived multiple coup attempts with cunning and brutality, and the support of the U.S. government. The Reagan administration was thankful for his non-support of Iran and Libya and called him to Washington, where the famously confused Reagan called him “President Moe.”

Then on Christmas Eve in 1989, a few hundred armed fighters calling themselves the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) attacked border posts in, where else, the rebellious Nimba County. This incursion triggered a war that brought about the complete destruction of Africa’s oldest republic.

Charles Taylor was educated in the United States and had once been Doe’s deputy commerce minister. He broke out of a Massachusetts prison as he awaited extradition to Liberia on embezzlement charges. Taylor made his way back to Liberia, through Libya, to lead the fight. Taylor and his rebel forces seized control of most of the country and besieged Monrovia. The gruesome fighting in the ongoing civil war between Doe’s Armed Forces of Liberia and various factions has been well-documented, but largely ignored by the U.S. government.

Bloodthirsty, unprofessional militias raped and murdered. Superstitious and masked fighters clad in pajamas or dressed as women, adorned with juju or black magic, would ransack the countryside, supposedly thinking the magic made them invisible or bulletproof. Terror reigned as the country was looted by men recruited into the various factions.

“They got no pay. They would do whatever to whomever,” said Amos. “The only support they have is the gun they carry. The innocent people pay.”

The famous Boy Soldiers were drafted into this war. Various estimates put the number of Liberian soldiers under the age of 15 at 6,000 at one point. Some were as young as 9 years old; they were reportedly shown videos of Rambo and Kung Fu movies and given drugs before committing atrocities.

Meanwhile, the Gio and Mano members of the Liberian army were arrested. Many were killed, some escaped to fight with the rebels. There were also reports of massacres.

Amos’ brother Jerome was eight years older and was the quiet one in the family. He was also a church-going person and that may have led to his death. Hundreds of members of the Mano and Gio tribes were being attacked by Doe’s troops and their homes destroyed. They fled into the night seeking refuge at St. Peter’s church compound, thinking it wise to regroup in one spot. The government’s death squad found them and reportedly opened fire on 600 people including Jerome. It was an atrocity that caught the attention of the international media in 1990. Many women’s and children’s bodies were found huddled under the pews. Others were shot trying to jump out of windows and still others while running away. Amos’ father believes Jerome was killed in close proximity to St. Peter’s, but his body was never formally identified; the government forces wouldn’t allow it. Amos’ family could do nothing but remember.

“When a member of your family is shot and you don’t have an opportunity to bury him, it is not something you can forget,” Amos said. “The family needed to run for their life. But you don’t forget.”

The continuing civil war would stop and go in phases, with intermittent lulls brought on by peacekeeping forces, but then the ferocities would break out anew. Peace efforts by countries in the region came to nothing; the main warring factions agreed to a dozen peace deals and broke them all.

The crumbling walls of Buduburam Refugee Camp surround thousands of people who are without sanitation or medical aid.

Courtesy of L.Taylor/UNHCR

Field Marshall Prince Johnson was a Gio and he led a sizable force. Johnson had signed a ceasefire agreement with Doe, vowing to fight Taylor. But then, in September 1990, Johnson’s men captured and tortured Doe and recorded it on videotape, which was shown to the masses including members of the international media. Johnson was seen chewing on Doe’s hacked-off ear, demanding to know what happened to the Liberian people’s money. Doe declined to answer and died a slow death. Just like his country.

The civil war further degenerated into ethnic carnage that engulfed the whole country and tore down its infrastructure. In 1991, as the conflict continued, over half of the country’s population of 2.6 million was either displaced internally or on the move out of the country, and that included Amos’ family. They left behind property, homes, furnishings, friends and members of the extended family.

His family escaped the country by getting on a truck headed for the Ivory Coast. Amos’ wife had already left him, and a daughter he had from a previous relationship had fled with the Liberian mother to Sierra Leone. Amos lost contact with them, but eventually the woman turned his daughter over to Amos’ brother in Monrovia. Edward later got an exit visa to the United States because of his relationship to Amos. Two were out, eight to go.

Amos needed to find a safe place for the rest of his family to regroup. Ghana was English-speaking, had no civil war and it soon became the country of choice for fleeing Liberians. Ten years ago a temporary camp was formed by Ghana and the UNHCR to gather all the Liberians in one place north of the capital of Accra; it became known as Buduburam Refugee Camp. As hostilities in Liberia ebbed and flowed the camp would swell from a population of 10,000 up to 22,000.

For years the U.N. and the Ghanaians provided support in the form of food, water, medical attention and housing. Some schools, churches and training facilities were established in what became one of the largest towns in the country.

In 1997, Taylor and the warring factions agreed to elections in Liberia, which Taylor won, and hopes were that the Liberians would return to their homes, and many did, only to find their homes destroyed and the economy in a shambles. Fear lingered.

Taylor began to support rebels in neighboring Sierra Leone, trading his weapons for their diamonds. Taylor had also squelched all criticism of his government and broken peace treaties. He and his inside circle were accused of harvesting the country’s lumber and rubber for his own devices; one diplomat called it Charles Taylor Inc. Many of the Liberians who had taken up the offer of a free bus ride back to Liberia would soon return to Buduburam.

And that is where Amos’ family sits today, a decade after arriving. The U.N. and the government of Ghana have fulfilled their obligation and are suffering their own refugee fatigue in Africa with AIDS and droughts to deal with. Scarce jobs near the camp go to the Ghanaians and humanitarian aid has been cut off for two years.

