A First Row Seat to Watch the Madness of the Liberian War
By Abdoulaye W. Dukulé
February 27, 2006
Among the many books written about Liberia and the war, the recent publication by William G. Nyanue titled WITNESS, The Hand Of God in the Liberia Civil War stands out as a must-read. If there is ever a case where the line between reality and art is blurred, this book passes the test. As Tiawan Gongloe said in his review, “no Liberian before now has so artfully connected his personal experience in the Liberian conflict to the experiences of others in such great detail and a way that illustrates our interdependence as people.” Mr. Gongloe says: “this book is a both a powerful source of memory of the Liberian civil war and an effective instrument for national reconciliation.” (2)
In my many decades as student of literature and literary critic, rarely have I read a book from cover to cover without ever putting it down. In this case, for five hours, there was nothing else in the world but to get to the next line, turn the next page and jump into the next chapter. Every sentence, every page, every chapter takes the reader into a new dimension, revealing a new aspect of life as the road into the national collective madness that Liberia went through in 1990 unraveled.
Is this a novel? Is it a historical document? It could certainly be the script to the one movie, if there was ever to be one, about the Liberian civil war, and it contains every element that makes a great screen story.
The book – the novel – or whatever one may want to call it - is infinitely filled with details, realistic description and a keen attention to the social atmosphere as slowly Monrovia, the capital city descents into the abyss, after the rest of the nation.
What makes a story universal is sometimes its most personal aspect.
The story begins in the US, where the narrator had just completed a study course and is ready to head home, where his family awaits him. On the eve of his departure, many compatriots warn him about the war that had just begun and creeping towards the capital city, Monrovia. Some compatriots, who had just come to the US from Liberia, reassured him that everything was all right and that the rebels would never reach the city. Another reason why he could not stay way was his family left behind. Upon his return home, he noticed that the war had become the story on everyone’s lips and mind, although it was still confined to the countryside. “From all we knew the rebels would not reach Monrovia, but what if they did? The news about their killing the Krahns and Mandingos was everywhere, and most people seem to think it was ok. Will we survive if by any chance the rebels to capture Monrovia [page 8]? “
The story starts slowly, like in a movie, when the camera pans a city, seizing its mood and its landscape before focusing on particular characters.
The narration goes from the family to circles of friends, from the household to the workplace and to finally focus on the main characters of the story that takes shape in the midst of a decaying city. “Monrovia was now on the brink of anarchy. Every morning the local newspapers were full of stories about missing persons and pictures of decapitated bodies. People went … to the government hospital to identify bodies of friends and or relatives who were killed the night before (page 14).”
Very quickly, the narrator plunges the reader into the chaos of the war. A frantic attempt begins to find safety, to escape a steamroller. The war was advancing inexorably. Fear becomes palpable under every word. The narrator feared for his life and that of his family but around him, others seem to welcome the rebels, because, it seemed that “rebels only killed Krahns and Mandingos.” The walls of the city were closing in on them, with nowhere to go.
Finally, after much hesitation, the narrator and his family leave the heart of the city, just to be stranded somewhere, on a religious compound, a few miles from government troops and almost at the mercy of rebels who invade the compound at will, taking away food and furniture. The “hiding place” becomes a reflection of the disorder that has engulfed the nation. The war that was coming to them was one that killed people because they carried a certain name, because they spoke a certain dialect, or simply because, at one point in their lives, they had decided to take for companion someone of a certain ethnic group. It was a genocide in the making, and the narrator and his family were on the wrong side of the tribal make-up. Victims. They were marked for death. Their friends knew it; their co-workers knew it and the whole nation had accepted the “guilty by association” syndrome.
Charles Taylor and his forces were advancing towards Monrovia to unseat Samuel K. Doe and his government. In their move, they killed everything and anyone that was linked to Samuel Doe, by tribe or by function. The narrator was both. He was a Krahn like Doe. He was a manager in a state enterprise. That was more than a death sentence. He had a car. His wife had a job. His children went to a good school. In 1990 Monrovia, every single one these facts were tantamount to facing the firing squad. But there no firing squad in 1990 Liberia, angry drugged and drunken child soldiers had given names to their cutlasses. To save bullets, they cut throats, on the highway and made necklaces with the teeth of their victims, most of them the same tribes.
Like everyone else believed, they thought the war a political struggle between Charles Taylor and Samuel Doe. A big illusion they kept, until down the line, somewhere, they heard a description of the “rebels’: “They were nice, harmless people, killing only the Krahns, Mandingos and government officials” (page 32). The problem is that the narrator fit two of the conditions, he was Krahn and he as a government official, it did not matter that he was a technocrat and had just earned a graduate degree in America.
It would take months for the narrator to cover the 35 miles distance between Monrovia and Harbel. During those trying moments, they miraculously survived rebels, who killed anyone who they suspected to be Krahn or Mandingo, or even for working for the government as a messenger or a driver. The description of some scenes gives a sense of the madness that came along with a war that seemed to have no other objective but to kill. “We learned later that evening that there was a man on Duport Road who could smell the Krahns and the Mandingos…” But in the end, against all odds, the narrator and his family survive, passing through the checkpoints, stepping on the threshold of death every minute that went by.
