Things back then were so... normal. We had all we wanted, we had running water, electricity, food; I wasn't thinking about how to get something to eat all the time. Everything was perfect. And I had a dream: I wanted to be the president of Liberia.
Richard Allen was eight years old. Everything was normal and everything was perfect. He studied at a Calvary Mission Academy School run by his father, Theophilus, a Baptist pastor. At home, he had a family, books, and peace - though, at that time, he didn't think of peace as something you may or may not have.
Until the day when everything changed. Richard had already seen something weird on TV: on the news they spoke about "rebels" who killed people, ate their flesh and drank their blood.
I didn't understand, I thought they were talking about some kind of animal...
In Richard's mind, those "rebels" were just creatures from the TV world, but that day his father told him they were men, and they were getting close to the Liberian capital, Monrovia. The family fled to the town where his grandmother lived. That day in 1989 marked the end of normal life once and for all for Richard, and another three million Liberians.
Liberia, on the West African coast, is the oldest and one of the smallest republics on the continent, 96.000 square kilometres of iron, diamonds, gold, timber and very little agriculture.
At first, life in the village was pleasant. Richard and his brothers didn't have to go to school, Mom and Dad were with them - and Grandma too, whom Richard loved so much. Then one morning, they heard shots. Pastor Theophilus told everyone to go inside the house and he locked doors and windows. A couple of minutes later, bullets were raining down. Everybody hid under the beds. At one point, Richard's three-year-old sister stood up and started to walk; his father leapt out and grabbed her and each was hit by a bullet. The attackers were Krahn rebels; they were looking for Gio people to kill. The Allens were saved because a Krahn neighbour who was visiting them started screaming in his dialect and the attack ended. Father and daughter spent a few days in the hospital; once they were out, the Pastor decided that Liberia wasn't safe anymore: the family should flee to Sierra Leone.
Richard remembers they walked many days. Then they were in a boat, crossing a lake for hours. On the other side, right before the border, they ran into a rebel check point. The soldiers took aside the boys over ten: if they didn't want to fight for their army, they were killed. The rest of the civilians were separated into two groups: men on one side, women and children on the other.
Some rebels were betting on the sex of a pregnant girl's baby. They laughed; some said a boy, others a girl. Finally, they opened her up with a knife and took the foetus out: it was a boy. The winning side cheered the victory with gunshots, chopped the baby's head off and put it on the roof of their van. I couldn't stop crying.
The civil wars in Liberia lasted fourteen years, from the uprising of the army led by Charles Taylor in 1989 to its definitive defeat in 2003. There were different phases, interrupted by negotiations and moments of ephemeral peace - Liberians called them World Wars 1, 2 and 3 - and a quarter of a million people died. Many soldiers were adolescents under the influence of drugs and alcohol; their commanders and shamans convinced them that nobody could kill them if they drank human blood or ate the flesh of a virgin, and so they did. That afternoon in the check point, there were dead people hanging in the trees gushing blood into buckets; and the soldiers drank it. Then soldiers tried to put Richard's little four-month-old sister in a mortar, to tear her apart. His grandmother clung to her and wouldn't let her go, and a soldier stabbed her in the chest.
Then they stabbed her dozens of times, all over her body. My father was watching, but there was nothing he could do; if he moved they would kill him too. Then they took my Granny and they dragged her everywhere, fighting over who would eat her. They ate her raw. Raw, my God! At that moment, I would have done the worst things to them.
The Allens were saved because a rebel recognized the Pastor, and let them go. The family crossed the border and walked for days through the jungle, until they found a warehouse crammed with hundreds of Liberian refugees. Life there wasn't much better: the children starved to death or were bitten by snakes, hunted down by wild animals or killed by diseases.
One day, a UN mission arrived and led the refugees to a more protected area; there wasn't always food, but they had a safer shelter. One night, the rebels came from the other side of the border; they took the men one by one and asked if they'd rather have long or short sleeves. If they replied long, they chopped their arms off at their wrists; if they said short, at the height of the shoulder. Some were given the option of long or short pants, or of the "cellphone": they chopped off their fingers leaving just the pinky and the thumb, simulating a telephone. Those who refused to choose were killed.
