Monday, March 12, 2012

Liberia: 6 April 1996 - the Forgotten Year of Hell

Published on 6 April 1996 
By Tom Kamara
The day began like any other day during those years of living with death next door, since this city was a city of hell, one in which drugged or drunken armed men roamed and lorded over all as their political leaders, in the celebrated Council of State, held the right of life and death firmly in their hands, collectively or separately.
Suddenly, news spread fast, thanks there was no mobile phone here at the time. One of these armed men, a loyalist of ULIMO-J leader Roosevelt Johnson, was accused of murdering a man. Two of the leaders on the 5-man Council of State, Mr. Charles Taylor and Mr. Alhaji Kromah, demanded 'justice'. They wanted the man arrested to face trial under the 'law'. Some religious leaders laughed and protested the irony. How was it that lawless men, accused of murdering tens of thousands of people in their quest for political, had suddenly concluded that allegedly murdering one man was a crime?

But this was an era that knew no reason. Its leaders were men and women with different minds and their logic was unique. These violent leaders, wooed by many who sought their favours for jobs and other privileges, had their own definition of justice, which prevailed uncontested.

By 12 mid day that April 6, armed youths and men had the city and all living within it as theirs. The looting and killing orgy began, and according to UN estimates, over 3000 people would die before the end could come.

With the Government, if that was the name, under their command, Mr. Kromah and Taylor soon labeled their combined rebel forces 'Government Forces' and Mr. Johnson's rebels became the rebels in this bizarre logic. They were now like 2 opposing gangs. Dr. George Boley, leader of the Liberia Peace Council, checked out, but his fighters joined their kinsmen in ULIMO-J.

Swiftly, as the bandwagon of violence rolled, central Monrovia was empty, as if, like in western films, gangs had invaded or driven all residents somewhere else. They simply vanished into thin air, as if they never lived here. Sounds of rapid gunfire consumed the city. Ragtag rebel fighters were at their best, since all obstacles had been removed in their path to let hell descend. And it did in all its forms.

From the vantage point at the Ducor, Monrovia's highest point, one had a better view of the city's state. There were pockets of smoke rising all over, like rice farms being prepared. Heavy artillery fire became music. All was silent, except for the continuous sounds of gunfire and wailing. Death was all over, inescapable and imminent.

With the fighting concentrated in central Monrovia, since Johnson's largely ethnic Krahns fighters were holed up at the Barclay Training Center (BTC), most fortunate city residents moved to Bushrod Island, where ECOMOG, the peace keeping force, was based. Prominent Liberians and politicians were evacuated there under military escort. It became the only 'protected' and safe place in the city. All others were death or torture camps.

From the Ducor, too, one could see US helicopters hovering over the sleeping Atlantic Ocean, like huge black birds flying into nowhere, to waiting US evacuation ships. They were ferrying American citizens away along with other foreigners. Standing there at the height of the Ducor, one got lost in infinite thoughts, imaging being in the belly of one of those birds and flown away gingerly from hell. But these were only laughable images, phantoms, real only in one's head, for those snapped away from the devil's den were special. Not all men are equal.

For weeks quarantined inside the smelly Ducor of no water and decreasing food supply, this writer had the opportunity, coming out of having no choice to cross over into fluid safety on now over-crowded Bushrod Island, ECOMOG's Base, of witnessing some of the terrifying episodes.

On the 6th floor of the now crumbling Ducor Hotel, the Center Street offices of this paper could be seen ablaze, smoke rising out of its roofs. Later, it was learnt that the burning of the building was preceded by sustained grenade and gunfire directed inside it. Satisfied that no living thing could emerge from its flames alive, the rebels entered and systematically poured gasoline on the now destroyed presses, but not until all the computers were looted earlier. The looting and destruction was well planned and implemented.

The Catholic Radio Veritas could also be spotted, fire covering it. These were no accidents but planned actions. The design was to silence opposing view. It was a foolhardy one, as events now show.

