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Soldier born in Liberia knows violence, danger

CAMP BUSHMASTER, Iraq—For Spc. Konah Gweh—immigrant, survivor of a brutal African war and a mother—Iraq is a walk in the park.

"I don't have any fear here," she said. "I've been through worse. Much worse."

Born in Liberia, Gweh was raised from infancy by an aunt after her mother and father left to establish a toehold in America. Her early years passed tranquilly in a small village in the province of Nimba.

But in 1990, Liberian President Samuel K. Doe started a campaign of violence against people in that region, and her world fell apart. First, she hid with her aunt in Monrovia, the country's capital, terrified that they would be found out as Nimbian refugees.

"I was always worried that somebody would stop me and ask me where I was from," she said. "I thought they would kill me."

After a year, she and her aunt walked for days, past the site of one massacre after another, to get back home. When they arrived, they found the house burned. And they quickly learned that government militiamen were looking for her aunt.

In the meantime, rebels were building strength, along with a brutal reputation for mutilating civilians with machetes as a means of intimidation.

"I got so I didn't care about human life," she said. "We would see somebody dead or hurt, and we wouldn't even stop our game of kickball. It seems so strange now."

So Gweh and her aunt fled again, this time to the Ivory Coast, where she waited three years before her mother could win permission to bring the teen-ager to America.

In Philadelphia, Gweh found schoolmates who spoke a slang she couldn't comprehend and who delighted in taunting her for her sing-song accent.

"The system was different. The kids were different. . . . I was different," she said. "I felt I didn't belong."

Still, she pushed herself. A member of the West Philadelphia High School choir and volleyball and badminton teams, she found places to excel. But her parents' marriage was falling apart, and she still felt like an outsider.

During her senior year she became pregnant and had a child.

She tried college for a while—St. Joseph University and Pennsylvania State University—but money and the tug of work and family life overwhelmed her.

In 2000, she decided to become a soldier.

"I always liked the system of the Army, that people respect the rank and that counts," said Gweh, who's with a military police unit in central Iraq.

Her daughter, Star, is home in Philadelphia with the baby's father, her Liberian husband, Diezi Dunbar. And although she worries about her daughter not having a mother, she's unfazed by her duty here. She's yet to hear gunfire in Iraq, or see a corpse. The people she's seen seem much better fed than those caught in Liberia's civil war. And she doesn't see much danger in it all.

"Now I have a weapon," she said. "Back in Liberia, I didn't."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.