A recent video taken by a member of a trade mission to Ghana shows a crumbling Buduburam camp with alleys of mud. The children are not fully clothed and urinate in the streets or into open sewers. The buildings that once housed training or medical facilities are vacant. The remaining schoolrooms contain benches and a blackboard, but no books. The water supply dries up after the rainy season and a truck can be seen dispensing water to those who can pay.

In a phone call to Buduburam that took three days to hook up, Amos’ father Sylvester said the refugees are completely on their own to scrounge out an existence. “There is no food provided to us. If you want to take baths, wash clothes, or simply drink water, you have to buy it. We have to buy everything.” Unlike the majority of the refugees, Sylvester has a source of income in Amos who provides sustenance via Western Union.

Amos’ family and others are housed in a building with two bedrooms for the 12 people, the boys and men in one, the girls and women in another. They were obviously happy to be leaving and devastated by the staying.

Sylvester’s heavily accented voice on the phone raises in anger. “They say OK. They finally tell you, get up, get ready to go out. We got on a bus to Accra, then they tell us at the airport the trip was postponed. Now it’s don’t move, ya know? It is very maddening.”

When the father is asked about what exactly drove him from his home—was it the pillaging, the fear of death, or the murder of his son—Sylvester respectfully declines to comment. He won’t talk about his past political affiliations. He too is fatigued. “I don’t want to discuss my risk and what happened. I can’t go on with all of this forever.” Beyond fatigue, he is still fearful. A former aide to Doe was assassinated in the camp.

The moratorium on refugees coming to the United States has been lifted … to a degree. The previous flow has been reduced to a trickle but the federal government now claims the faucet will be opening … soon. President Bush signed the papers that re-started the refugee program in November, but the movement is hesitant. A ceiling of 70,000 this fiscal year has been established, but further restrictions make it unlikely the INS will come close to allowing that number in. In the first six months of the year, only 10,000 have arrived.

Refugees’ files are now more closely reviewed, and refugees like the members of Amos’ family will only be allowed into the country at four major airports where they will be fingerprinted and questioned again. Also, no more than 35 refugees at a time may come in on charter flights that used to carry much more. Despite there being no link between terrorism and refugees, men from certain countries in Africa will be reinvestigated. Word from the field is that 50 percent of the new applications are being turned down or being reinvestigated for possible identity fraud. This despite the fact that people entering this country for tourism and business have not come under similar increased scrutiny.

“Well, you could get real cynical,” admits refugee advocate Lavinia Limon, of Immigration and Refugee Services of America. “You could say nobody loses much money when a refugee doesn’t come. Can you imagine the screaming if tourists or business people were barred?”

The advocates point to xenophobia around the world, including recent examples in Australia of jailing refugees and statements by presidential candidate Le Pen in France about closing the borders. If the United States, with its impressive history of supporting refugees, takes two steps back, what kind of signal will that send?

“This has never happened before and we are worried,” said Susan Baukhages of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. “Why are these innocent people being rejected right now? Something is not right in our world.”

While the story of Amos’ family is multiplied by tens of thousands, some politicians such as Senator Ted Kennedy are starting to demand answers. The INS is assuring the politicians that security concerns can be met and the refugees can come, it just takes time. But refugees in some areas, like Africa, don’t have the luxury of time. A Rwandan mother and her two children had been judged in urgent need of resettlement due to persecution and placed in a so-called “safe house” in Nairobi. Three weeks ago the mother was stabbed and survived, but the two girls’ throats were slit and they died.

There appears to be little safe haven within Africa. Beyond a drought, the complicated regional conflict in West Africa is not improving. Liberia has made yet another shaky attempt at peace, but the situation has deteriorated of late. Human Rights Watch just issued a report with the foreboding title of “Back to the Brink,” detailing the re-emergence of war crimes and human rights abuses. In addition to Liberia’s continued disaster, fighting during the last decade has spread to Guinea, Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone, where the technique of using child soldiers has been copied. Refugees from those countries have been forced, at times, to even flee to Liberia.

“It used to be that refugees would escape terror and war and go to a place that was peaceful,” said Limon. “In Africa, they escape terror and war and go to someplace where there is terror and war.”

Amos has to pay someone in Ghana to carry a cell phone to his father. There is a steep rental fee so the family doesn’t spend much time on small talk, but Sylvester is questioned about his health.

“I’m very sick. I’ve been down the whole day. It’s malaria.”

The sanitation at the camp is very poor and there are serious outbreaks of diarrhea, cholera and typhoid. “There is nobody doing any kind of job medically to help you.”

If and when he and the rest of Amos’ family do arrive in California, that problem will be taken care of as part of a package of help provided by the Sacramento Refugee Ministry. Beyond the medical care, the family will get assistance with food, clothing, finding work, and getting children into school.

But now a new paperwork roadblock has added another agonizing frustration. Last week a refugee commissioner in Ghana told Sylvester he’s now back at the bottom of the list because all of his documentation was sent back to the INS after he was not allowed to leave on October 1. No one, of course, informed Amos.

Sylvester has a vision of what it will be like when he finally gets out of the camp and lands in California. In the epic wretchedness of Buduburam, open sewers and the tropical heat have combined to foul the air and the overcrowding doesn’t help. “It’s just so congested. There’s no breeze here.” He adds, “There in California I hope there will be a breeze.”

He is yearning to breathe free.