Ten years ago, a friend told Abraham Quaye about a place in Monrovia’s mangrove swamp where he could build a house. An actual island, with good land, close to the city. The best part, the friend said, was that they’d be the first ones there. This was important to Abraham. The Liberian civil war had just ended. As displaced people returned to Monrovia from camps abroad, space was limited and pressure to find new land enormous.
No bridge connected the island. Just a mess of iron poles, remnants of one of the endless structures destroyed during the war, suggested a rough path through the water. By 2004, Abraham and other pioneers would wade through the mangroves, building materials hoisted over their heads; during high tides, canoeists would help ferry them across. Now 85, Abraham’s extended family surrounds his modest home.
The community regards him as a founding father, the first to clear the land of brush, and a respected elder among a population that has grown to more than 30,000 since the first supplies were hauled across.
“We built everything ourselves,” Abraham says of the vibrant neighborhood, laid grid-like across the island. “Nobody is displaced here. We’re not strangers. We didn’t come from Nigeria. We didn’t come from Ghana. We’re born citizens of this country.”
During the almost two decades of civil unrest in Liberia, Monrovia more than doubled in size as people fled the violent and remote countryside for the internationally protected urban capital. The once-tidy city of the Liberian elite morphed, growing horizontally and sporadically as its infrastructure deteriorated under shells, looting, and disrepair. Abandoned buildings became home to scores of displaced families. Empty spaces from fields to beaches to alleys became sites of makeshift homes of zinc, blocks, and poles. Yet Peace Island remained improbably free of people.
Some point to its previous reputation as a haunted forest or the rumors of its disputed ownership between two elite families to explain its lack of habitation. But in 2004, desperation beat out whatever barriers previously existed. Word spread through the new informal communities, and people started moving to the island, searching for a new life—for some form of peace.
Among the early settlers was a group of former soldiers’ families evicted in 2004 from the ruins of the Defense Ministry building on Tubman Boulevard. This hulking 80s-era brutalist structure became their home when scores of Liberian government soldiers were decommissioned as part of the post-war military reform. It still looms over the swampy entrance to Peace Island, a constant reminder of its recent past.
In 2012, the government unveiled a USD 60 million Chinese-built complex to hold 10 of Liberia’s federal ministries and house many of its employees. A large portion of the plans spill onto Peace Island, potentially displacing thousands of residents. There has been no mention of compensation.
Evictions in post-war Monrovia increased over the 2000s. As relative stability grew, more Liberians returned from abroad. And as the government attempted to reinstate both infrastructure and administrative control, many residents found themselves displaced for a second and third time—pushed out of central Monrovia far from jobs and schools, their homes demolished and social networks broken. On the island, close to yet separate from the city, another dislocation feels incomprehensible to most.
Handful Dahn is one of these people. In 2003, during the last rebel assault on Monrovia (what Liberians call “World War Three”), Handful moved her family from downtown Monrovia into a Congo Town building that is now the Sierra Leonean embassy. Its flat concrete roof, they predicted, would protect them from the onslaught of shelling. A 2006 eviction by the returning landowners left them homeless again. Having previously worked cooking food for the first Peace Island brush clearers, she knew where to go.
Handful fervently believes in President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf ’s election promise, that Peace Island was open for the landless. She’s reluctant to discuss another possibility.
“That’s the guarantee she gave us—that we will not be moved from here,” she says. “We’re citizens of Liberia with nowhere to go. How can they move us?”
Handful is like many islanders in an almost faith-like state of denial about the chances of another eviction. It’s not naivety: Peace Islanders are certainly well aware of the issues. But how do you go about your daily lives, building family, building relationships, building homes, under the constant fear of displacement?
“Building on fear” is a term Monrovians use to describe the strenuous work of making an informal community too nice, too powerful, for an outsider to justify destroying in the name of development. “When they see us building such good houses here,” says Abraham, “government will see reason [to let us stay].” A city needs infrastructure, but many feel that to truly achieve that, they first need a commitment that they belong to that land.
Community organization started from Peace Island’s inception, with the founders forming a council with representatives from all 15 Liberian counties. In 2008, they performed title searches on the land with little success and convinced a local politician to build a land bridge. As part of an election gift, they received a set of toilets and a small market building. The island’s grievance committee oversees the results of their own informal property survey, which has divided the island into plots for housing, setting aside certain sites for future communal development. In 2009, the first township council was elected to serve a locally written constitution.
When news of the ministerial complex broke, it was the tight-knit nature of the community that created such an immediate and vicious reaction. For years, evictions in Liberia had been justified as hurting the few for the good of the many. But by 2012, the beleaguered Sirleaf administration no longer saw mass evictions as politically tenable. Peace Island, also, was no fringe community. It voted, had limited crime, possessed a constituency for local lawmakers and, with its links to national institutions like the army, a rich source of social capital. By the end of 2013, the government backtracked with the president promising, yet again, that Peace Island was off limits. For now.
“We’re not asking for someone to come develop this place for us,” says Abraham. “We ourselves are doing this development.” Local preference, without a doubt, leans towards continuing to let the community determine its own future and allowing Peace Island’s direct democracy to flourish in the best way that it can.
But for all this rugged DIY community building, getting to the next step is a different game. A high school, paved roads, and proper sanitation—the networked infrastructure checklist of modernity—can only come from real investment by the state.
For now Peace Island remains an experiment in self-determination, a bastion of hope for its creators and an exasperating problem for policymakers.