When God the Savior intervenes in our lives
Throughout the long journey, the narrator makes constant reference to the Scriptures. The titles of the chapters are in many ways biblical references, beginning with “The Hiding Place” (Chapter 2), it goes on with “Beginning of Sorrow” (Chapter 5), “In the Den of Lions” (Chapter 6), “In the Shadow of Death” (7), “Through the Valley of Death” (8) an end with “The Escape”.
The Biblical references are closely intertwined with the faith that carried the narrator and his family through the journey. God and the Scriptures lead every step in this long and treacherous road to safety. Even attempting to comprehend the nature of the wrath that has fallen on the nation comes through religious interpretation, such “we debated whether the war was a punishment from God,” a question many Liberians asked throughout the decade long national nightmare. And the narrator’s wife, finally got her own answer in a dream when a man approached from her nowhere and told her: “Do you want to know the cause of the war? Read Isaiah Chapters 9 and 10”(Page 35).
Religion becomes not only the shield that protects the narrator and his family, it is also the cement that binds together people from various backgrounds, who would have hatred each other, had it not been their relation to the Bible. Religion becomes the only element of sanity, the only trustworthy bind in a society where every tangible value of the past was breaking down.
It is no surprise, indeed, that it was religious leaders who finally rose above the political madness and came together in what became known as the Interfaith Mediation Committee and chartered a way out of the war.
Besides religion, ethnicity is an underlying theme of the book. The fact the rebels knowingly only killed Mandingos and Krahns is an important factor of the war. This aspect of the war, bordering on ethnic cleansing or genocide has been rarely discussed. Throughout the story, the narrator comes close to death on many instances and miraculously survived. He had committed no crime and he was not a politician. His only problem was to have been born in a certain ethnic group.
The killing of the Mandingos and Krahns during the war, with at times entire villages set ablaze and innocent people hacked to death because of their tribal origin is not different from what happened in Rwanda, Bosnia or during the Holocaust.
Many who speak of the atrocities of the war rarely address this aspect. If Liberians are ever to revisit the conflict, a central point must be the discussion of the indiscriminate killing of thousands of people whose only crime was to be born in a certain tribe. Liberians danced and drank and lived merely, especially in Monrovia while awaiting the arrival of Charles Taylor, as long as the killing concerned only Mandingos and Krahns.
Maybe the slowness or even the lack of enthusiasm to deal with the atrocities of the war comes from the fact that except for accidental death, most victims of the war in the early stages were members of the two tribes. The Krahns because they shared the guild of the dictatorship of Samuel Doe and the Mandingos, because they were and are still considered by many Liberians as “foreigners.”
The Way Forward: Reconciliation
With the end of the war and the election of a new government, comes the issue of “how to move forward,” how to “burry the dead,” “how to punish or forgive” those who committed atrocities against innocent people. After the story of the war and the escape from hell, the narrator turns his attention to the aftermath and very quickly, he adopts reconciliation above punishment. This is because he believes, like many do, that the atrocities of the war were caused by the brutality of the Samuel Doe regime. But the brutality of that brought that regime to power was also caused by more than a century of humiliation and exploitation of one class of people above all others in the nation.
The debate about how Liberians can find peace with each other is one that would go on for a long time. There are many angry people in the small nation, as the narrator put it and moving forward and deciding on the type of reconciliation would demand the participation of all Liberians. The narrator provides his own recipe and it will be one of the many possible ways of starting a national dialogue. The recent confirmation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission makes this book a text of actuality.
The narrator and his family have faced death and humiliation in so many instances and should be angry like many other Liberians. But where would anger take a nation that has already self-destructed, seems to be the question the narrator asks?
“What Liberia needs is not just an opportunity to heal the wounds of war, but a candid discussion about why a country of over 150years old is such a woeful failure and we so easily self-destructed, (page 192.” The answer could be found in a statement of Cllr. Tiawan Gongloe, who said that, and we paraphrase, that the foundations on which the nation was built were shaky or faulty.
The greatest challenge of the newly formed Truth and Reconciliation Commission will be to go beyond the superficial aspect of the conflict and dig deeply in to the wounds that caused so much harm. Beneath the apparent “craziness” of drunken and drugged child soldiers, lies a power struggle that has to do with economic and political domination and land issues, from Nimba to Grand Geddeh and to Lofa. There was a conscious decision to get Mandingos out of Nimba and Lofa and other places where they had developed land and properties. They were a conscious decision to eliminate every living Krahn person. Therefore, Truth and Reconciliation may not be the only way to deal with the ugly past. Because as we read William Nyanue, there is an ongoing battle for land in many places where Mandingos were forced out of their homes and farms.
This book is certainly one of the best accounts of the Liberian civil war. It must be on the reading list of anyone wanting to understand how Liberia got where it was. And in the end, it also suggests how that nation could heal itself.