By Gboko Stewart, email@example.com
Monrovia-It was a rainy Saturday morning when lanky Mitch Johnson (not his real name) was chased and beaten in a quiet suburb on the outskirts of Monrovia for being gay.
Johnson, 31, said he was recovering from an operation of appendicitis when he and some friends huddled in a high-walled fence during the evening hours of the previous day at a discreet location for the opening of a Drop-in Center (DIC) by Population Services International (PSI) for key populations.
“That Friday we had poems and people came around and it was fun,” he said. “Some group of guys came in the fence and started threatening—some of our colleagues tried to stop them by putting them out.”
PSI is a registered nonprofit global health organization with programs targeting malaria, child survival, HIV and reproductive health. It has a global revenue of US$542,349,734 as of 2018.
Its drop-in centers in Liberia, according to the organization, are safe spaces for key populations, including LGBTQ, sex workers, drug users and People Living with HIV to check their HIV status. Its opening is usually festive and marred by a wide range of activities, including beauty pageantry amongst trans women.
But on that day, Johnson said, the organization let its guard down in the provision of airtight security within the vicinity the event was being held.
Johnson said PSI called the Liberia National Police to patrol the area, which fueled a false sense of security, as the police left after a brief moment. The festivities went on without a hassle but, according to him, it was a gathering storm as some men in the community camped outside to await them.
“In the morning while trying to come home, it was not a small riot,” he said as tears welled up in his eyes. “We were the third group and I was the one who was [victimized] the most. I was beaten up, like seriously. I was humiliated by flogging, and at the same time slapping, blowing, kicking, tearing off my clothes, [they] took my phone and my jacket.”
He said no one came to his rescue on that cold morning. “It was raining that Saturday morning—nobody in that belt (location withheld) could rescue me. I went to several houses—everybody said they should put me out because they [we] are LGBT people and they don’t want to see LGBT people in the community.”
While reeling in excruciating pain following his brutalization, he was eventually able to make his way to the police headquarters. When they returned, they were met with a hostile push back.
“The community dwellers—they fought the police officers lengthily—they said the police officers can’t take some of the guys that I recognized. The community people said they won’t be alive to see such things happening and the police want to back the idea.”
Not resolved, Johnson said he proceeded to PSI’s office to inform the organization about what happened.
However, he said, the NGO blamed them for not behaving normally.
“When the incident happened—that same Saturday—I went to the office and they said ‘oh, your sorry but the way the children were acting—cutting up and making up—it was that which attracted the boys them to come.’”
Johnson said he felt disappointed that the organization didn’t accept responsibility in its failure to provide adequate security within the environment and would rather blame them for the attack because they were being themselves.
“We were victimized, we took our pains home and treated ourselves, they never paid for our phones that got missing, they did not pay for us to go and get treated.”
Identifying as gay is not illegal in the country. However, Liberian law criminalizes consensual same-sex sexual activity between consenting adults. There has been no publicized case in recent years. But Liberian’s gay community says harassment and discrimination are widespread.
And according to the latest U.S. Department of State 2018 report on Liberia, the country’s gay community faces extreme challenges.
A year later, Mitch Johnson said he is speaking up because the organization continues to ignore what happened on September 2018.
“According to them, they said they have security for us—they got people in the law field, they got people in the police force to protect us in so many ways—we did not see it that night. In case some someone was going to die—mainly me—in that angry crowd? I came from under operation—appendix—my breath was going off and on so I couldn’t run due to my injuries.”
When contacted, the management team of PSI, told journalRAGE in a meeting that they do not have any record of such incident occuring.
According to the organization, its staff did not file an incident report. “Nobody brought incident report—we have a good rapport with the police,” said Rajiv Dua, country director of PSI.
The organization said it is not responsible for incidents occurring outside its DIC. “They never informed us—we have LNP backing and retainer lawyers to help,” Rajiv said the DIC is a safe space for key population and during its opening, security is provided for all.
However, a source who was formerly in the employ of PSI who chose to go by the pronoun “They” speaking on strict condition of anonymity told journalRAGE that Mitch Johnson did report the incident to the organization but it deferred the blame to him and others.
The source, a peer educator who was also victimized said PSI did not take responsibility for anything which happened. “PSI said it wasn’t their fault. We had to take ourselves to the hospital,” They said. “Even the work that we do [did], when anything happened, they don’t [didn’t] take responsibility. People got hurt badly—it was just the mercy of God people didn’t lose their lives.”
They, speaking to journalRAGE, said the organization budgeted US$50 to have security but the money was deducted mysteriously. “They said they were going to have security—the police. They deducted the US$50 for security but didn’t bring the security.”
They said for a while, many LGBT people stopped frequenting the DIC. “The police came and raided those bad boys and this time, people can just drop in but they are still afraid.”
The pain might be gone but for Mitch Johnson a year later, it seems like yesterday.