The War and the Siege Mentality: Staying Alive & Getting Out at all Costs
September 20, 2004
It was back in 1991, July. I had just returned home to work with the Interim Government and was out on Carey Street having lunch with a friend who was a Minister. When we were ready to leave, he opened his attaché-case to settle the bill. I glanced in and saw a passport, an airline ticket and US hundred dollar bills. I asked my friend if he was about to travel. He simply said "no."
"You’re carrying an airline ticket and your passport... "
He said "oh, that..." While we walked to his car, he asked him again why he was carrying his passport, an airline ticket and US dollars. He turned to me and asked where was I keeping my passport. "At the Ducor, it’s too bulky to carry around." We still had those big passports. The Minister said I should take my passport everywhere with me, adding, "you never know."
My friend explained that almost everybody in Monrovia carried their travel documents wherever they went, with whatever cash they had. This was a habit acquired by many a year earlier, when waves of rebel groups hit the city and divided Monrovia among themselves overnight, with Charles Taylor in the North, Prince Johnson on the West and Samuel Doe troops in the center of the city, with mini warlords every other block. The warring factions erected checkpoints overnight and families were divided in the process. People went to work in the morning and found themselves stranded in a different part of town. Sometime, after they left to go look for food or medicine, another group would come and take over the area and set their camp. Or sometimes, while one member of the family was absent, a rebel group would come and evict everyone from the house and move in...
In July 1991, although the West African peacekeeping force was in control of Monrovia, rebels were still very close. Charles Taylor had his first checkpoint just on the outskirts of the northern suburb of Paynesville, manned by drunken and drugged child soldiers. Prince Johnson, who had butchered Samuel Doe, was still roaming around the city, stilling carrying out summary executions on his base and threatening to walk out of the alliance with the interim government and take over the city. The remnants of Samuel Doe’s army were in BTC, the Executive Mansion and all around Camp Johnson Road, still not convinced that they had lost power. It slowly downed on me that things could break down at anytime and so I began to carry my documents and my stock of film with me everywhere, in my camera bag. The war had created a siege mentality that would stay with Liberians for years.
The fear of a new outbreak of war was also translated in another state of mind: Liberians wanted to leave Liberia at all cost. Refugee camps in Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Ghana were just temporary shelters for many, not with the view to return home but to get away, to go "abroad" and stay "abroad" until things return to normalcy. In our parlance, "abroad" means America. Almost every member of the government, with one or two exceptions, had relocated their families in the US. Some had left the US to go work in Liberia but made sure their families were safely tucked in America. Every one I spoke to instantly asked if I could help them with a visa or a passport.
When Taylor launched his Octopus Operation in 1992 to take over Monrovia, a friend who taught at the University was caught in the first wave of rebels and was executed. His wife and his daughter who had spent the night at his mother’s house on Gurley Street never saw him again and never returned to the house that was occupied by rebels for almost a month. Hundred of families were divided. The western part of the city was taken over by NPFL child soldiers who killed at will. Five American nuns who had been running an orphanage were among the victims.
ECOMOG ended up repelling the attack but I felt that it would be totally irresponsible to keep my wife and my one-year daughter under these circumstances. We packed them and they left for the US. I stayed back in Liberia.
By 1993, an American visa was the most sought after commodity in Monrovia. It seemed that the lives of many people revolved around obtaining a passport and getting a visa. Some officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs made lot of money passing out passports. Getting a visa was another hurdle. People wrote and call their friends, parents and family members in the US just to receive a letter of invitation to take to the embassy to secure a visa. Many people got married just to get out of town. After surviving the war, the next logical thing was to get out.
In refugee camps, the hope of getting on the American refugee resettlement programs that brought scores of Liberians to the US kept many in foreign lands. Families registered under different names in Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire and Guinea and traveled between the refugee camps every month to check if their names appeared in any of the camps. Those who made it to safety in the US brought in their family members.
After my family settled here, I continued to work in Monrovia. The interim government was replaced with a new transitional government that comprised the three warring factions at the time. There was still a semblance of sanity, even after the Octopus war. Then one night, my friend and neighbor Samukai who was director of police, came knocking at my door at 4:am. A group of former Doe soldiers headed by Charles Julu had seized the Mansion and said they were in control of the state. I dressed, took my passport and all the money I had and left the house.
As we drove in the deserted streets of Monrovia, we could hear sporadic gunshots. I was in the front seat of a small Toyota, with four policemen, armed to the teeth. We got to the residence of Chairman Kpomakpor. There were armed men and tanks all around. When we managed to get the ECOMOG Field Commander on the phone, he said we shouldn’t worry and that he would restore order before noon. They had been saying the same things over the years and thousands had continued to die. The sad irony was that in 1991, when ECOMOG first intervened, the number of war victims was around 37,000. By the time they left in 1997, we were talking about 250,000 dead. I had all the confidence in ECOMOG but in 1992, a month prior to the NPFL deadly Octopus we called ECOMOG Field Commander Ishaya Bakut in one of our strategy meetings and told him that Taylor was preparing an attack on the city. He laughed and said we were too paranoid and that "Taylor was not that crazy." That was my epiphany moment. I had survived, now I had to get out.
Two months later, I said goodbye to a delegation I was part of and came to the US. My friend Terry used to tell me that people who want to live don’t go to Liberia. He had made the comment back in 1985, after the Quiwonkpa coup attempt. Laura and I had gone home while I was doing research for my thesis. On the day of the coup, we took pictures of the celebration in the streets. When things turned around, every police and intelligence service was looking for us. We managed to leave, but not before being arrested and interrogated by the police. I gave them the blank film after exposing it to the light. When we returned to school in Illinois, we told the story to our friends Terry and Shelly over dinner. We also told them how our neighbor, who was a guard at the Mansion at the time, told us that he had had "a piece" of Quiwonkpa...
Now, for the first time in twenty–five years, Liberia seems to be headed for peace. But many who sought and found refuge in this country are not about to jump on the next plane. In 1997, hundreds left here to go, thinking that the war was over after Taylor got what he wanted. Lots of people want to go back home, but not before they secure their American Green Cards or American passports, just in case.
Two weeks ago, while at the Liberian embassy in DC, I met another friend who had worked at the highest level in the Liberian government just a few years ago. She was going home and she had come to get her passport stamped. She was getting a Liberian visa put on her American passport. I asked her why she was not using her Liberian passport... She looked at me and laughed, saying, "You think I am crazy."
This siege mentality, lack of confidence in the country and the fear of an outbreak at anytime are all grave psychological consequences of the war that would take a longtime to overcome. Maybe, just as the victims and perpetrators of war crimes prepare to face the Truth and Reconciliation Commission back home, Liberians in the US should also seek some form of healing, to get over the fear of their own country. Maybe then, we can go home, without waiting for an American passport or a green card and make our contribution to the reconstruction process. But, maybe and sadly so, Liberia may have lost an entire generation of talented and educated people to America.... Now, as it is written on the seal of the Republic of Liberia, we on this side of the Atlantic can now say: "The Love of Liberty Brought Us Here." And there are more on the way.