Colonel Richard Gonkarnue has one of the toughest jobs in Nimba County, Liberia: to combat child labor and trafficking at one of several checkpoints along a porous border between Liberia and the Ivory Coast.
He points to a black and white photograph tacked to the wall of his office at the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization in Loguatuo. In the photo, a grateful-looking father holds a bleary-eyed baby. Several uniformed immigration officers pose with their hands behind their backs, the look of a job well done on their faces.
Here's the story: last year, a young woman from the Ivory Coast kidnapped a 9-month-old baby from Monrovia. "To keep the child or sell it, we don't really know," the colonel says. In Liberia, it is common for children to be illegally adopted and bought and sold for forced labor and sexual exploitation. Children are trafficked for other dark purposes, including ritual killing.
I asked the colonel what it was about this woman that had piqued his curiosity. She had no travel documents, he says. She had no clothes or food for the baby. The child was crying uncontrollably. The driver of the taxi in which the woman and child had been traveling reported that the baby had cried all the way from Monrovia, and that the woman had done nothing to stop it. The colonel sensed that something was wrong and decided to investigate.
"I asked what her relationship to the baby was," the colonel explained. "The woman claimed that the baby was her sister's child. Her dead sister." Sensing that the child was hungry, the colonel asked the woman to nurse the baby. There was an uncomfortable moment when it became clear that the woman was incapable of nursing. Colonel's Gonkarnue's colleagues took the baby and placed the woman into custody. A local woman was enlisted to nurse the child. Eventually, the colonel tracked down the child's parents in Monrovia. The end result was the photo I was looking at.
Child trafficking is a serious problem in post-war Liberia and around the world, and one the International Rescue Committee (IRC) is doing its best to tackle. Last year, Colonel Gonkarnue had attended a training course the IRC conducted to raise awareness about child trafficking. The training covered everything from where and why trafficking occurs to how to identify potential traffickers and how to stop them. "We were taught how to observe the border, particularly the movement of children," Colonel Gonkarnue explains, "Who is carrying them across? Have we seen this person before?"
The Loguatuo checkpoint is one of several checkpoints along the border. Of course, it not just illegal traffickers who are crossing the border. People constantly come and go to purchase and sell their wares in neighboring countries. With so much activity, it can be difficult to spot a kidnapping. "Before we were innocent," Col. Gonkarnue says, "But now, thanks to the IRC training, we know."
The Loguatuo office has been the scene of several rescues this year. Sadly, child trafficking is only one form of abuse that's happening. Child labor, arduous work that taxes children's bodies and keeps them out of school, is another. Just outside the colonel's office, young boys (7 to 15 years old) push wheelbarrows filled with small items to sell at market. Nearby, others wait hoping to make a little money as porters. One boy urged a cart uphill, stopping to rest every few feet. "It's heavy," he stopped to tell me.
The day before, I had met two young boys who were engaged in a particularly grueling form of labor in another village: packing mud bricks from 7 in the morning until 7 in the evening. I'd met these boys thanks to Gabriel Davis, who manages the IRC's child protection efforts in the region. We had taken a walk through town when he noticed a little boy streaked in mud and struggling to hold up a pair of filthy jean shorts under his distended stomach. I watched Gabriel speak to the little boy in a way that allowed him to gather information but not alarm the boy.
The boy, Siakoh (whose name has been changed for this story), said he would be happy to show us the pit where he worked. He led us up a steep hill. When we arrived, Gabriel and I exchanged glances of shock and disgust. Several children were hunched over in a deep hole, scraping mud into molds with their bare hands. Beside them, Gabriel and I stared at row upon row of bricks.
Gabriel asked how many Siakoh bricks intended to pack. "One thousand," he replied. So far, his tally was 160. I asked how much Siakoh would be paid for his efforts. Each brick, he told us, sold for 5 Liberian dollars...meaning it would take 12 to equal just $1 (U.S.). Another boy with piercing eyes and wearing only a t-shirt, said that he, too, he was aiming to pack 1,000 bricks. Gabriel asked how old he was, he replied "thirteen." He appeared to have the body of an 8-year-old. "Muscles on the arms of an infant," Gabriel later observed. Asked whether he attended school the boy replied, "I am in second grade."
Poverty is a major (but not the only) reason child labor and trafficking is rampant in Liberia. Traditional beliefs about child labor also play a role. In rural villages, working hard, and becoming strong are seen as positive goals for young boys and girls. Part of the IRC's strategy is to convince parents to keep and send their children to school--but that requires a shift in attitude: that children have rights, that trafficking and child labor are dehumanizing, and that the money a child makes is not worth the toll on his or her body, mind and spirit.
By making door-to-door visits, sponsoring radio broadcasts, organizing trainings like the one Colonel Gonkarnue attended, and by providing other incentives to families, the IRC works to spread the message that child labor and trafficking are wrong.
According to Ibrahim Hatibu, who oversees the IRC's efforts to help children in Liberia, with the increased involvement of local communities and government agencies, there is a good chance to combat and change these harmful practices.
Hatibu is pleased with the progress that has been made so far, but emphasizes that there is a long way to go: "There is a Liberian adage, 'Good millet is known at the harvest.' The action of the immigration officer at the border exemplifies the results of the training provided by the IRC. While the fruits of our efforts are starting to show, it is imperative that resources are mobilized at all levels to ensure that child labor and trafficking are tackled at all costs."