MONROVIA, Liberia — Liberia's Executive Mansion was once a marvel of modern architecture in West Africa. It's been empty since 2006, when a small fire caused Liberia's President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to shift her residence to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which to this day remains her base of operations. Officially, the fire was caused by electrical problems though rumors circulate of arson.
Just 40 feet behind the official and empty Executive Mansion is a second Executive Mansion, this one is unofficial and very, very full. A community of squatters has named their beachside residence Executive Mansion in honor of their nearby (former) neighbor.
This Executive Mansion is a once-grand apartment building, complete with a wide staircase entry, glass brick windows, a veranda and columns. The former home to high-ranking civil servants is now cordoned off into mini-residences for squatter families. Dozens of tin and thatch makeshift homes surround the perimeter of the building.
All in all, about one hundred people live in the unofficial Executive Mansion. It has no sanitation facilities, electricity or other amenities. Though the community recently joined together to dig a well nearby, children often fall sick due to lack of clean water and other services. But for women like Finda Joseph, the Executive Mansion is her best — and only — option.
"Poverty makes me look old," she said.
Even though she's only 32, she has five small boys and no support system. Her first husband died during Liberia's nearly two decades of civil war. During the conflict, more than a quarter of a million people died, leaving lots of widows like Finda. She remarried, briefly, but when her second husband rejected her first three children, she up and left.
At the Executive Mansion, she has a small table filled with goods for sale — soap, peppers, cooking oil and other items. She supports herself and her sons with the proceeds from her work, but just barely.
Many vacant buildings throughout urban Monrovia are still home to large populations of squatters like Finda.
At the height of Liberia's wars, about one million people were displaced. In 2003, near the war's end, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that there were 530,000 urban internally displaced persons but that most had returned to rural areas by 2006.
Some stayed in urban areas for a variety of reasons — the cost of transport and opportunities in urban areas not available in rural areas among them. Some just fell through the post-war safety net cracks.
People like Finda and her neighbors often don't receive assistance or aid like more traditional refugees because it's difficult for the government to access and provide for this transient demographic.
As the government works to rehabilitate war-torn buildings around Monrovia, many squatters have been displaced once again. Some have received compensation up to a couple of hundred dollars to assist in returning to rural areas or finding a new home.
Squatters previously occupying the Ducor Palace Hotel, a five star hotel that fell into disrepair during the war, were forced to leave last year when Libyan investors agreed to renovate the building. Recently, Information Minister Laurence Bropleh told local Liberian media houses that squatters in another large building must "move or be moved."
"The government has continuously warned those individuals [squatters] to vacate those public buildings as the need arises to renovate them," says David Mulbah, a UNHCR protection officer. "UNHCR has not been involved in providing any form of assistance to those people because they are not persons of concern to the Office."
Most members of Liberia's government are also unsympathetic to the squatters. Eugene Shannon, the Minister of Lands, Mines and Energy, has a typical position: "Squatters are people who illegitimately occupy other people's lands, houses or facilities," he said.
Minister Shannon also revealed that he owns several properties that have been filled with squatters that he is currently battling to reclaim.
"People were running and they just landed at someone's house and they just lived there," the minister said. "There is no such thing as squatters' rights. Your land is your land."
Rufus Jackson, one of the residents at the Executive Mansion, knows that where he lives isn't his land. A former captain in the Armed Forces of Liberia, Jackson uses his pension for school fees rather than finding a more traditional form of housing where he would have to pay rent. The owners of the apartment building stop by every now and then, he said, but added: "They don't trouble us. They come and say there will be a time for us to leave, anytime now."
He's not sure where he'll go when that day comes. "I have no place besides here, but if they say move, I'll move," he said.