The biggest complaint in all the police stations we visited was lack of funding for transport and basic furnishings. The policemen often don’t have enough money to hire a motorcycle taxi to go to crime scenes, and one policeman apologised that they didn’t have enough chairs in the station for us all to sit on. There were five of us.
But he was proud of the businesslike way they had developed their own police jargon – ‘Romeo,’ he told us, was code for ‘rape’. There are so many people hanging around police stations that they don’t like to broadcast the news if there is an accusation of rape.
In our first week, we came to a police station with three little boys – aged nine, ten and 12 – in the Women and Children’s Protection Section. “Small Romeo,” said Robert, our Don Bosco Homes guide. “Are you getting me? Small Romeo”. The policeman behind the desk also looked at us knowingly. The charge on the sheet was “corruption of minor”.
One of the boys looked slightly tearful, another blank, and the third – who said he was 12, but looked much younger – seemed excited by this sudden appearance of white people and beamed at us. He was so taken with us when we all left that he forgot his toy car. The policeman called him back and handed it to him as we left.
At Don Bosco’s Savio Village halfway home, Robert gave the three of us a sheet each to fill in with the boys’ details. It was difficult, partly because of the Liberian English, and partly because we were nervous about the sensitivity of the case.
Some details emerged: they were on the way to or from the water pump; there was a building nearby; there was a man involved – possible the uncle of one of them.
The next day we were leaving for a week in Gbarnga, but when we returned, we asked what had happened. We heard a confusing story. The three boys had been returned to their families and there was to be no charge brought; the community would deal with the incident. Our first reaction was of outrage: surely this couldn’t be fair?
Robert took us out for a full day following up different cases. The last one was to visit the three in the Small Romeo case. We met the two aged nine and ten in a dingy half-constructed building with a huge hole in the floor that the owner had intended for a cesspit, but which was currently lined with rubbish and dirty water. The father of one boy was in a wheelchair; the other boy’s father carried his baby daughter and answered the official questions stony-faced.
The boys were healthy and apparently happy to be back home, we heard. Both fathers had talked to their boys, and the community witnesses said they were behaving normally. Everything seemed comfortable, but we were all thinking of the seriousness of the case, and wondering if one of these men was the ‘uncle’ in the descriptions we’d heard.
The third boy lived in a house almost on the beach. We walked further into the community, through mazy paths and sudden corners, but he wasn’t there. For a moment, we stepped out of a dark alley and savoured the bright sunlight and the fresh sea air. Word had got to the boy and he came to meet us. He was at his Grandmother’s stall back up the road the way we’d come, and he happily walked us back there.
The same questions followed: Was he healthy? Was he happy? Was there anything to be concerned about? His Granny again seemed content that all was well with the boy: he helped carry the stall – selling vegetables and bottles of locally produced gin – out to the main road in the morning and back in the evening. He washed his own clothes, carried water, and cleaned up in the house.
We took a picture of the three of them before we left – again one looked sheepish, one blank and the third one was smiling happily.
Back in the car, we were burning with questions, so we asked Robert to explain the full story. He told us that the three boys had waylaid a girl on her way to the pump and raped her. The ‘uncle’ had caught them. Because they are minors, they can’t be charged, so the best that can be done is for the community – with DBH prompting – to monitor their behaviour and keep them on track as best they can.
“Ah, they are bad boys,” said Robert.