“I am bouncing along unpaved roads in Liberia in a little 4x4 truck between a Cameroonian lawyer to my left, my self-proclaimed African father to my right, and “R” hanging on tightly in the back, as I’m hearing about some of the worst atrocities I can imagine and carefully holding a freshly grilled plantain wrapped in notebook paper,” I thought to myself today. This was not an average weekend day. We drove far outside of Monrovia and I’m not sure where to begin in sharing with you readers the stories I heard. Like many road trips, this one seemed a natural forum for sharing, but please note these stories may not be easy to read.
As I packed my bag this morning, I tossed in a few snacks, expecting that the men on the trip would not think to do so (more tomorrow on the situation for women in Liberia). Well, “R“ proved me wrong (and yes, I’ll admit, made me quietly regret my earlier sexist assumption) when we picked him up and, with a big smile, distributed packs of ginger cookies to all aboard the truck out of town. Through mouthfuls of the crunchy snacks, someone mentioned how hungry he had been since he skipped breakfast… and the conversation turned to how “R” had been so hungry at times during the war that he could hear ringing in his ears. “Bbbzzzmmmm,” he demonstrated. He recalled that his son had just been born at that time, so when he was able to find food, he gave it to his wife for her well-being and so the baby would be able to have breast milk. Around that point in our journey, we reached a bridge over one of the many beautiful rivers in Liberia. Men in the car recalled a time during the war when food was so scarce in Monrovia that women had to swim across the river to the more lush area and swim back with food for their family on their heads. But the lush areas were where the rebels hid and, more often than not, the women were raped before they were able to return. People knew this…but they also knew that men would be killed if they went, so the women went instead. These stories prompted one passenger to ask others if they were still with the women they had been with during the war. “Oh, yes,” they said - that sort of thing is a stronger bond than any band (wedding ring), they replied.
Our driver, it turns out, had worked with the TRC, or Truth & Reconciliation Commission, collecting stories from war survivors. According to our driver, those who participated in the peace talks in Ghana that ended the war in Liberia (read: mostly warlords that committed war crimes) decided that a TRC a superior option to prosecutions to hold those who committed war crimes responsible (shocking, eh?). As we made our way over some paved and many unpaved roads, he pointed out sites of several massacres and, as we crossed a bridge, explained how people’s bodies had been severed from their heads and allowed to drop into the river while the heads were displayed along the entry to the bridge. Cutting out human hearts to display on the bridge was not uncommon either. One of the worst stories I heard today was about a woman whom rebel soldiers hung upside down and stuffed her “lily” with hot pepper “until it was full.” She survived and reported what had been done to her to the TRC. With stories like this, one has to wonder what horrible scars people have both on their bodies and in their hearts after what happened here. But that violent past is simply reality - mid-sentence about other incidents of torture, one passenger broke off to point out the window and tell me, “That’s how we make palm wine here.”
Eventually, our conversation turned to how the war crimes had come to pass. How can people do such heinous, heinous things to each other? The consensus in the truck was that those fighting had no training in any semblance of rules of engagement and, once armed, they solved old grudges with gunfire. Without commanders who took responsibility for the actions of their subordinates or punished those who wronged civilians, fighting spun out of control until you had fighters who would readily shoot a civilian for the nice shirt on their back. Add to the equation the copious amounts of drugs most fighters were taking throughout the war and you have a recipe for the disaster Mama Liberia experienced. When asked about the source of the drugs, no one knew for sure but said, matter-of-factly, that drugs always follow fighting. If only distribution of useful medications were so efficient.
Talk turned to Taylor, Sr., who one passenger called a “gruna man,” or crook. Another agreed, saying Taylor was “a wicked, wicked man,” who tried to control every aspect of his country, usurping democratic channels and using brute force to terrorize his citizens. And yet he still has supporters in this country who, based on the conversation today, liked what Taylor did for their personal finances so much they overlook what happened to the people during the wars. The idea of the man who campaigned with “He killed my ma, he killed my pa, but I will vote for him” as a slogan returning to power boggles the mind. But the consensus seems to be that people are increasingly accepting that he will not return - and neither will the terror that occurred during his administration.
I recognize that those of you who work in human rights are accustomed to all that I’ve written here, while those of you who don‘t might appreciate ending on a more uplifting note - so I’ll mention that I had the opportunity to meet a man today who is over 100 years old! He remembers figures in Liberian history from, well, nearly 100 years ago. And when one person with our group tried to translate points of historical reference into American terms, saying, “He would be like your JFK,” another dismissed him saying, “No, no, that would be 1963, this is more like the Taft era.” Wow. The knowledge of American history far outside of the US never ceases to amaze me. I’m also attaching some pictures to give you a sense of the beautiful sights around this area of the country.
Check back in regularly for updates from Piper as she's in the field. Also - be sure to mark your calendars for November 30th at 4pm, when Piper will host a conference call to talk about her trip to Liberia and the upcoming trial against Chuckie Taylor. Be sure to post any questions you have for Piper in advance!