Oretha Tarr: Born into War

Oretha Tarr

"This frame should contain a photo of me from my childhood. However, there are no photographs to speak of. They were all destroyed in the war. I am beginning with empty space to honor those like myself who have no tangible evidence of their childhoods. The only images of my past are in my mind, tucked away safely where there is no violence to destroy them." — Oretha Tarr, RIC student

I was born into war. The first civil war in Liberia was in 1990. I was three years old. There was another civil war in 1992, and another one in 1996. I remember the war of 1996 the most because I was nine. I remember how it began, and how it ended.

Oretha Tarr
Oretha Tarr

I was playing outside with my cousins. Inside, dinner was being prepared, a meal of rice and cassava leaf soup on a firepit. There was a sense of community and love. Then the son of the chief came running down the road screaming, “Run! Leave your houses now! Take all you can and leave! The rebels will be attacking the city!”

My family and I started to run, although we didn’t know where we were going. We just followed the crowd. All along the way, there were dead bodies lying on the side of the road. We had to jump over them to walk.

We also ran into frequent checkpoints, where either government soldiers or rebels would stop us and separate the men from the women and go through our bags, looting.

At one of these checkpoints, my uncle was arrested as a suspect. They tortured him. Thank God someone among the rebels recognized him and told them he was okay. They let him go.

One night we found refuge in a church. But the church was filled with dead bodies. The smell was awful. There were mothers, fathers, children – all dead. The rebels had entered the church and slaughtered everybody. The older people in our group had to drag the bodies outside so they could make a space for us to sleep that night. Flies on the bodies then landed in the drinking water. We poured a little chlorine bleach in the water to kill the germs. But those same flies also settled on the food that people were eating. There was a lot of diarrhea, and a lot of people would eventually die from cholera. We stayed in the church overnight and moved on.

Once, we were running and a grenade exploded behind us. My sister had been tied in a wrap on my mother’s back. She fell off, directly into the flames. Today she wears scarfs because her head was burned. We learned from that incident never to walk upright. We crawled to avoid stray bullets and grenades. We slept in the forest for months. We might share two cups of rice a day among 11 people, and often we went to bed hungry.

The last time I saw my mother and my motherland was in 2000. My mom was crying because I was leaving and she didn’t know when she’d see me again. My father was taking me with him to Ghana. He had to leave because he was in danger. He was a journalist for the Media Foundation of West Africa and every day they came looking for him.

The last civil war ended in 2003, when I was 16. By that time, I had lived in Ghana for three years. Eventually I came to America on a refugee program. My father returned to Liberia. He had remarried, and my mother had remarried. The war had broken up many families.

At 19, I attended high school in Providence. When you live in a country that’s been at civil war, schooling is inconsistent. If there are gunshots, they close down all the schools and you have to sit at home. There is no civil war in Liberia now, but you will find 20-year-olds sitting in class with fifth-graders trying to learn to read and write. It pities my heart.

I was 22 when I graduated from high school. As a 22-year-old, most Americans are completing their first degree in college.

I became a member of Ebeneezer Baptist Church in Providence and met Deborah Johnson, who is associate director of admissions at Rhode Island College. She kept encouraging me to come to RIC. Finally, I enrolled. I’m now completing a communication degree and I work in the admissions office as a work-study student. Mrs. Johnson has been a mentor and a mother figure to me.

"Oretha is an amazing young lady. She has overcome insurmountable circumstances that others of us would not have survived. Achieving at a post-secondary level has presented numerous challenges for Oretha, but she refuses to give up."
—Deborah Johnson, RIC Associate Director of Admissions

I went to a Bible study they held on the RIC campus. Forgiveness was the topic. As a Christian, I still have trouble with forgiveness. I’ve seen people who were part of the rebel forces, who killed men, women and children, living here in Rhode Island and attending school. During the war, these rebels were my own age – child soldiers. I don’t know what motivates people to kill. For some of them, it’s peer pressure; for others, it’s about revenge. If you watch all of your family being killed in front of you, there’s nothing to live for.

After the Bible study, I remember a statement that was made: “Consider forgiveness as a prisoner that you let go, only to realize that the prisoner was you.” It stuck with me. It gave me a different perspective on forgiveness, but it remains something I struggle with.

I often send money home to help my family and extended family. My plan is to get a degree under my belt and then send money so that my family can start up a business in Liberia. It could be a library or a children’s playground or a Chuck E Cheese. I’d like to bring things to Liberian children that they don’t have over there. The privileges American children have are so great. Children in America worry about missing a television show. Children in Liberia worry about how to catch up in life. Some never got that chance.

When we were no longer on the run, we lived in a UNICEF refugee camp. I watched my sister die of starvation in my mother’s arms. It hurt my mom a lot, but it hurt me most. There is no childhood photograph of my sister. When I remember her, I see beauty and brightness. When I look at myself, I see my mother.

By the time the last Liberian civil war ended in 2003, 200,000 people had been killed and a million others displaced in refugee camps.