When I was in Liberia during the civil war in 2003, I met a four-year-old girl named Patience. Monrovia, the capital of the small West African country, was under siege. Its power grid had failed. Rice was scarce. The taps had run dry. Cholera crawled in the tropical heat. Hopped-up government soldiers ran the streets in looted pickup trucks, and nobody knew what the rebels would do if their push for the center was successful.
I met Patience in a dark room off a dirt lot, in a concrete building in an orphanage placed perilously on a thin strip of land between the Atlantic Ocean and the river that held back the rebel advance. The night before my arrival, the woman who ran the orphanage told me, two shells from a mortar had passed overhead and fallen—crack, crack—somewhere between the orphanage and the ocean’s shore.
Patience, big-eyed, in stubby braids and a blue-and-white polka-dot dress, watched me from the shadows. Anemic, listless, undersize, suffering from dysentery, she had the measured movements of an old woman and the questioning stare of a toddler. In the same room, another orphan, ten-year-old Emmanuel, leafed through a book of photographs, color printouts, bound in black plastic and covered with a thin transparent sheet: There was green grass and a white-paneled house and a little blond girl smiling. There was a large van and an even larger play set. There was a countertop completely covered with food. “This is a very nice place,” Emmanuel said in a quiet voice. “I would like to go to this place.”
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