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Telling the Liberian story


Capturing the JRS in action in Monrovia Former Crescent pupil Liam Ó Cathasaigh prepares to go to Liberia with Colm Quinn to shoot a film about the work of the Jesuit Refugee Service there. This project is financed by the Irish Province as part of the Saint Francis Xavier centenary year celebrations.


For almost fifteen years the people of Liberia have known little more than war. Around 250,000 people were killed in Liberia’s civil war and many thousands more fled the fighting to neighboring countries. The conflict has left the country in economic ruin and overrun with weapons. The capital city Monrovia remains without mains electricity and running water. Corruption is rife and unemployment and illiteracy are endemic. It is Africa’s oldest republic, founded by freed American and Caribbean slaves. Liberia is mostly made up of indigenous Africans, with the slaves’ descendants now comprising only 5% of the population.

The UN maintains some 15,000 soldiers in Liberia, its largest presence anywhere in the world. There are currently over 500 Irish troops serving with the peacekeeping force. US educated economist and former finance minister Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf won the second round of presidential elections in November 2005, and on the 16th of January she was inaugurated as Africa’s first elected woman head of state.

Her rival, the footballer and political novice George Weah, alleged fraud but international observers said the vote had been broadly free and fair. Mrs Johnson-Sirleaf drew much of her support from women voters, and from Liberia’s small educated elite. She now faces the twin challenges of trying to rebuild the country and of fostering reconciliation. One of her main priorities is to reintegrate former child soldiers into Liberian society. The election was intended to draw a definite line under Liberia’s war, but the country continues to face overwhelming challenges. The economy and the Government of Liberia are in disarray and basic human needs are largely being supplied by the donor community. The Jesuit Refugee Service is one of many NGOs working in the region.

This February, myself and my colleague Colm Quinn will journey to Liberia to document the work of the Jesuit Refugee Service in Monrovia and its surrounding areas. The documentary film is being financed by the Irish Province as part of the Saint Francis Xavier centenary year celebrations.

Ultimately we hope to raise awareness in Ireland of the current situation in Liberia, and in particular the plight of ex-child soldiers with whom the JRS work closely. There are estimated to be close on 15,000 ex-child soldiers in Monrovia alone, many of whom are traumatized & homeless. Children played a major role on both sides during the civil war, usually as the first line of attack or defence. Amongst other things, the film will profile Eduardo Bofill and his work with the ex-child soldiers, observing how he relates to those youths, and they to him, and how he uses simple things like football as one of the means of attracting the teenagers who are hanging around the streets. When Eduardo was living here in Dublin, learning English to go to Liberia, those who were eventualy to become the documentary crew all knew him. Eduardo’s project is only one of the many JRS projects underway for traumatised youths in Liberia.

Eduardo is keen to point out that “JRS is working in West Point, Monrovia, both as part of its mission to be with those displaced and also to be with those who are neglected by others. Our first interest is not just to work for the people there but simply to accompany them. Accompaniment is an essential element of our methodology. To accompany means to be a companion. It´s very important to allow mutual confidence to grow in order to open new possibilities in broken lives”.

Both Colm and myself are graduates of the Dublin Institute of Technology. We have been working together for the past four years and have produced documentaries & fiction films together under the ‘Last Light Films’ banner. I attended Crescent College in Limerick, before moving to Dublin and residing in University Hall SJ. Colm, a native of Dublin hails from Glasnevin and was a student at Scoil Caitríona.

The film will initially visit schools in Ireland, raising awareness of the work of the JRS & telling the personal stories of people affected by Liberia’s bloody civil war.

Liam & Colm can be contacted by email at: lastlightfilm[at]dublin.ie.