I recently sat down with Jerry Gbardy, the author of “Painful Journey”, to get a better sense of his motivation for putting his life out there for us to read.
TAN: Jerry, thanks again for doing this interview and more than anything else, thanks for sharing such a personal and tragic part of your family’s experiences with the rest of us.
JG: It’s my pleasure. I really would not have had it any other way.
TAN: Well, I guess the 1st question that has persons curious is really, what made you decide to write the book?
JG: First and foremost, I wrote the book to share our story with the reading public, which I believe, is the best way to bring closure to the traumas my family and I endured during the civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone; and two, for posterity.
TAN: And how would you say that the title, “Painful Journey” adequately depicts your story or even prepares readers for what to expect?
JG: The title “Painful Journey” actually puts into perspective, the agony that my family and I endured while we fled our beloved country, Liberia, and the ache in my heart for the five years as a refugee in a foreign country. I was forced to leave Liberia, the country I had lived in since birth – threatened with AK-47 rifles that if I did not leave, I would have been killed. I left behind everything and everyone that I had come to know, friends, relatives, family; many of whom did not survive the war. It was painful.
TAN: In chapter 2, you spoke briefly about the socioeconomic and political imbalances between the Americo-Liberian ruling elites and the majority indigenous people. Could you tell us more about the relationship that existed between the 2 groups? And what led to those imbalances?
JG: It was a love-hate relationship. The Americo-Liberians, i.e., the sons and daughters of ex-slaves who were repatriated to Liberia in 1822, made up about 4 percent of the population but owned 60 percent of the national wealth. They controlled the socioeconomic and political helms of power, wealth and influence over the majority indigenous population. They decided who got appointed to positions, who went to prestigious schools, what names individuals from the majority population should bear, and so on. In other words, the Americo-Liberians imposed on the natives, a class system akin to the master-slave relationship which they, the Americo-Liberians, had endured for generations on slave plantations in the United States. These kinds of mistreatments of the indigenous population created severe socio-economic and political imbalances in the nation for 133 years.
TAN: Would it be fair to say that the civil war started because of those imbalances that you described? Tell us more about what led to the start of the war?
JG: The imbalances were the root cause of the war. The majority population rose up in 1980 and dethroned the ruling class that had been in power for 133 years. The coup makers were all indigenous Liberians. Once power was forcibly taken from their hands, the Americo-Liberians devised other schemes in order to get back at the natives and return to power by sending Mr Charles Taylor, a son of an Americo-Liberian father, to launch the civil war. But before they did that, they created disunity among the coup makers who started turning against each other; killing and maiming their own brothers and sisters.
TAN: How was it for you, growing up at that time as one of the indigenous majority?
JG: It was extremely tough growing up in the 1970s as a child of poor and illiterate parents. I walked to and from school about 6 miles every day while most of my classmates who were children of Americo-Liberian families were driven to school. My father, though illiterate, drilled it into my sisters and me that the only way out of the poverty was through education, so he made sure that we went to school. At times my parents could only afford one meal a day for us, some days we would just go to bed hungry.
TAN: At what point did you realise that it was time to take your family and head for safety?
JG: May 1990, just about 6 months into the war, we began to make preparations. Monrovia, the nation’s capital was teetering on the brink of anarchy. Headless bodies began piling up in the streets. By day the city would be a ghost town, and by night, a city of wailing terror. My tribe, Krahn was targeted because the president of the country, Samuel Doe who was the main target of the invaders, belonged to the same tribe. Then on June 29th, the rebel spokesman made the threat even more real when he announced it on international radio. Realising this, I decided to take my family and run to a safer country.
TAN: So, you fled the Liberian civil and headed to Sierra Leone where another civil war broke out, isn’t that like jumping from the frying pan into the fire?
JG: Certainly, it was indeed jumping from the frying pan to the fire as you rightly put it. By the mercy of God we survived. We were beginning to rebuild our lives in Sierra Leone when in April 1991, rebels from Liberia invaded Sierra Leone. Because of that, we the refugees became prime targets for reprisals by many citizens of Sierra Leone who accused us of being rebels or of collaborating with the invading rebel forces. Again for us, it was a period of heightened tension, insecurity and much violence, so much so that we thought about returning to Liberia but later decided against it. But my sister and her children, my brothers and other relatives returned to Liberia.
TAN: And was that a good decision, for them to return?
JG: No. In April of 1996, another war broke out in Monrovia in which my nephew and niece who had returned were killed. In September 1998 another war broke again out in the city. Armed security forces were sent to an area heavily populated by the Krahns in operation lasted for two days and two nights. When the shooting ended, more than 300 Krahn men, women and children were killed including my younger brother who had returned to Liberia and my two sisters. They rest of my family and relatives fled to Cote d’Ivoire and became refugees for the second time.
TAN: How did you end up in Canada?
JG: As a Convention Refugee, I was sent to Cairo, Egypt to attend the American University there. I used that time to search for other opportunities given the fact that after completion of my studies, I did not want to return to Sierra Leone where my chances of getting a job and other life sustaining opportunities were slim. So I applied to the Canadian Embassy in Cairo for resettlement. Thank God, the Embassy saw it fit to approve my application. Indeed I am extremely grateful to the Canadian government for the opportunity to resettle us in this country.
TAN: Since the civil war, you have visited Liberia twice, how does life there now compare with life there before the war?
JG: Yes, I returned in 2007 and 2013. Liberia seems worst off than it was pre-war. Infrastructures that were destroyed during the war have not been rebuilt or repaired; roads in the capital city are in a deplorable condition, many impassable when the rains come. Water and electric facilities have not been restored, no proper health care delivery system, no proper transportation network. Unemployment rate is at its highest with great majority of the citizens scraping to survive daily, while corruption is widespread throughout the government. Then only to make matters worse, the country now has to deal with the Ebola epidemic. It is quite frustrating.
TAN: In the closing chapter of the book, you made some suggestions towards Liberia achieving reconciliation and judicial reformation, why these specific recommendations?
JG: I am trying as hard as I can, to offer some suggestions on the way forward, so that the country will not follow the path of self destruction again. I selected reconciliation, because the nation and its people need to reconcile our differences for peaceful coexistence which will ultimately translate into political and economic stability. Judicial reform is also necessary because disregard for the rule of law contributed significantly to the war. Once there is common understanding that arbitrariness leads to the breakdown of law and order, I believe that people will begin to live by the rule of law without which there will be anarchy as that which occurred in the 1990s.
TAN: And lastly, what exactly would you want readers to take away from your book?
JG: Well firstly, I just want to tell my side of the story. And I want it to appeal to people’s sense of emotions, especially to persons who have no idea of what it is like for displaced persons who have had to experience war and terror. I also want my story to resonate with those who have gone through similar traumas but do not have the capacity to tell theirs like I have done.
TAN: How can interested person get copy of the Painful Journey: a Story of Escape and Survival?
TAN: Thank you so much Jerry. Your story, though so painfully traumatic, I must say, held me captive from beginning to end. I know they say, time heals all wounds, and I hope that in time, this healing will come for you and your family.
Interview for The AfroNews done by Joy Walcott-Francis, PhD Candidate, Simon Fraser University, BC.