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29 August 2000

Elizabeth's children
Karin Achtelstetter

Shock is etched deep in Elizabeth's face. Her eyes, wide and staring, seem still to reflect the scene she can hardly bring herself to talk about: "The rebels cut off my husband's legs and arms. They threw his head at my feet." Elizabeth hesitates, struggling to find words. But before such horror words fail - no adjective can describe what she was forced to watch.

That was eight years ago. Eight years during which she has never stopped praising and thanking God that she is alive and has not despaired of life; that her daughter was spared; and that she has brought all "her children" safely through the civil war in Liberia.

Elizabeth's children - today there are 45 of them, 30 boys and 15 girls aged from 6 months to 16 years - are cared for by Elizabeth in the orphanage she runs. At times during the war there were more than 100 children - some who had lost their parents, others sent by parents who didn't know where to turn. Elizabeth took them in and somehow or other she brought them all through the war.

She stayed while others fled. "Where could I have gone, with the children?" When soldiers attacked the orphanage, she prayed. "When they saw the children, they turned and left and never came back."

"Children's Ministry" is the name of the orphanage Elizabeth runs, a name she chose deliberately. For Elizabeth, a trained midwife, ministering to children is not just a job, it is a vocation - as it is for the eleven men and women who work with her, and the two guards who stay with her even when their meagre wages cannot be paid. As there is little hope of regular allocations, Elizabeth counts on self-reliance, farming the land to provide basic foodstuffs.

Elizabeth shows the five members of the international ecumenical women's delegation into the small single-storey house she shares with the girls and the smallest children. There is little to recall the life she led before the war with her husband and daughter in their own home. A small chest of drawers and a bed are all she has. Above the dull mirror hangs a picture of the risen Christ; the text "Fear not" is with her in the morning when she wakes and at night when she goes to sleep. Above the bed is a photo of her daughter who has left Liberia so that she can put all this out of her mind and not be confronted at every step with the horrors of the past.

Elizabeth's daughter would like to have her mother with her: "Come and stay with me, what I earn is enough for both of us," she wrote to her mother recently. But Elizabeth knows her place is with the children, hard as it is to be separated from her daughter. "What would become of the children?" Elizabeth dismisses the idea with a wave of her hand: "I'm staying."

Members of the international ecumenical team:
Hélène Yinda, World YWCA, Geneva (team leader)
Karin Achtelstetter, WCC, Geneva
Jessica Babihuga Nkuuhe, ISIS, Uganda
Lillian Chirombe, World YWCA, Zimbabwe
Ashley Seaman, WCC, Presbyterian Church (USA)

This feature was written during the visit of a five-member international ecumenical delegation of women to Liberia, from 26 July to 2 August, and is one of a series on the West African country. The five women went to Liberia to find out about the situation of women and children in the country after the war. Responding to the needs of their respective members, this solidarity visit was planned and organized by representatives of the World Council of Churches (WCC), the World YWCA, the All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC) and the Lutheran World Federation (LWF).

Photos from Liberia are available at:
PhotoOikoumene or telephone: (+41.22) 791.62.95

Decade to Overcome Violence (2001-2010)

At the Eighth Assembly of the WCC in Harare, Zimbabwe, delegates representing more than 300 WCC member churches brought the Decade to Overcome Violence (DOV) into being. The Assembly declared that on issues of non-violence and reconciliation, the WCC should "work strategically with the churches... to create a culture of non-violence". The Decade, which will be launched world-wide in February 2001, will build on already existing initiatives around the world, and will offer a forum for sharing experiences and establishing relationships so as to learn from one another.

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The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches, now 337, in more than 100 countries in all continents from virtually all Christian traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member church but works cooperatively with the WCC. The highest governing body is the assembly, which meets approximately every seven years. The WCC was formally inaugurated in 1948 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Its staff is headed by general secretary Konrad Raiser from the Evangelical Church in Germany.