One evening, a long, snaky convoy of cars, many looted as we later discovered, moved slowly, like a serpent, towards the now barricaded American embassy. Disheveled armed fighters hung on several, like bats, with their rifles swinging. It was Councilman Charles Taylor who, as information emerged later, had gone to the Americans to warn them to keep off. This was an internal matter that would soon end. "Sovereignty!" Non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries.

All this seemed no coincidence. It was a well-planned orgy of killings and looting, and only an excuse was needed to ignite the fighting with a specific agenda.

On that day, as news spread that fighters were moving towards central Monrovia from Sinkor, where both Taylor and Kromah lived, this writer encountered a rebel commander and an ECOMOG soldier at the gates of the Ducor. 'You know the mandate', the rebel commander, certainly from Mr, Taylor's National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) shouted in an imposing and authoritative manner. "Yes sir," the soldier answered. When asked, ignoring the danger, what was the mandate, the rebel commander steered in anger, as if to say, 'You are lucky to be alive asking questions." Weeks after at the ECOMOG Base, one of Taylor loyalists would inadvertently say, "Your name is in their mouth at Taylor place every day. What you did to them so? If they see you, they will roast you alive "

More than this, Mr. Taylor, on 5 November 1995, dropped a hint that was ignored. On radio, he said he would soon bring things under control to silence his critics. His rebels had attacked the home of the late G. Baccus Matthews who referred to him as an 'Angel of Death', forcing the politician to flee for safety with ECOMOG rescue. He declared on 5 November 1995, 5 months before aligning with Kromah to "bring things under control."

"They are writing "Angels of Death." Look, I am no Angel of Death and I am going to prove it in this town. I am very serious, me, Charles Ghankay Taylor, I will prove that I am no Lord of War and I am no Angel of Death. If you don't respect this presidency, you'll respect it or I am going to lock horns with some people here one on one. They think ECOMOG here to support their nonsense and their talks. ECOMOG will not stop me. It's almost reaching now that we will make sure that different processes; due processes of law maybe, and in some cases, the laws of the jungle to bring things under control in this town. You know Charles Taylor, we will straighten things out."

That "almost reaching now" was 5 months later, and, indeed, ECOMOG could not stop him. To the contrary, there were signs of backing him. With endless convoy of armed rebels, he stormed the ECOMOG Base, where nearly all his political enemies were now hiding to find their way out of the country. That proved he was unstoppable.

Many escaped the inferno. The Bulk Challenge, an old Nigerian vessel, was leaving with heaps of looted goods, and those with money to buy tickets out of hell for anywhere had a chance. We crawled on the old ship, sitting afar from the port like a crippled Eagle, and slowly left Monrovia.

As we moved towards the direction of BTC, the city looked like the abode of the archangel of hell that in fact it was. Smoke mushroomed out of many neighbourhoods. Abandoned and dangerous, those who lived within it only counted their days. Death could come quickly, either by bullet or by hunger or the most common curable illness. Sorrows filled one's heart, even if heading into uncertainty having lost all earthly possessions. If only all could leave this cursed place for those who belong there.

Hell slowly receded from our view as the Challenge neared Bassa, but not in our memory. Tabu, Cote d'Ivoire, appeared in the darkness, but by now, we all feared another hell-death at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Crawling over mass of water, the ship now had to contend with pouring water out of its leaking ad rusty belly in which were. Panic prevailed. Tears flowed, now that death was expected after believing that it was left behind. Frantic prayers, even from fleeing rebels on board, sounded. The water. In its domain, was determined. SOS messages were sent as the Nigerian sailors wore their life jackets, enough only for themselves. The nearest SOS response came from South Africa. We would all die before any imagined rescue could arrive, if any. More prayers were needed as men and women battled the invading water on its territory in vain. Slowly, San Pedro, Cote'd' Ivoire, emerged. We fell in the loving arms of angels. Mass death was no longer feared. There at San Pedro, some of Mr. Taylor's executives were seen with off-road jeeps, at home, and in good hands.

April 6, 1996, became indelible for many of us. The more than 3000 that die cannot say that. The men who caused it prefer not to remember. But remember we must.


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