The Peace Photographer
Photojournalist Pewee Flomoku captured images of child soldiers and the other horrors of war in Liberia. Now he's working on free and fair elections.
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Pewee Flomoku is one of the few Liberians who can boast of having visited all 15 counties in a country that, although small, is difficult to travel around.
Small villages are often far from police stations. Problems among locals can flare into violence. His job, Mr. Flomoku says, is to encourage people "to seek help rather than take matters into their own hands."
His team also trains police and traditional village chiefs in how to deal with complaints and how to mediate.
The importance of the work can't be overestimated. A fragile peace has prevailed since a brutal 14-year civil war ended in 2003. About 8,000 United Nations peacekeeping troops remain in the country.
"One reason war erupted was the lack of dialogue, which led to harbored grievances," Flomoku says. "That is why our work is important."
He knows the horrors of violence. Like all Liberians, he lost relatives and friends to the conflict. Two of his cousins remain in a refugee camp in nearby Ghana.
Flomoku got a close look at the war through his work as a photographer for the Associated Press. He took pictures of fighting, as well as of the war's hidden aspects: people fleeing their homes, starving women and children, and child soldiers.
Several times his life was in danger.
"Once, we came across people selling rather than handing out emergency aid. They damaged my camera and injured me," he recalls.
While many Liberians fled during the war, Flomoku was led to stay by a need to tell the truth. "I couldn't leave," he says. "I needed to tell the world what we were going through."
Alphonso Toweh, a Reuters correspondent in Liberia, says Flomoku's work had a huge impact, helping to bring international attention to the conflict in a region often overlooked by the world press.
"Pewee's photographs brought sympathy for us and helped to mobilize the international community to help," Mr. Toweh says.
Flomoku was at the US Embassy in Monrovia in 2003 when buildings were attacked during a rebel attempt to capture the capital. He was there later as Liberians lined up dead bodies in front of the embassy to protest the United States not sending in troops to help.
The Press Union of Liberia later awarded Flomoku a prize for his work.
Born in Lofa County in the north, Flomoku grew up passionate about photography. He took pictures at weddings to make money to put himself through school and university in Monrovia.
After the fighting ended, Flomoku wanted to help the communities he had captured on film.
"During the war, people would accuse me of making money by photographing them, which made me feel bad. This is a way of giving back," he says.
For two years after the war he worked for UNMIL, the UN mission in Liberia, as part of the disarmament program. More than 101,000 combatants were disarmed.
"It was hard to tell combatants they had to give up their arms," he says. But the process succeeded and led to more stability, allowing institutions such as The Carter Center, the nonprofit group founded by former US President Jimmy Carter, to focus on other issues, such as access to justice.
"I get happiness from engaging people and giving them the tools to access services," Flomoku says.
He's also been inspired by his mother, who died last year: "She told me to do what I believe, and that has stayed with me."
Flomoku's work has been recognized outside Liberia as well. In 2008, he was selected as a summer fellow at Stanford University, studying democracy, development, and the rule of law, along with others from around the globe.
The fellowship resulted in a lasting network. "Making contact with people from other countries is a great help," he says. "We stay in contact and exchange ideas."
These ideas will help him as The Carter Center takes on a role in monitoring elections next fall, when Liberians will elect a president and half of the seats in their Senate and House of Representatives.
These will be only the second set of national elections since the end of the war and the first to be run by the Liberian government itself. They pose a challenge in a region where election results are frequently disputed and spark violence.
Aware of the unsettled results of the recent presidential election in neighboring Ivory Coast, Flomoku and his colleagues are educating Liberians in how to register and take part in the elections. They will monitor the election process as well.
The elections represent an important milestone. But many more challenges face Liberia, including high unemployment and the need for investment in basic infrastructure, such as roads and bridges.
Nonetheless, Flomoku says he remains positive about the future.
"There is more space than ever to talk about our disagreements – which we do have," he says. "I don't believe anyone wants to go back to war again."
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