Liberia

'THE WORST PLACE ON EARTH'

ALEXANDRE TRUDEAU finds little hope for peace amid the havoc wreaked on this tortured African country

September 8 2003
Liberia

'THE WORST PLACE ON EARTH'

ALEXANDRE TRUDEAU finds little hope for peace amid the havoc wreaked on this tortured African country

September 8 2003

'THE WORST PLACE ON EARTH'

Liberia

ALEXANDRE TRUDEAU finds little hope for peace amid the havoc wreaked on this tortured African country

FOR THREE DAYS, I have been held up in Macenta, Guinea, a jungle town on the southern border, waiting to get into Liberia. The La Palme Hotel is mostly a quiet place, sheltering the occasional libidinous trucker. There, I return once more to my dank cell, gaze once again at the condom poster on the wall, alongside the excerpt from the

Scriptures: “Abandon the passions of youth. Seek righteousness, faith, love and peace.” I have just made my third visit to the boys of Bush Station Two—a rebel radio post just outside of their embattled country. I have put my hopes in them to secure safe passage through the Liberian hinterland on my journey toward the capital, Monrovia,

some 500 km to the south on the Atlantic Coast.

The boys are young and fierce; most are amputees, which would explain why they are in Guinea and not fighting in Liberia, where their rebel group, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, is currently pushing further into government-controlled territory. They spend their days in a crumbling villa among some damaged heavy machine guns, smoking dope and playing checkers, waiting for Sekou Conneh, chairman of LURD, whom they expect will return soon from peace talks in Ghana. Over the radio, the boys have been seeking authority for me to make my journey, and, hoping to pressure them, I sit beside them for a few hours as they rant to their colleagues in radio posts spread out across the jungle. Listening,

I begin to wonder whether there is actually any authority out there. Feke Fek, a teenaged radio operator with a mangled foot, tells me that former Liberian president Charles Taylor, who was forced from office on Aug. 11, was “the last refugee of Liberia—rightly sent off to Calabar, Nigeria.”

Liberia was created in the 1820s by freed American slaves, who were soon running prosperous rubber plantations with cheap labour. Their hold on the country was shattered in 1980 when an illiterate master sergeant, Samuel Kanyon Doe, broke into the executive mansion, disemboweled the sleeping president and became the first Liberian not of American descent to rule the country.

Liberia and Guinea were on opposing sides of the Cold War, and Doe’s regime contin-

ued to receive massive financial support from the U.S. But the government became increasingly paranoid, concentrating wealth in the hands of Doe’s own ethnic group, the Krahn. With the end of the Cold War, financial support dried up, and with ethnic divisions growing (Liberia has some 13 ethnic groups), Taylor launched a rebellion against Doe, who was captured and killed. But the war did not end there: outside intervention and internal divisions broke the rebel movement into factions, which then waged war throughout thel990s.

I wanted to witness the struggles for democracy and peace, and first made my way to Liberia in 1997. For many observers,

the country epitomized the inexorably violent heart of the dark continent. Unfortunately, this romantic and pessimistic description has not yet been disproved. During Taylor’s presidency, and after it, there has been no peace. This December, the war, in which 250,000 people have died, will be 14 years old.

Its victims are everywhere. “I’m 37,” says Mohammed Camara, a Liberian refugee in Macenta. “I’m still waiting for my life to start, and it is already passing me by.” Mohammed is a Mandingo, and has the graceful features of his people. He was starting college when the war broke out, and it has chased him from one place to another ever since. “For the Mandingo, the first year of the war was the worst,” he explains. “We were held up and hungry in Monrovia. My

eldest brother finally went out to find food. Taylor’s forces stopped him. To their surprise, he told them to their face that he was a Mandingo. They cut him to pieces then and there. After that we got organized. LURD has sprung from our need to fight for our place in Liberia.”

The Mandingo were traders and shopkeepers. For poorer tribespeople whose last dime went to buy soap and kerosene from the Mandingo in a time of crisis, jealousy and resentment sprung to the surface. “They say we are not Liberians,” Mohammed continues, “because our people originally came from outside the country.

My own father came to Liberia as a teenager in 1910. He had five wives and 15 children. I am the last of his children. If not Liberian, what am I?”

Mohammed takes me to his little house and introduces me to his young wife and infant daughter. “I was hoping to wait until I had made something of myself before starting a family. But I could only wait so long. I’m afraid that I’m beginning to lose my ambitions, that I won’t ever become a lawyer as I had planned.” With a gentle, resigned smile, he adds, “Now, more and more, I’m turning to religion. I guess that’s all I have.”

I DECIDE to find another way into Liberia, and finally get a chance with some intrepid market women who are running meagre supplies across the border. When I tell them I’m trying to get to Monrovia, the shortest and squattest of the bunch tells me that she will come with me. “To see my children,” she says. We enter Liberia at Nimba County, and find a very different scene. Nimba is where Taylor started his rebellion in 1989. He recruited members of the Gio and Mano tribes, traditional enemies of Doe’s tribe. And he set up the infamous Small Boys Unit, which led to the trend of child fighters in Liberia. Some of Taylor’s forces are still here. Cut off from Monrovia, wedged up against Guinea and the Ivory Coast—two countries that support the antiTaylor rebels—they are completely stranded, and without their leader. The only way in or out is along a very bad road, running through thick jungle from eastern Guinea

to the Liberian border town of Yekepa. It was built from scratch by an AmericanSwedish company, to house workers hauling iron ore out of the mountains. The company has long since left, leaving planned streets and houses that are slowly being engulfed by the jungle.

