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Inside Liberia's other Executive Mansion

Squatters have taken over lots of Monrovia's formerly grand residences.

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.