Today we have a guest post from Chris Hennemeyer, a man who knows more about contemporary Africa than anyone else around. Chris has worked in international aid and development for the last few decades. He’s seen the beauty and the violence of the African subcontinent up close. Here is his account of dealing with rebels in Liberia back in the 1990s. The follow up about Nigeria is here.
The Cavally was a thick, rich cafe au lait color and impressively wide for a river I’d never before heard of. I was on the Ivorian side of the border, my shoes deep in the crumbling sand of the river bank, squinting across the broad brown water at Liberia. On our side women chatted as they washed clothes in the shallows, and men sat nearby repairing fishing nets, but on the opposite shore there was no movement, only a dense wall of green, old-growth forest; soaring silk cotton trees, raffia palms, and elaborate weaves of liana vines. It was just past noon and my damp shirt clung to me like a second skin. I loosened my tie, a pointless effort in the oppressive humidity.
In 1991, Liberia was barely a quarter the way through its “first” civil war. Tens of thousands of people, nearly all civilians, had been killed by marauding bands of bizarrely costumed criminals, and many times that number had fled their homes, either for the bush or for neighboring countries. But things would get much worse before they briefly got better. In the meantime, though, they were bad enough.
Ferry to Liberia
I had left the Ivorian port city of San Pedro early that morning escorting a small convoy of three Toyota pickup trucks, each overloaded with 50 kilogram bags of relief aid rice. The 80 mile trip took nearly four hours, as the paved highway quickly began to disintegrate, finally surrendering to rough laterite. I drove the lead vehicle, dodging potholes, spinning the radio dial, and kicking up a whirlwind of dust. We passed through sleepy villages named Baba and Agnie and Weseke, leaving barking dogs and excited children in our wake before arriving at the Tabou police post, twenty miles from the border. A smart looking officer waved us to a stop, then slowly ambled over to our little caravan, exchanging greetings before politely asking for our paperwork. He puzzled over the documents for a moment, then asked “vous y’allez au Liberia?”. Yes, I replied, we’re delivering relief supplies there. He looked at us all carefully as if to underscore the gravity of his next statement, and declared “You know, they’re all crazy over there”.
The ferry consisted of some boards wired to a half-dozen old oil drums, the whole contraption normally connected from bank to bank by a frayed steel cable. Before the chaos of the war, when people still farmed and traded with one another, it would have been an important link in this remote little corner of the globe, moving woven sacks of palm kernels, greasy jugs of kerosene, plastic buckets and bowls, Flag beer by the case, and a Chinese bicycle or two, all the little luxuries of rural West African life. Now though, the cable was severed, lying uselessly in the mud. We would have to unload the pickups and transfer the rice, sack by heavy sack, into pirogues, local dugout canoes, for the journey across the river.
I sat precariously in the stern of the narrow, teetering pirogue, maintaining a delicate balance while manning my paddle, as the missionary priest and his Liberia assistant worked theirs. We moved away from the bank and into the strong current.
The cleric, an old hand in eastern Liberia, had contacted me by radio in the weeks before, pleading for humanitarian assistance for the population around Harper. Although most of the country was caught in the whirlwind of war, many places were at least receiving some aid. Harper, a once grand but now decaying old provincial town built by the freed slaves who ran Liberia for 133 years, was not among them.
Not speaking, we moved our paddles in unison; the overhead sun hot on my neck, drops of water glinting on the paddle blades, small waves slapping against the sides of the boat. Gradually, the far bank began to come into focus, a narrow stretch of sand sloping down from the jungle. It was there that we would find our welcoming committee: the local contingent of rebel leader Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia. Their support or at least tolerance would be necessary if any of the food aid we’d brought was to actually make it to the needy.
Guns and Skulls
The Cavally river begins as rainfall in the remote Nimba mountains on Liberia’s northeastern border, snaking its way through forest for over 300 miles, collecting streams and creeks along its length, before finally flinging its cargo of silt and sand, water and waste into the Gulf of Guinea. Taylor’s forces had followed a similar route when they invaded the country on Christmas Eve 1989, entering Nimba county and moving south. Initially popular, the NPFL soon set new standards for terror and brutality in warfare.
As we approached Liberia, I began to make out a half dozen or so wooden posts protruding from the beach, each topped with random splotch of wild color — one an indigo blue, the next a bright green malachite, followed by magenta, and more. It wasn’t until we were within a hundred yards that I could clearly identify them, and even then it took more than a moment to absorb. They were adult-sized skulls, neatly painted, and arranged with care atop the evenly spaced poles. In a New York city gallery, they’d have been a mordant commentary on the futility of human existence. Here they were a blunt warning, a proclamation that things are done quite differently in NPFL territory.
The new masters of eastern Liberia arrived in a motley collection of requisitioned vehicles: an antiquated pickup with the neatly stenciled name of the former Lebanese owners covered with the daubed initials “NPFL”; a shiny white Land Cruiser looted from a Catholic mission; and various Japanese sedans. What they all had in common were their hood ornaments — skulls again, strapped to the cars with bicycle inner tubes. Some were old and others relatively fresh, but this time they were unpainted. Greetings were briefly exchanged before the priest and I climbed into a car for a short drive to our meeting place.