The border post at Yekepa is a rundown concrete structure overrun by young fighters. I’m led into a small room containing disaffected civil servants. There I wait. At last, “authority” arrives. It’s a truly frightening thing when a 55-year-old public official frantically leaps to attention as a 25-year-old killer enters the room. The young fighter’s name is Varney—Gen. Varney. He joined the Small Boys Unit in 1990. “I ain’t small no more,” he hisses when I ask him about it. After a proper show of respect and much patience, I’m finally released.

I set up at the “P” Market, an abandoned

strip mall grouped around a large paved square. The place is crawling with armed young men. A video parlour shows action flicks and Nigerian melodramas. Off to the corner of the square, I watch a 12-year-old prop his AK-47 against the wall and begin peacefully shadowboxing through a series of self-styled kung fu moves. Dreadlocked commanders in graffiti-covered four-wheel-drive vehicles race into the square, come to a screeching halt, and then noisily take off.

At one point, some older businessmen arrive, trailed by some boys carrying black plastic bags. Huge piles of fairly worthless bills are pulled out and passed off to the commanders. These businessmen say they are surprised and happy to see me, but disappointed when I tell them I don’t work for the BBC, the prime news source in these parts. They admit that the situation in Nimba is very bad—and getting worse. “We want peace,” one tells me, “but the rebels are continuing to attack us.”

They are eager for me to continue on. Phone calls are made; they tell me transportation is on its way. I’m to travel to Gahnpa, to meet the front-line commander with some of Taylor’s remaining forces. They want me to see for myself that LURD is continuing to attack in spite of a ceasefire that was signed on Aug. 18, and which installed an interim government until elections can be held in October.

As I wait, I get to know the fighters. Thompson, a.k.a. Whiskey, has an easy way about him. When Taylor’s forces were fighting in the rebellion in the Ivory Coast last year, Thompson took up arms and joined them. It was largely a debacle, and helped cement the international community’s resolve against Taylor. Now, Thompson is still fighting— against LURD. “I am lucky,” he says with a huge grin. “I just got back from the front line in Gahnpa. I used to always walk with my three friends. They all died at the frontnow I walk alone.”

Olivier, who speaks French, is from the Ivory Coast. He’s 13, but looks 10. In the chaos of the rebellion there, he lost track of his parents and was swept up in the fighting. His commander, a Sierra Leonean serving Taylor, was ambushed and killed

A VIOLENT REGION

War has plagued Liberia and its neighbours

and Olivier fled to Liberia. Paranoia runs deep in this war-torn area, and as we talk some young women tell Olivier to keep his mouth shut. When he doesn’t listen, they say they will have him beaten.

I take him away, for eggs at the local tea shop. It’s a gathering place; I settle in with Olivier, and am quickly drawn into a conversation with a self-styled preacher who wants the world to know about the ministry he has founded. He hopes it will bring about national reconciliation through the word of God and the message of love. “It is to be established worldwide,” he proclaims. Suddenly, from my left, a swarm of scraggly teenagers descends upon Olivier. They are armed with AK-47s mounted with bayonets. Before I can react, little Olivier is knocked from his chair and his shirt is torn off him. He is hit repeatedly. I jump up shouting, and attempt to cover him with my body. The preacher jumps in and tries to pull me off, telling me to leave them. “It’s their way,” he tells me. I can’t help but shout back at him: “Where is the love, preacher?”

Some commanders intervene, and the beating stops. They grill me about what Olivier might have told me. I downplay his statements and assure them that he said nothing of any importance. They make me pull out my camera and erase the photos I had taken of Olivier, and go over my notes to make sure I did not write down anything sensitive. Olivier is loaded onto the back of a pickup truck, surrounded by fighters. I point my finger at one of the commanders and tell him that no harm should come to the boy. The vehicle speeds off with Olivier in the back, terrified.

I’M HAPPY to leave Yekepa, with a businessman on a truck digging further into Nimba County. The bush road gets worse and worse. I’m passed off to another businessman in the town of Saniquellie. Floyd is part Lebanese and rather friendly. He wonders how I will manage with the front-line commanders. “I only know how they deal with us sometimes, that’s all,” he says. I tell him that I believe in the goodness of human nature. Floyd laughs, and for a price arranges transportation for me in a four-wheel-drive vehicle.

As I approach Gahnpa, each village begins to look more and more pitiful. The town itself is even worse. Once a bustling community at a major crossroads, it is now destroyed. Floyd’s driver won’t even enter, and I’m left

at the first checkpoint outside of town. With night approaching, I begin walking, putting on the most casual air I can muster.

