Her dead husband's Bible, his driver's license and their faded wedding photos are in a dusty box in the closet of her College Park home -- not to forget, but to remember. Like so many Liberians, Caroline Barnard is handcuffed to a history of heartache, bloodshed and guilt.
Gunmen killed her husband, Emmanuel Cooper, in a suburb of Monrovia, the country's capital, 15 years ago. They left his corpse on the street. The couple had been married for less than three months. And she was pregnant.
After she fled the chaos on foot, Barnard made a promise.
"Whatever is left of him, I must bury him," she recalled. "I'm going to go back."
Now, as the West African country prepares for a historic post-civil war election next month, a new hope is prevailing. After years of building wealth and sharing it with impoverished relatives back home, Barnard and other Liberians across the United States want to influence the outcome of the campaign.
Many of the Washington region's estimated 10,000 native Liberians view it as nothing less than their homeland's last chance for peace and stability.
"They feel very passionate, because they realize the future of their country depends on this election," said Bishop Darlingston G. Johnson of Bethel World Outreach Church in Silver Spring, where a third of the 3,000 congregants are from Liberia.
Liberia was founded in 1847 by freed American slaves who named its capital after President James Monroe, and it was a reliable U.S. ally during the Cold War. But starting in the 1980s, a succession of despotic and corrupt leaders brought two decades of disorder. By the time international pressure forced warlord Charles Taylor into exile in Nigeria in 2003, Liberia's government and civil society were in shambles.
Taylor's exit spawned a peace deal and caretaker government, bolstered by 15,000 U.N. peacekeepers. The Oct. 11 election is the next step.
No provisions exist for absentee voting. A Liberian living abroad must go back to register and then return to cast a ballot. So most immigrants in the Washington area will not vote.
And yet, Liberia's main presidential candidates have held fundraisers and town hall-style events across the region. They've canvassed other parts of the United States as well and created slick campaign Web sites.
The reason is such statistics as this: $600 million wired into Liberia, much of it from the United States, between 2000 and 2003, according to the Aite Group, a Boston financial services research firm.
And this: 80 percent illiteracy in Liberia and poverty rates just as high, the United Nations estimates.
So candidates are appealing to Liberian immigrants to contribute to their campaigns and persuade relatives back home to vote for them. It's the latest example of how elections in developing countries have become transnational affairs, as technology connects immigrant to homeland as never before.
"If you supported Liberians during the war, you will have influence, you can make an impact," said Gayah Fahnbulleh, an adviser to candidate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a former World Bank official.
The 22-candidate field includes Liberian soccer legend George Weah and Charles W. Brumskine, a lawyer who lives in Northern Virginia.
"This is the time to start a revolution," said Barnard, a mother of three.
The accountant and gospel singer paused, then added softly, "A peaceful revolution."
One that will allow her to keep a 15-year-old promise.
'Bullets Were Flying'
Barnard met Cooper at a school in Paynesville, a suburb of Monrovia. She was 14. He was 16. They dated for two years, broke up and got back together 10 years later.
"We soon found out that having each other forever was our greatest desire," Barnard later wrote in her journal.
A year later, on Christmas Eve 1989, Taylor invaded Liberia from neighboring Ivory Coast. The country soon collapsed into civil war. But Barnard and Cooper carried on with their lives as best they could. She worked for Price Waterhouse. He was a small trader. They married April 7, 1990, in a lavish ceremony at a white church with a gospel choir.
On July 2, heavy fighting broke out in Paynesville, where they lived. Cooper was riding in a car with a soldier, probably for protection, as many Liberians did then. They were ambushed by Taylor's rebels on Duport Road.
Barnard never saw his body, but someone told her a few girls had covered him with sand near the road. She tried to retrieve his body.
"As I walked, there was shooting up the road," Barnard recalled. "Bullets were flying. I couldn't reach that particular spot."
A few days later, someone found his wallet and driver's license.
"I don't know why death had to part us so early," Barnard wrote. "We had so many things to achieve."
Pregnant and widowed, Barnard fled. She filled two shopping bags and walked through the jungle until she crossed into the Ivory Coast, joining a vast exodus of refugees.
"I wonder what the future has for me and our unborn child," Barnard wrote.
The future is what drives Eunice Barnaby of Germantown to phone the relatives who receive $6,000 a year from her and urge them to vote for Sirleaf. After watching Liberia crumble under male leaders, she wants a woman in power.
"There's nothing more I want than to go back to Liberia," said Barnaby, 46, whose brothers and sister were killed by rebels.
It's what drives Bishop Johnson to encourage Liberian immigrants like himself to fast and pray for 21 days so "God Himself will guide the elections."
It's what drives Joseph Juwle to take time off from his job as a hotel supervisor in the District and head to Liberia this month, even though he hasn't registered to vote. He will work for presidential candidate Winston Tubman.
"I'm going there to encourage Liberians to vote for the right person," said Juwle, 47, a father of five who lives in Lanham.
One Way to Monrovia
And the future is what drives Barnard.
In Ivory Coast, she gave birth to her daughter, Korpo, remarried and came to Prince George's County in 1996. During the day, she works for the University of Maryland in College Park as a fiscal coordinator. At night, she composes and sings gospel songs about Jesus and her homeland to hip-shaking African rhythms.
Liberia's peace process and the election inspired her last year to write "One Way Ticket to Monrovia."
It has become an anthem for immigrants yearning to go home, played at gatherings and on Liberian community radio. In June, at a fundraiser for Brumskine, dozens of Liberians swayed to every word.
I thank my Lord the God of Peace.
O He really answer prayers.
Thank God the United Nations and Papa Kofi Annan. . . .
Thank God for President Bush, the Peace is here forever
I say one way, one way ticket to Monrovia
I'm never coming back.
At the end of the song, she asks that when she lands in Liberia, she be taken to the "Duport Grave."
Despite the optimism, most Liberians here are realists. Their country, they well know, has endured many upheavals.
"Politics is so tricky," Barnard said. "We only hope and pray we'll get divine inspiration to choose the right person."
If the right person is chosen, she knows she'll be one step closer to Cooper's grave. If she can't find it, she will go to the spot where he died, pick up some of the soil and bury it in his hometown of Kle in Bomi County, about 30 miles from Monrovia. She'll hold a simple memorial service, perhaps build a school in his name.
She know she's fortunate. Most Liberians can't do this much.
"There are a lot of people who don't even know where their relatives are, whether they are dead or just missing," Barnard said. "This war has left a lot of unfinished business for so many people."
Last week, in her comfortable living room peppered with African artifacts, she sifted through the shards of her broken past. A buttery late afternoon light floated through the lace curtains. Her husband, Johnny, sat with her as Korpo, now 15, floated in and out of the room.
The wallet. The driver's license. The Bible. Wedding photos and a video. Her blue journal with the elegant handwriting.
Then, she spotted two black-and-white passport photos. She was young and smiling, as if the future were limitless.
"Those were the days," she sighed.
Then, she smiled as wide as she could.