Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Sasha's Recidivism

Sasha killed a gecko yesterday. This specific act of recidivism indicates she failed her DDR program. DDR stands for disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration. DDR of ex-combatants is frequently a first step in the transition from war to peace. Demilitarization can be used in times of peace as well, to reduce the size of armed forces and redistribute public spending. However, DDR is much more complicated in a post-conflict environment, when different fighting groups are divided by animosities and face a real security dilemma as they give up their weapons, when civil society structures have crumbled, and when the economy is stagnant.

Children who have grown up within an armed group have been exposed to ongoing atrocities. This chronic exposure at a very young age makes it very difficult to reintegrate into society, partly because they simply know nothing else, and partly because all of this occurred during critical developmentally formative years. DDR is the catch phrase used to describe the programming or should I say re-programming of ex-child combatants. Child soldiers are a hot topic internationally given recent highlights of them in movies like Blood Diamonds and books like The Long Way Home (which both highlight Sierra Leon, Liberia’s neighbor) and here in Liberia the conscription of child soldiers was commonplace for nearly a decade.

Gbargnga and Lofa, the two district towns I live and work in are full of ex-combatants and consequently DDR programs. It is an eerie feeling to be walking in a market or traveling down a road or even playing a little basketball with some local teens and being struck with the realization that these adorable adolescents were all ex-combatants. At times, when the air is blowing in a certain direction (even in this hundred plus degree weather) the feeling is downright chilling. The heaviness in the air is at times tied to overt tensions, other times it is more covert apprehensions, but there is no doubt a residue remains. It’s as if past emotional states are on the verge of re-surfacing and the only thing that would need to occur is an ignition of a very combustible and very short ex-combatant communal fuse. For example, there was an incident a few weeks ago where a group of boys were upset about the way the local police interviewed a possible suspect. In approximately 41 minutes nearly 700 ex-combatants were organized with weapons at a local police sub-station chanting their message. Grassroots political activists in the west will likely read this with a hint of organizational envy.

But let me return to dear Sasha. Sasha is a cat. She was adopted by my Kenyan teammate Michael after we had some problems with rats in the ex-pat house. At first the rats were a nuance but then, after an outbreak of Lassa fever – the issues of rats quickly became an issue of security. Lassa fever (like Yellow Fever) is a viral hemorrhagic fever endemic in West and Central Africa. The Lassa virus is transmitted from rats to humans by either direct contact or by mucosal exposure. Among causative agents Lassa affects the second largest number of people (after dengue). Based on epidemiological studies in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea and Nigeria, the ‘‘at risk’’ sero-negative population in these countries may be as high as 59 million, with an annual incidence of illness of 3 million, fatalities up to 67 thousand and up to 3 million re-infections. My aim with these statistics is to make you a little bit nervous about my well-being because they downright terrified me and my teammates, hence the cat.

Michael rightfully believed that most animals were best used for dining purposes; therefore, he didn’t get too excited about having a pet, let alone a cat. But, he changed his tune when Lassa fever became a real threat. An added bonus was that our new housemate delivered. Sasha was an excellent hunter and managed to literally “clean house” in 2 short weeks. Not a single rat and better yet, not a single rat dropping, was to be found. Michael didn’t bother feeding Sasha because she was evidently managing on her own.

A few weeks after we squelched the lassa fever issue Michael’s new teammate, Kscared, arrived. Kscared is an American girl from DC who left behind one important thing - her pride and joy, her only child - Paris (a small “Pugier” which is labradoodle speak for part Pug part Boston terrier). Some of you may not believe this but I think Kscared may even be a little more extreme than me with regards to her affection for her pet. I may tear up a bit when I speak of my two Tuesdays or try to interject some sort of Tuesday tale into any given conversations, but Kscared managed to take her affection to a new level and referred to Paris as her “baby” and was eminently prepared to show pictures of Paris from both her lap top as well as her wallet, whenever she was given the chance. Local staff continues to get a kick out of this and take every opportunity to inquire about Paris’s well being, simply so they can see Kscared’s reaction.

Upon arriving in Lofa, Kscared was happy to take Sasha in, but due to the fact the Lassa fever scare was over, Sasha’s homicidal tendencies needed to be curbed. By this point there were rumors that Sasha was attacking small children in the neighborhood and the cook was complaining because Sasha had literally declared war on a chicken that was brought into the compound for an ex-pat dinner. Sasha needed to become sweet and well behaved if she was going to be allowed to stick around.

So, DDR began in the CVT-Lofa compound. First, Sasha was to learn that she was not suppose to hunt, kill or mar any living thing in the house; Michael, Kscared and all the friendly mosquito eating geckos and chickens included. She was also given a flee bath and allowed to sit on the couch -if she refrained from scratching everyone (disarmament). Next, she was to learn she would get fed cat food by Kscared at a very specific time and in a very specific place (demobilization). And, finally she was to be assimilated back into the family system vis-à-vis frequent pettings and sweet conversations in cat-speak (i.e., that voice we humans put on when speaking to household pets) (reintegration).

At first Sasha’s DDR program was quite successful. Sasha had a full belly and was getting used to all the attention. By the end of the third week Sasha was even getting demanding – meowing at every passerbyer and doing laps around any able-bodied pair of legs that entered the house with requests for tactile attention. But then tragedy struck. Poor Sasha got bored and on a warm and cloudless day in April (that we now refer to April Twenty), Sasha went on a homicidal killing spree. Sasha had spent an entire day hunting and upon our return, she had 5 gecko corpses lined up on the porch and two additional amputees were spotted on the wall in the bathroom.

Sasha cracked. But, just as quickly as she regressed into her earlier professional hit-man identity, she recovered and was meowing and looking for a scratch behind her ear asserting blissful ignorance of her digression.

Sasha’s problem is not unique. The DDR programs in Liberia, although well meaning and aptly developed, have a few fatal flaws. First, it is tragic for the survivors. Women, children and boys who managed to avoid getting conscripted into Taylor’s armies or were themselves victims of brutal aggressions executed by these young rebel groups were once again ignored and reminded that sometimes crime does, in fact, pay. The DDR participants were given jobs and social cards that allowed them regular access to food programs as well as monthly allowances. The aim was to keep them busy and satisfied so they wouldn’t act out – but what of the victims? Not to mention sustainability. Second, the social cards and free resources were clearly facilitating a process of leaned helplessness and the ex-combatants quickly learned that if they simply threatened to act up they were immediately given what they asked for and were frequently offered more services. Just as was the case with Sasha, these boys were getting bored and the bar was continually being raised. Everything was being handed to them (or at least they were receiving more than their civilian neighbors) – and given the rates of school violence in the west, we all know what bored antisocial punks can manage to do if provoked or armed.

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