Gahnpa is the worst place on Earth. Under the onslaught of heavy weapons and mortar fire, it is no more. You cannot set foot on its mangled streets without treading on empty shell casings. Trees, houses, telephone

poles, all have been ripped apart by gunfire. LURD’s destruction of Gahnpa dealt Taylor’s soldiers a heavy blow. They are now forced to make their stand in this dead town without supplies. As I walk, fighters begin emerg-

ing from destroyed structures all around me. One approaches me with a strange bounce in his step and says, “You are my good friend. I am Jusu Masali. I will take you to the commander.”

He leads me to a building filled with wounded and dying soldiers. There is a crazy and desperate air about them—they close in on me, asking all sorts of questions. I play it cool and keep smiling, but some members of the pack begin laying claim to my various possessions. Others yell at them: “No! We are civilized men!” One wounded fighter stirs up a hot cocoa drink for me. Jusu emphatically tries to nod me onwards. Finally, a vehicle arrives, and a commander urges me to get in. We speed off to visit the front-line commander.

These fighters are a different breed from the ones in Yekepa. They wear dark and dirty clothes. They all have their hair braided into cornrows, up to a bundle on the tops of their heads. They are quiet. The car sinks into the night, proceeding toward the front. We pass some evil-looking checkpoints, then come to a stop. The engine and headlights

I SENSE he would sooner kill me than look at me. I wait for him to give that terrible order, in an African tongue I won’t understand.

are turned off. The fighters disembark and spread out across the road. Up ahead is alone figure. No one approaches him—he is a dreadlocked shadow. Barefoot and unarmed, this is Peanut Butter, the front-line commander. “I told them once, I told them twice, I told them three times, not to send the journalist here,” he says. “But they didn’t listen.”

My heart sinks. All of a sudden I understand the strange apprehension everyone seems to have had when alluding to the frontline commander: They are terrified of him. He holds the troops together in this area and never leaves the front—Peanut Butter is the wall of terror holding off the enemy hordes from overrunning all of Nimba. His English is elegant. He speaks softly, even melodiously. “They told me that if anything happened to him, I would be responsible,” the commander says. “Well, I can’t guarantee his security.”

I attempt to talk to him: “Commander, can I have a word?” The night is dead still, and no answer comes. I sense he would sooner kill me than look at me. I wait for him to give that terrible order, in an African tongue I won’t understand. Then, he says: “I want him gone. Not to Saniquellie. Not to Yekepa. I want him gone back to where he came from.” We all wait a moment, and I say: “Let’s go.” We get back in the car and speed back toward town.

I’m taken to another commander—a wounded general who would act on Peanut Butter’s vague and ominous orders and decide my fate. Jusu steps in and says that I should be leaving, and that he will seek advice from another commander as to how I should go about doing that. Luckily, the general is in the middle of an argument with another fighter—about how that man’s sister hasn’t been coming around anymore since the general got shot up. As a result, he pays me little attention. Jusu returns and announces that he was given the order to lodge me for the night, and that transportation would be found for me in the morning. As we walk through the darkness, I reach out and grab Jusu’s shoulder. White teeth gleam back at me.

Jusu feeds me what little he can. He is gaunt, and looks at me with a suppressed rage. He comments on how my flesh looks healthy and full, unlike his. But he’s the only friend I have. He shows me his colleague: a badly wounded soldier crumpled up beside the fire. I do not sleep that night.

Nor does Jusu. Through the night, I lie in the crumbling house, all eyes and ears, as he stands outside, repeatedly fending off marauders who come for me. Gunfire sounds in the night.

At first light, Jusu knows I didn’t sleep. I tell him I know he didn’t either—and that I knew what was happening. “At night, I serve God,” he says. “They wanted your heart for their Jwjfr”—a West African religious rite involving a sacrifice. He then asks me: “Can you walk out of here? ” I quickly reply, “You’re

damn right I can.” Jusu reminds me to say goodbye to the wounded soldier. With crazed, sad eyes, the poor man limply raises a hand to me from his litter and sends me off with a parting smile. We take a bush path, and Jusu

sees me on until well outside the town. I walk the 50 km out of the jaws of death. I will have to find another way to Monrovia.

Liberia is not beyond repair, but it is absolutely beyond self-repair. A peace deal has been signed, but even the faint American presence in the capital is now being reduced with the U.S. government’s decision last week to withdraw its troops from Monrovia to the safety of U.S. warships off the coast. And the West African peacekeepers who were sent in, led by Nigeria, say they do not have the mandate to deploy outside of Monrovia.

The forces that rid Liberia of Taylor are now out of control. Rebels have cut the country in half. They are still pushing south toward Monrovia, and from the south and west they are closing in on Nimba to exact vengeance on their old tribal foes. Peanut Butter’s gallant ferocity will not hold them off indefinitely. Disaster lies ahead. But I still believe in human nature. God bless the squat little women who still worry about their children. God bless Jusu Masali, and Olivier whom I will not see again, because there is no peace here. Ill

I WATCH a 12-year-old prop his AK-47 against the wall and begin shadow-boxing through a series of self-styled kung fu moves