Saturday, March 11, 2006

The Liberia experience

My friends in DC say recently-elected Liberian President Johnson Sirleaf has been invited to address the US Congress in the next few days. Out of love for Liberia and in memory of the great Liberians I schooled with at the university, I hereby re-publish a piece on the West African country that I published a few years ago at a newspaper I once edited. Kisimir, the writer, is a dear friend and one of the men and women who have had a lasting impact on my journey in African journalism. I'll be publishing another piece from him on the Rwandan genocide in the next few days. **********


It takes a peculiar state of mind before a man deliberately and cold-bloodedly shoots down another. It must either be the terror of the hunted or the unbalanced frenzy of the criminal lunatic. That is why Liberia, the beautiful but war torn West African country, will remain in my mind for a long time.

This strangely beautiful country has been limping for years, but plunged into the abyss last year when rebels took great chunks of territory, leaving President Charles Taylor’s government marooned in the capital city, Monrovia. In August, Taylor fled to Nigeria, ushering in a transitional government. By then, everything had gone ballistic. The level of violence was unimaginable. Thousands of women and children were dying either by the bullet or starvation.

Like vultures, aid agencies, as well as the United Nations, descended on Monrovia to help the vulnerable long after the country has collapsed. I left Somalia for Liberia in early September to lead World Vision International’s communications team in Liberia. I found a dead city. Most good buildings and landmarks in the city have been shelled. Rebels and ragtag government militias have drawn lines of control, with snipers posted at several vantage points.

Only two hotels were functional, possibly saved by their proximity to the United States Embassy. The U.S. embassy is a fort, surrounded by razor wire, enough to shred a regiment. My colleagues and I slept on the floor and ate cold food in our temporary residence-office. We were much better off because over 200,000 displaced peopled were crowded into camps within the city, with limited access to water, food and dignified shelter. Every morning when we woke up, we prayed and planned on how best to help them. There was some level of security in most parts of the city, but our work does not confine us in the city. Thousands of displaced people were holed up in rebel held territories. They needed food, shelter and medicine.

My first assignment on arrival was to accompany a convoy of World Vision International relief experts into rebel controlled territory in the west of the country. It was a challenge, venturing into unknown territory. No aid workers had gone out of the city for months as the war escalated. We were all anxious. Will the rebels allow us to go through? How many people are still living in villages? What are they eating? What is the level of harassment, rape, intimidation and killings of civilians?

We left the city headed west to the areas controlled by the rebel faction, LURD (Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD). We were tense and anxious as we went through checkpoints manned by West African Peacekeepers who saluted and wished us well. A few kilometers from the city, we met thousands of terrified, hungry and tired civilians were trekking towards the city. Most of them women, carrying children and bundles on their heads. We estimated the number at about 20,000. This was a sign that fighting is still going on in the interior. Many have walked for days to reach the only place which they think would be safe – Monrovia.

There were roadblocks after every few kilometers, manned by excited and drugged child soldiers. More frightening encounters were still to come we approached the city of Tubmanburg. The child soldiers were becoming aggressive. They shot into the air as we approached and took long to let us go through the checkpoints. Some demanded food, water and money in that order. Like everybody else in this country, they were hungry. We drove off the road towards the villages to find out if any people still lived here. Some villages were empty, while in others people ran into the forest as we approached. It was raining and roads were almost impassable. It was frustrating.

We stopped in Wenal village in Montserado County, 37 km north of Monrovia. It was deserted but we saw smoke from one of the huts. As in other places, people had fled, they can no longer tell friend and enemy.

A shrub move at the periphery of the dense forest, then a face and several eyes. Frightened faces of people who had known terror for long. We waved and called out that we had come to help. A woman hesitantly advanced, searching for a hint of danger. She gathered courage and came slowly towards us.

Somebody whistled and people started coming out from the forest. They came out dancing in the rain, crying, “Thank you God. Thank you Jesus.”

They went round the convoy of our vehicles. They touched the vehicles and hugged each other. It was a heart breaking experience. They hugged their children and clapped with excitement, celebrating that hope at last is coming to a devastated people. They had not seen anyone else for months but the rebels fighting the government. Food is impossible to find, they have been surviving on bush yam.

We turned back to the main road, only to get into a checkpoint. The soldiers got excited and started shooting into the air. We stopped and they came around, asking questions. Most could not tell aid agencies from their enemy. Our flag on the vehicles meant nothing to them. There was a dead body lying at the checkpoint, a definite signal that they are trigger-happy and a warning to those who disobey them.

A child came around our vehicle, holding a grenade in his left hand and an AK automatic rifle dangling from his shoulder. He peeped through the window and asked for water. Another shot went into the air and the checkpoint was opened for us.

We drove to the city of Tubmanburg, the headquarters of the LURD rebels, to negotiate with rebel commanders modalities for distribution of food to the starving population in the villages. The city was a busy place, littered with the loot from Monrovia. Rebels had commandeered many four-wheel vehicles belonging to the government, the UN and aid agencies when they stormed Monrovia. The commanders were concerned because a hungry population is dangerous and they want the people on their side.

But the unfortunate thing was that most trucks used by the World Food Programme (WFP) to ferry food are in the hands rebels. We found many of them being cannibalized and repainted. We challenged on of the commanders. How do they expect food to come to their people when they are holding the trucks? He shook his head and argued that other factions including the government have also looted vehicles from aid agencies. We could not buy his point. He agreed in principle to release the trucks if WFP comes for them. That is easier said than done. Some trucks were released but many were non-functional.

For the days that followed, we braved the tough weather and insurmountable workloads. We distributed food to thousands of people. Thousands more flocked to medical clinics set up by World Vision in different camps. But the fighting in the interior of the country continued to hurt civilians, forcing them to flee in all directions.

Aid agencies and foreign governments pressured the UN Security Council to send peacekeepers to the country to protect civilians and enforce a ceasefire signed by warring parties. The situation was very fluid with militiamen driving up and down on looted vehicles, sometimes shooting and robbing civilians.

With time, life began to improve. Food was reaching more displaced people but the security situation made the population very restless. The good news finally came that the UN Security Council had approved sending 11,500 peacekeepers to Liberia, making it the largest peace keeping mission in the world. The 3,500 West African troops who were already on the ground would join the UN troops making the number 15,000. Excitement hit the streets of Liberian cities and displacement camps. People celebrated and waited eagerly.

On October 1, the West African peacekeepers switched to blue UN helmets in an elaborate ceremony, thus becoming the first UN troops in the country. Representatives of the warring factions and government were to attend the ceremony. It was a bright day. Hope was in the air.

Officially, it was World Vision’s prayer day. Most of us except those doing food distribution and critical medical staff converged to pray. I was restless because I knew a lot of things were going to happen. There was a possibility of the country returning to peace or continue to indulge in turmoil.

As the leading journalist for the World Vision’s rapid response team in Liberia, I did not want to just sit, but to keep my eyes open. The whole partnership of over 100 countries was keenly following happenings in Liberia. I had helped create that appetite by filing interesting situation reports. I had spent late hours every day, writing news, features, editing digital pictures and doing media interviews on the state of the country and our programs.

I left the prayer room and drove to town. On reaching the great bridge that separated LURD and government territory, I met a stampede. People were running towards the city center. Vehicles were hooting, and then crack of automatic gunfire cracked and filled the air.

A taxi braked just before us, the occupants shouting that the rebels were coming, and they would take our vehicle. I picked my camera gear, alighted and told the driver to return to base.

What’s happening? No one knows. In Liberia, when you hear gunfire, you run away as far as possible. Whoever is shooting or being shot at is not your concern. “Run, run. Don’t go there. They are coming!”, the crowds keep shouting.

A UN armoured tank approached, heading to the front line, a TV van in close pursuit. I ran to the van, raising my cameras. It stopped and I jumped in. What’s the news?

Gunmen had shot at LURD rebel leader Sekou Conneh, thus triggering an exchange of fire between rebels and government troops. Mr. Conneh was on his way to see interim President Moses Blah. Several agencies lost vehicles to looters in the confusion that ensued. Seven people were killed.

I called my colleagues who were distributing food in the area where the fighting started. The team leader, Tamba Macaulay, advised me not to go towards their direction. Suddenly the UN tank stopped and turned to block the road. Several vehicles carrying rebel soldiers approached. Two other UN tanks arrived with soldier’s arms at the ready, and ordered the rebels to stop. The rebels were headed to the city center, a situation that could lead to a full-scale war.

I called Tamba again. His phone was off. I called the office. Alex Slewion, our Security Officer ordered me back to base. Rebels have taken 25 of our staff hostage. The staff, all from Commodities Department had gotten caught up on their return to the city from a food distribution exercise at a displaced people’s camp about 23 km from Monrovia.

The information hit us badly. We assembled and prayed for their safety and kept calling the UN peacekeepers for any information. By 8.00 pm we were informed that peacekeepers had traced our vehicles and rescued all our staff. But there is no safe passage to the city any more. Gunfire is cracking everywhere. Rebels and government troops are looting everything and anything that came their way. My colleagues spent a night at a peacekeepers checkpoint and were driven back to the office in the morning. By evening UN troops had contained the skirmishes. Tension was very high in the city. Civilians continued to be harassed by gunmen in the northern counties of Lofa, Nimba and Bong.

As the situation stabilized in Monrovia, civilians reacted with joy. They danced in the streets and in overcrowded camps and cheered as UN troops passed by their homes. They clung on to hope for a better future.

I woke up to the day of my departure. Just as the day I arrived, it was oppressively hot, with the threat of a rainstorm looming up out of the east. The first lightning bolt struck with a crackling electric explosion that seemed to singe the air about me. The thunderbolt seemed to shake the sky, and rock the earth’s very foundations. The rain came in buckets. It drummed, roared and deafened. I left another devastated African country but still shared Murie Lester’s view that: "War is as outmoded as cannibalism, chattel slavery, blood-feuds, and dueling, an insult to God and humanity... a daily crucifixion of Christ.”

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Blogger Beaver said...

What a fascinating post. Thanks for sharing this. I just arrived in Monrovia today. This helps me better understand the past.



3/13/2006 03:25:00 am  
Blogger Beaver said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

3/13/2006 03:25:00 am  

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