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By Jim Christie
I SOMETIMES WONDER what young Konah Sambolah was doing when the soldiers swept through her Liberian village. From her letters and pictures I imagine her husking rice or pounding cassavas into dough for fufu, a favorite among West Africans. Perhaps she was playing in the brush-swept dirt lanes near her home:
It is late December 1989, the middle of the dry season. Konah is wearing a headkerchief, a colorful patterned lappa, and rubber flip-flops. Her ankles are as slender as a deer's. An unaccustomed sound causes her to raise her head. Then her stomach gives way to a terrifying falling sensation as men carrying M-16s step from the forest.
I don't know whether Konah was killed during the initial rebel attack or when the Armed Forces of Liberia counterattacked a week later.
Actually, I'm not certain she's dead.
The letter my wife and I received in January 1990, from the international aid agency through which we "adopted" Konah, said she was missing, and that aid workers had hastily abandoned the area in fear for their lives. The letter ended by assuring us that the automatic monthly deduction from our checking account would be stopped, as if this would be our overriding concern.
When my wife Kathy and I married 15 years ago, we agreed that we were not interested in having children. Kathy voiced some regret over our decision around the age of 40, which did not surprise me. I had noticed the way she held and cooed at other people's babies. But I have never regretted my own selfishness, nor the freedom it has given me. Caring for a child by sending money to an aid agency was the easy (or coward's) way of fatherhood.
Through photographs we watched Konah grow from a young girl in 1984 to a teenager in 1989. Then suddenly she was gone, swept away by one army or the other like so much dust on a rough plank floor.
The first picture from 1984 shows Konah standing pensively next to her younger brother, who looks either thoughtful or confused, and her father, whose hard glare seems to contain a world of suspicion. There's no warmth in those eyes.
The photo was taken four years after a group of tribal enlisted men infiltrated the executive mansion in Monrovia and assassinated the Liberian president, four years after the so-called "Day of Redemption." On that day, the descendants of the American ex-slaves who founded Liberia in 1847 -- those elite Americo-Liberians who had ruled like white colonialists -- were ousted once and for all. It was a new start.
But the revolution was short-lived.
Perhaps Konah's father's menacing look was a harbinger of things to come: In 1985 one of the original army co-conspirators turned against President Samuel Doe. However, his attempted coup d'tat failed. The man's dead body was roasted over a fire in the streets of Monrovia and eaten by Doe's victorious marauding soldiers. Then in 1989, an Americo-Liberian exile named Charles Taylor led a rebel insurgency from the Ivory Coast, resulting in six more years of savagery.
During the civil war, most villages in the northeastern region of Liberia were razed and their inhabitants slaughtered. Presumably, Konah and her family were killed.
But perhaps I have read too much into her father's gaze in that 1984 photograph. It is more likely an expression of injured pride, from having to pose for some American stranger who deigns to "support" his daughter.
Why didn't I want to be a father to children of my own? Is it as simple as admitting to selfishness, or joking that W.C. Fields had the right attitude toward kids? There may have been some fear as well. No, undoubtedly there was fear. Fear of a birth defect or fear of a child who would veer into serious trouble or fear of my son or daughter's premature death.
My younger brother and his wife adopted (really adopted) a foreign child. After Konah was lost, my wife suggested that we do the same. I said it was something to consider.
In a photo from 1986, Konah stands next to her mother. They smile placidly, without parting their lips, giving an impression of contentment. Konah has written to us that she and her family are praying to Wala Va (God There) for fruitful soil, for a plentiful rice crop. The "plan coordinator" says that the depletion of the rain forest and the increased incidence of drought are leaving more and more families hungry.
In a 1987 letter Konah tells us she would like to "learn book." We know that her government assigns grade-school teachers to the villages, but it is up to the parents to buy uniforms and books. The plan coordinator includes a note requesting an extra donation for this purpose.
We know that most kids are put to work in the fields as soon as possible and never go to school. We send the extra money anyway. Perhaps one day we'll receive a picture of Konah in her khaki school uniform with the Liberian flag sewn on her shirtsleeve. It's a smaller version of the American flag, with just a single star.
The final photograph arrives in 1989, a few months before the rebel invasion. Konah is smiling so brightly you'd think she was the happiest girl on earth.
In 1994 I read an article about Alexander Peal, a Liberian conservationist living in southern California who was planning to return to Liberia to save his country's sole national park. I called him and told him about Konah. Without hesitation he asked for pictures of her, so he could look for her in the refugee camps.
He has traveled to Liberia several times in the past three years, but he hasn't come across Konah Sambolah.
Konah is gone, and looking at her pictures can turn my larynx into a rough-edged stone in my throat. I can't begin to imagine what it must be like to lose a child of your own flesh and blood. From time to time my wife brings up the idea of a real adoption, but I put her off.
I recently applied to be a voting monitor in Liberia's upcoming election. Maybe I will go look for Konah myself.
Randall Street resident Jim Christie joined the Voice staff in the spring of 1994.