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Civil war victim finds peace in helping others

18 June 20150 comments
Eunice, a civil war victim

Eunice, a civil war victim

Like thousands of her compatriots Eunice Kaye had her peaceful, humble life shattered by the brutal and bloody civil war that laid waste to the African republic of Liberia more than two decades ago.

Amid intense fighting between militia and government troops she and one daughter were separated from her partner and her youngest daughter; each side of the family thinking the other had perished in the conflict.

After more than a decade in a refugee camp, Eunice made contact with her partner and youngest daughter Winifred through a chance meeting with a mutual acquaintance but she was not to see them for another five years because on the day contact was established Winifred and her father were about to board a plane to come to Australia as refugees.

Now living in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs with her two now grown-up daughters close at hand and three more young children from a new relationship, Eunice tells of the “quiet, normal day” her world was turned upside down.

“I was walking to the market to get some food. It was something I did every day because in Liberia with issues we have with poverty levels, there was no electricity so no one had a fridge,” Eunice said.

“As was usual I took my older daughter with me and left the younger one with her father. But at the market shooting broke out and we couldn’t go home.

“It was terrible, people were being shot and the soldiers sent us away from the area in the opposite direction from the way home.

“I was separated from my younger daughter and my partner and I couldn’t get home.

“At first I thought we would be able to get home but as the civil war became wider and more of a problem we realised we would not be going home.

“As the months passed I began to think my younger daughter and her father were dead and I learned later that they thought we were dead,” Eunice said.

Eventually Eunice and her older daughter Agnes were settled in a refugee camp in Ivory Coast and Winifred and her father were sent to camps in Ghana and then Guinea.

The family spent ten years in their respective camps living in difficult and cramped conditions until a chance meeting gave the first hint to Eunice that the other half of her family might still be alive.

“One day by chance I met a woman and started talking to her and I showed her a photo of Winifred. She said ‘I know that girl from somewhere but can’t remember where’.

“I couldn’t breathe at that moment and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I begged her to try to remember where she had seen the girl in my photo.”

Eventually the women remembered she had seen the girl in a place she had lived in Guinea, Eunice recalled.

The woman wrote a letter to her pastor in Guinea and she and Eunice gave it to a man travelling back to Guinea begging him to pass it to the pastor.

“When she told me the name of her pastor, I could breathe again – it was Eddy – my daughter Winifred’s surname.

“I asked the man from Guinea if he knew Raymond Eddy, Winifred’s father and he said he did. It was then that I knew I had found my family,” Eunice said.

“A week later I received a phone call from Winifred. She said ‘Mum I want to see you’ but they were on their way to Australia.

Raymond and Winifred arrived in Australia in 2008 but Eunice and Agnes did not follow until 2013.

The family were reunited but, both believing the other dead, Eunice and Raymond had formed new relationships.

Eunice’s new husband is still in Ghana and attempts to bring him to Australia have been stalled by the outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa.

“We are hoping and praying he will be able to come soon,” she said.

After completing language and vocational courses with settlement agency AMES, Eunice now works in aged care and is studying disability care.

“I like my work because it means I can help people and I feel like I am doing something positive, something good,” she said.

Winifred, now 23, works in disability and is studying community development; while Agnes, now 24, works in aged care and plans to study business.

Eunice also has a son aged seven and twins aged 5 and says she has been able to put behind her the horrors of her past and the civil war that killed more than 250,000 people lives and displaced a million more.

“During the civil war, things were terrible. There were people being killed, tribe against tribe and very bad government corruption. People were hungry because prices went up,” Eunice said

“But life is good in Australia. We are safe and my children have a bright future and the chance to do whatever they want,” she said.

Liberia’s civil wars erupted between 1989 and 1997 and again between 1989 and 1996.

Entire villages were emptied as people fled. Child soldiers committed atrocities, raping and murdering people of all ages.

The conflict claimed the lives of one out of every 17 people in the country, uprooted most of the rest, and destroyed a once-viable economic infrastructure.

The strife also spread to Liberia’s neighbours, contributing to a slowing of the democratisation that was progressing steadily through West Africa at the beginning of the 1990s and destabilizing a region that already was one of the world’s most marginal economies.

Laurie Nowell
AMES Senior Journalist