Once more, the family escaped, first to a nearby town, then to Freetown, Sierra Leone's capital. The only thing Richard remembers about those years with no school and no playing, is the struggle to survive, to eat. In 1992, the war seemed to be over and the Allens returned to Monrovia. Richard was eleven and had problems at school; memories haunted him, but he learned to adapt.
That lasted until 1997, when the ex-rebel Charles Taylor won the election, and violence returned. Pastor Allen had the same family name as the general secretary of the ruling party. Even though they were not relatives, he was targeted by Taylor's enemies, the new rebels. The family went into hiding again. Thanks to his Baptist contacts, Theophilus Allen was invited to a convention in the US, and he left. It was only with forged IDs that Mrs. Winnifred Allen and her five children were able to cross into neighbouring Cote d'Ivoire.
There they lived in a UN refugee camp, and Richard tried to finish high school. His father sent money, while his mother sold bread and sweets. But in 2000, violence broke out in Cote d'Ivoire and Liberia seemed like a safer place, so the Allens went back. In Monrovia, the three oldest brothers entered one of the best schools in town, which was also attended by President Taylor's daughters.
One morning in 2002, Richard saw a group of soldiers courteously escorting the Taylor girls out of the school. Something was going on. Richard gathered his brothers and they went back to their house. That afternoon, violence was unleashed once again in the city, and Mrs. Allen took her family to Ghana.
During the fourteen-year-long war, more than eight hundred thousand people left their homes; half a million were displaced inside the country, and the rest (one out of every ten Liberians) fled to neighbouring countries.
"In 2005, there were approximately 12.7 million refugees in the world, roughly half of them children under the age of 18."
In Ghana, the Allens found shelter in another refugee camp, packed and with foul sanitation. But Richard was able to finish high school, and signed up for a computer study programme. With other refugees, he created a group of young people who collected money to pay for the studies of those who couldn't afford it. They also organized meetings, discussion groups and campaigns against AIDS.
Another big disappointment came when my family moved to the US, in 2003. My father got asylum, and he could extend it to my mother and the rest of my brothers. But they wouldn't give it to me. They said I was over the required age, that it was impossible. My father got me a scholarship but then my student visa was rejected. I don't understand. My whole family lives there and I haven't seen them in more than three years. I don't know what to do.
In Ghana, he wasn't able to get a job or papers. He felt he was wasting his life there, and he heard that his country was recovering. Richard Allen returned to Liberia once again in September 2005.
It is true that his country is trying to recover. In November 2005, Liberia elected the first woman president in Africa, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and people are hopeful. However, the country still has no running water or electricity, the economy is destroyed and only 20 per cent of the people have a job. Poverty is extreme.
My friends in Ghana said I was crazy to go back, that there was nothing I could do, that I shouldn't trust any government because all politicians are corrupt.
Today, Richard Allen lives by himself in the family house, a few kilometres from downtown Monrovia. He works as a freelance programmer for an Internet company that doesn't always pay him. At times he thinks he may have to leave the country to continue his education; but even if he does, he wants to return to Liberia.
Do you still feel this is your home, after all?
Sometimes I wonder what I'm doing here. But I have to keep trying. I have to think positive, even though it's not easy. Last time I left I thought I was never coming back, I was fed up. But then you start missing your country, your language, and you want to live in a place where you know the people and you can do something with your life; that's very difficult when you're not in your country. I came back to start working, to be a man.
In the past two years, thousands of war exiles returned to Liberia. Many more didn't. Richard's best friends stayed in Ghana; some of them had seen their entire families killed. Richard used to argue with one friend who said he was never going back to Liberia, because if he saw the people who shot his parents he would kill them, and he doesn't want to do that.
I think we have to start forgiving each other, we have to reconcile. If I ran into the guys who killed my Granny, I wouldn't kill them. I'd tell them I forgive them, so they'd understand and say, ah, I'll never do something like that again.
Today, Richard is twenty-four. He doesn't think about getting married because he can't afford to support a family, but he keeps his old dream alive.
Do you still think about becoming the president of Liberia?
Yes, of course. I pray for it. I love my country very much and I want to see it changed for better.
Richard has a gentle smile and very sad eyes.
And you still think you could be president?
Yes, of course. Our president went through some very rough times; I did too. So I don't see why not. If I work hard, why not? And I'd have a message for everyone: look, I know what it is to starve, to be without work, to sleep in the street, to see my relatives killed. If I went through all of this and became president, that means you can make it too.