The Story of Christine Harmon
A strict childhood
Christine is a reserved and quiet woman, but quick to smile. Soft spoken, she listens closely and says little. With a wary demeanor, she nevertheless warms up quickly. Born in 1980, she was the second youngest of eight siblings, and is a survivor of some of the worst that her country’s history had to offer. She was only nine years old when the First Liberian Civil War officially began. When asked how she endured, she sums it up in three words: “Faith, hope, and prayer.”
The daughter of a lawyer and a teacher, Christine started her life in a strict household. She recalls having time only for school and for church. She had few friends, and the parents of those friends had to be interviewed by her father before she could play with them. Nevertheless, she recalls this period of her life as her happiest. “[A]s a child being in school with my friends, going to church with my family . . . and my father used to sing. He liked music and he would teach us all these songs during the holidays, and sometimes with friends and their families we would sing together.” Her father played piano, and “he would teach us the songs and the history behind the songs.”
The Civil War Years
Christine prefers not to recall this period of her life. She and her family had left Monrovia before the war started. She remembers little about the circumstances, "soldiers came to the house and took my father away for a time. When he returned, he announced that we were moving and we left." They relocated to a village in Bong County, north east of Monrovia. At the outbreak of war in 1989, while her father remained, he sent the rest of the family back to Monrovia where they would be safer.
War soon made its way to Monrovia, however, and Christine’s mother fled to Guinea. Christine stayed in Guinea for only a few months before her father sent for her in 1994. She lived in Bong County until, at the age of 14, Christine’s father was murdered by the Liberia Peace Council—a rebel group that served largely as a proxy for the Armed Forces of Liberia. Her father was 65 years old.
“I appreciate the strictness of my father. If he hadn’t been as strict, maybe I wouldn’t be here today. [He] forc[ed] us to learn and ensured the importance of education even at a very young age."
“Since my father died, I’ve never cried [until now] . . . . I’ve never had the opportunity to cry—I really didn’t have the time to. I still do dream about him, though. . . .[he is] always giving me instructions or giving me something that he wants me to keep . . . . [W]e didn’t get along well when he was alive—I felt like he was too hard, too tough.” Maybe if he was around to see, or wherever he is, maybe he would be proud. . . . I'm sure he would be proud."
After the death her father, Christine and her two siblings fled into the country side, hiding in rice fields for several months. Their efforts to avoid the war ended when they were captured by the United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy, a group known for serious human rights violations. Christine became one of its victims.
The ULIMO soldiers took Christine to Gbarnga, where, like other captives, she was used as a human shield. She was also raped. “I lost my virginity when we were taken captives . . . it’s not something I wanted to do [but] I had to live. . . . [W]e were lined up and everybody would pick who they wanted in the group and if you didn’t do it you would be dead. It was not a situation where you would say no. . . . Those times of my life were not the best times.”
After months of being held captive, soldiers under Charles Taylor took Gbarnga and Christine fled again. “You would see someone one day and the next day they were dead. You walk the streets, you see bodies hanging, lying on the floor, you sit and watch them butchering people—they were not just murdering people, they butchering people. The person is alive, extracting parts [of their organs to be used for rituals]. Sometimes they come and grab someone, they said they look suspicious; they are the enemy. They said their guns were too good to use on the people [so they] used knives. I remember one time they brought one guy, we knew him, he was a neighbor, and a lady. . . . I don’t know why my sister and I walked back with them, it was God, some intervention, it wasn’t us. . . . they had him tied up and we begged and begged with them and they freed him, it was God's intervention that we could convince them they were not rebels.”
Eventually Christine made her way to an aunt’s house in Monrovia. Due to issues with the aunt’s husband, however, they refused to pay for Christine’s schooling or to support her. But through her resourcefulness and determination, Christine managed to continue her schooling.
High school brought a new set of problems, however. Christine had a relationship with a fellow student and became pregnant. "I wasn’t finished school when I had my son and as soon as I got out I had my daughter and it was like it’s over. . . . they [her family] said I would amount to nothing, they said 'she had kids and she’s just going to have children,' as long as you have kids life is over for you."
Christine used her faith to deal with the struggles. “Every time I had a problem I chose a character in the Bible that would be me. When my family said I would be nothing, I said I’m Joseph, I will prove them wrong and I will be someone better. . . . I lived my Joseph’s story."
Despite her family’s shunning, Christine went on to complete not only high school, but she finished college in 2008. After working as a bank teller she was able to get a job with an international agency supporting agriculture.
Just as her life was enjoying an upswing, Ebola hit Liberia in 2014. Although she experienced the loss of close friends, Christine considers herself lucky compared to what others' endured,
“Constant fear. Hearing sirens and ambulances everybody thinks ‘who’s next?’ It was living in constant fear. Deadlier than the war. In the war you knew where to run. With Ebola you don’t know anything about how you’re going to get infected. The fear and loss of loved ones really affected all of us, hearing other people’s stories, seeing pictures of what it did. . . .Your child is sick and you can’t touch that child. You’re looking at the child and crying but can’t touch him. People died from not being cared for when they could be sick from something else. You can’t bury your family or have any ceremonies. I was lucky."
CHOOSING TO STAY
Even with all the problems and violence, Christine stayed in Liberia. “Liberians are nice. Liberia is beautiful. The soil is rich, there are lots of natural resources. But we’re still starving, still sick, still poor. But I love Liberia. I don’t think I would be happy in any other country.”
“I would say not everyone would leave Liberia—someone has to be there and maybe that person is me, because if they want to go home they always have a place to stay.”
In 2016, Christine started a business selling beverages and providing micro-finance to other entrepreneurs.
Although the civil wars have ended, the process of reconciliation continues. Many of the warring divisions were based on tribal differences which still remain. “A lot of people still hold that hate, but a lot of people let it go. . . . Liberians are good at letting things go.”
Liberia is a small country. It’s the size of Tennessee, with a population of 4.7 million people. The two civil wars resulted in the deaths of nearly 20% of the country’s people. By way of comparison:
- The percentage of the total American population killed in the Civil War: 2%
- The percentage of the total American population killed in World War II: 0.3%
- The percentage of the total American population killed in the Iraq War: 0.001%
As a result of the widespread effects of the Liberian civil wars, it is impossible for the victims to avoid contact with the aggressors. Close to home, Christine’s sister has married a man from the tribe of rebels who took them captive. She has also worked for members of tribes who caused violence to her and her family. Christine takes a long view toward reconciliation: "I did not tell them. It was some people from that county—it wasn’t the entire county. I don’t think I should keep holding it. I’m still alive. . . . I’m not a full Christian, but I do believe when the Bible says God sees, and vengeance is His. That is his job. Not mine.”
Christine says that “the good stories are in the future.” She is actively working toward bringing about those good stories.
Christine is building a beverage business, and making loans to other entrepreneurs. Her daughter lives in Liberia, and her son is in boarding school in Maryland. She has achieved her goal of building a place of her own so her family and friends have a place to which they can return. She looks at her experiences as proof that she has the strength and endurance to accomplish great things: “I’ve never lost faith, I’ve never lost hope. The struggles and God have made me stronger. I’m a fighter.”