It was dark inside the palm-thatched hut and my eyes took a moment to adjust. About thirty people were tightly packed into the small space. Most were young men or barefoot boys carrying the ubiquitous AK-47, well-used machetes tied with twine around their narrow waists. There were a few old men too, armed with rusty blunderbusses and homemade Dane guns. Magical charms were in abundance, small leather pouches tied tightly around necks or upper arms, protecting their wearers from harm by turning the enemy’s bullets to water. Not so long ago these men and boys would have been farmers, cultivating yams and cassava, tending goats and sheep, and tapping palm trees for their sweet milky wine. They watched me carefully but politely as I circulated, shaking their rough calloused hands. A pungent smell of local gin and sweat filled the room.
I may not have been the first white man they had seen in the flesh, but I was almost certainly the first one to make an appearance dressed in a blue blazer and rep. tie, and carrying a briefcase. My absurd attire was intentional though: I was playing the role of an important outsider to be taken seriously.
Their leader stepped forward to kick off the proceedings and others fell silent. He spoke in a low, almost diffident voice, introducing himself as Michael and pointedly noting that he was a “mission boy”. This meant that he had attended school at a local Christian mission and had a certain level of formal education, a true rarity in this rural place. Michael was young, no more than twenty, but he had presence. Around his broad chest was a bandolier of hand grenades and strapped to his belt was a large semi-automatic pistol. Dreadlocks hung down, nearly touching the shoulders of his tight olive green t-shirt which was emblazoned with the US Army’s recruiting slogan “Be All That You Can Be”. He looked slowly around the room with his bloodshot eyes, giving the clear impression of a man who ran a tight ship.
Liberia in those days was being torn apart by three rival groups — the NPFL, the breakaway Independent NPFL, and the government’s Armed Forces of Liberia. Each claimed to be fighting for national sovereignty and to be defending the interests of the common man, but of course this was all self-serving nonsense. In reality, they were ethnically based mafias, who used terror with an effectiveness undreamt of by traditional mobsters. Their goals had little to do with ideology; they were in this to steal as much as possible and to inflict as much pain and suffering on their enemies, perceived or real, as was possible. Whether it was the AFL in their surplus American Army uniforms or the NPFL in their homemade Halloween costumes, torture, rape, mutilation and mass murder were not incidental byproducts of the war; they were an essential part of it.
Michael was speaking in a mixture of the local Kpelle language and Liberian Pidgin English with its long, nasally vowels, and seemed to be spending a very long time emphasising the key role he and his men were playing in assuring “peace and security” in the area. Understanding very little, I nonetheless looked on with requisite seriousness, nodding my head from time to time, but in the hot airless room my mind wandered.
At that point, I’d been travelling in and out of Liberia for nearly a year, witnessing its steady descent into anarchy, and amassing a septic store of memories. There was one late night in the port city of Buchanan, where in better times cargo ships collected latex from the world’s largest rubber plantation. There I’d sat still in my room listening as AFL soldiers went house to house, beating on doors with their rifle butts, and arresting people for the crime of belonging to the wrong tribe. Wives pled and cried as their dazed husbands were loaded into a canvas-covered army truck for the trip to the capital. The lucky ones might only be stripped and beaten.
I recalled an evening in Monrovia when a slim, beautiful girl shyly pulled down the strap of her dress to show me a bullet wound, a shiny groove an inch deep between her spine and her scapula. Her eyes were damp and slightly out of kilter when she explained that the round had first passed through the baby strapped to her back before stopping.
There was madness too in the eyes of the Canadian relief worker who, on his day off, would go to the ruins of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, where on an early evening in July troops had massacred hundreds men, women and children. He would kneel there and sift through the loamy soil, murmuring a prayer whenever his fingers found another grey piece of bone.
There were other memories: watching from the deck of a rusty steamer as thick plumes of smoke rose over downtown Monrovia, and later flying into the city and seeing, as we passed over the beach, a cluster of bodies lying half in, half out of the dirty sand.
I accepted these things, because I could do nothing about them. I couldn’t fix the broken young mother or the mad Canadian, or bring back to life the bits of bone littering the countryside.
But I could make small amends, like delivering food to a few thousand hungry people. So I listened politely to rebels leader’s speech, and then made my own, thanking the assembled militiamen, one and all, for their cooperation and assistance. And in a final nod to the grotesque theatricality of the proceedings, I distributed business cards which they accepted with a touching gratitude before exiting the hut and heading back to the bush.
I’m a longtime relief worker who’s spent most of the past few decades in Africa. It’s almost killed me a few times, but I still remain tied to the place and its people. Now and then I return to the Washington DC area to say hello to my paltry belongings which are stored in my sister’s basement.
Read the follow up about Nigeria’s oil region here. Anyone interested in Chris’ work and writing can contact him via his website. In the meantime, for more warlike weirdness you can buy my books in paperback or ebook: