The Liberia experience

March 11, 2006 at 9:40 am 2 comments

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.

**********

By JOHN ole KISIMIR

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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Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

Extra Weekly Citizen article Khartoum grins, whistles in the cemetry

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Beaver  |  March 13, 2006 at 3:25 am

    This post has been removed by the author.

    Reply
  • 2. Beaver  |  March 13, 2006 at 3:25 am

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

    Koudos!

    Beav’

    Reply

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