Fleeing war in search of a safer life – The story of a Liberian refugee in New Zealand

Memuna Barnes lived through two civil wars
Memuna Barnes lived through two civil wars


(By Stuff in partnership with UNICEF New Zealand) – As a child, Memuna Barnes lived through two civil wars. The first was in her home country of Liberia, the second in Sierra Leone, during which she spent several years being held captive by rebel forces. She came to New Zealand with the dream of one day being reunited with her mother.

We had just come home from school when we heard gunfire. I remember I was lifting my school uniform over my head when the first shot was fired. People started running and screaming, “get down – there are guns, there are rebels”.

Normal life ended for me that very minute, that afternoon and never has gone back to the same.

As a child, Memuna Barnes lived through two civil wars. The memories still stick with her.


As a child, Memuna Barnes lived through two civil wars. The memories still stick with her.

I was only 9 years old and, during the confusion that followed, just wanted my mum. She had been in transit that morning and so was separated from the rest of the family. I didn’t know where she was or even whether she was still alive. It was a feeling worse than being in the war itself.

The rebels in Liberia at the time were horrible looking and just the sight of them would make you shiver. They would smear the blood of victims on their faces and that smell surrounded them. They killed people and a group of them ate our dogs.

The first group of rebels were fully grown men, but eventually they were boys.

My dad’s younger sister arranged a way for us to get out of Monrovia, by stowing away on the Sierra Leone army ship. I think there were about two hundred people packed onto that ship. I remember a lady holding a baby who was pushed and the baby flung out of her arms. I don’t know what happened to that lady but her baby drowned in the ocean.

We lived almost five years in Sierra Leone before civil war broke out. This time we didn’t get away, my sister and I were taken hostage by rebel forces.

In the beginning, they told me that I was pretty. I asked them what exactly that would do for their war? What could I possibly contribute to their cause? I told them that I needed to go to school, that I was a child, and they just laughed at me.

You would see little girls who hadn’t even gone through puberty yet, but they were pregnant. Rebels had taken them as wives and made them pregnant. These girls would be beaten constantly for not performing their wifely duties. How can you expect a child to be a wife when she’s still learning how to be a girl?

I missed our mum terribly, but would never cry in front of my sister. The situation forced me to grow up and be strong for her sake, even though I was a child.

For some reason, the rebel commander who took me found love in me. He protected my sister and me, agreed not to touch me until I was older. It was a stroke of luck in circumstances that were otherwise very bad.

I would be terrified when he went out to fight because he was my protector and the only thing blocking other rebels from doing whatever they wanted to do to me.

Several years went by. There was a group of hunters in Sierra Leone who decided they were tired of seeing their towns set ablaze. These hunters rose up against the rebel forces and ended the war.

In my mind, I was a rebel. I remember saying: “The enemy is coming. Why is the enemy coming? I hope the enemy doesn’t touch me; I’d rather die.” These people were coming to save me.

The hunter who took me home told family to watch me and not question me about what had happened. He knew that my mindset was that of a rebel and that only time would heal me.

My father had previously started an application to find asylum for us and pretty soon New Zealand gave us refugee status. I remember landing in New Zealand but wanting to go straight back home. It took eight years for New Zealand to feel like home to me.

I enlisted a government official in Liberia to help find my mum and we placed an ad in a local newspaper. A colleague where my mum work spotted the ad and told her – she always was crying about her two daughters that were displaced during the war.

I spoke to her on the phone and cried tears of joy. She sent me the pictures that she had managed to salvage during the war and that brought me peace.

I began saving to visit her, but the going was slow because I was also a university student at the time. One day I received a phone call and was told to call my aunt. A stranger answered and told me my mother had passed away suddenly, from a brain aneurysm. I went into the bathroom in my flat and collapsed on the floor.

The morning the rebels attacked would be the last time I hugged her. The next time I saw her, she was in a casket.

I don’t see the point of war. People like me are wounded because of the things we have seen. Little boys have been forced to carry guns and some of them killed people. Why do we allow these things to happen to young minds? How can they be rehabilitated once their childhood is stolen?


Mahad fled Somalia as an infant with his family – their country under the cloud of civil war, the threat that he and his brothers might be recruited into armed groups on the horizon. He talks about that terrifying possibility and his life growing up as a refugee in New Zealand.

I was born in Mogadishu while the country was in the middle of violent civil war.

Even today my family remembers bullets flying everywhere, innocent people being killed in the crossfire. You couldn’t walk to the shops to buy food. It was too dangerous – the rebels were killing everybody.

Days after I was born our family fled to a refugee camp in Kenya. My mum was a single mother, my father having passed from natural causes before I was born.

I’m not sure whether she was waiting for me to be born before we left. She took me and my four brothers, and we travelled with my uncle’s family to the camp.

I have never really asked about the history of our family and what we endured. I know that we stayed at the camp a year or two, but I was very young. When mum talks about those days she describes them as being incredibly difficult.

She was afraid of me or my brothers getting killed. My oldest brother was 8 when we left and still too young to be recruited as a child soldier, but that risk would’ve have become more real the longer we stayed.

I always think about that possibility. If we never left, I probably would have been recruited and ended up as a soldier or pirate. I feel lucky and fortunate that didn’t happen.

My aunty came to New Zealand before us and we were able to join her as part of the family reunification programme. I remember the young days, going to primary school and trying to find my place.

It was a struggle for mum because she didn’t speak English. She would walk miles to buy the family groceries, even though she didn’t have to. She had only known a life in Somalia, where you walk everywhere and do everything by foot.

My mum is one amazing lady. We had just been dropped in the middle of nowhere but she coped. She would do her own schooling to learn English while we were at school, then pick us up, come home and cook dinner for us.

We experience racism, even ’til this day. It’s hard not to retaliate. It comes from people you would never imagine. From teachers, police officers, people who have high positions in society that abuse their power.

I want to work troubled kids who are in danger of going down the wrong path. Give them opportunities, give them a chance. Let them feel like they’re needed in society and that they’re wanted. Don’t make them feel like the outcasts. Don’t make them feel like there’s no one they can turn to.

I sometimes think about the kids still in Somalia. I hope they don’t lose hope – they need to put effort into themselves and remember they are the future of tomorrow. We don’t have to repeat the mistakes of the past. Let’s move forward and start over.

* Children living in conflict and war zones are under threat every day. They urgently need our help. Please donate to our appeal and help them: https://www.unicef.org.nz/childreninconflict

– As told to Unicef New Zealand. Unicef New Zealand stands for every child so they can have a childhood

Culled from the National Online

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About Cholo Brooks 16941 Articles
Joel Cholo Brooks is a Liberian journalist who previously worked for several international news outlets including the BBC African Service. He is the CEO of the Global News Network which publishes two local weeklies, The Star and The GNN-Liberia Newspapers. He is a member of the Press Union Of Liberia (PUL) since 1986, and several other international organizations of journalists, and is currently contributing to the South Africa Broadcasting Corporation as Liberia Correspondent.