Voices for Liberia's Mass of Faceless Prisoners
By Tom Kamara
August 28, 2000
President Charles Taylor's staged performances beamed as news
by many visiting journalists to Liberia are being slowly unveiled
by the weeklong detention and subsequent release of four members
of the British Channel 4 television team. Moved by fury that his
usual dose of rehearsed performance would be fruitless this time,
President Taylor grabbed the journalists and threw them in some
of his dungeons, thus inadvertently opening the doors to view
The journalists' arrests, however inept, was a positive factor for many victims of abuses because many journalists parachuted into Monrovia have been telling us only the obvious - terrible economic condition, escalating corruption, unpaid, undisciplined soldiers feeding on foreigners, the luxury in which Taylor and his cronies are swimming in, etc. But none, including the celebrated Africa hand, Robin White, who deals with Taylor and his team on a first-name basis (and who just returned from Monrovia after providing a platform for Taylor's marathon denials of Sierra Leone diamond theft) told us about the hundreds of men decaying in prisons without the knowledge of their families in this "country of laws, not of men." Yes, Liberian human rights activists and the press have been hinting Taylor's Gulags but their frail voices are lost on the deaf international audience. In today's world, the believable and powerful voices of foreign journalists or international human rights campaigners are heard and taken seriously, not those of the victims themselves. For that matter, if the Channel 4 team had completed their job, the real image of today's Liberia, reported by believable foreign eyes, would have emerged. This was not done, but the curtain of horror was partially drawn for us to get a glimpse of inside Taylor's Liberia, his promised democracy in prosperity for which he killed 250,000 people.
Foreign press reports quoting the released men tell us the "hellish" conditions in Liberia. Although the men never got outside the confines of the capital Monrovia to see how hellish hell actually is, they are telling the world about their encounters in the city prisons.
"There were four international journalists who were banged up and the entire world came to their aid. Let me tell you, we met hundreds of people who today are still in those jails, whose families don't even know they are there. And they don't have a hope", says Tim Lambon, one of the journalists.
"When you're forced out into the middle of the night by
15 to 20 goons cocking AKs, slapping you, stealing things from
your pockets - the thought occurs that it would make a great story
if these four journalists were trying to escape and their bodies
were found in the morning."
"You have to pay to go to the toilet, you have to pay to come out of your cell, if you don't have that kind of money, you don't get water and you don't get food," the BBC quoted Lambon as saying.
"This guy was brandishing a knife," said Samura. "He said he was going to split open my heart, cut it out and eat it. He said he would write 'Cry Samura' with my blood." He added that, "These guys outside were all cocking their guns lying down. They started beating us and pushing us out into the dark. I thought that was it."
This is just a side attraction of what the men saw in Liberia in one or two of the city prisons. The dungeons and anarchy in rural Liberia would have told a far more horrifying story. But reading the men's brief experiences, and as a graduate of all prisons in Monrovia, I can attest to the fact that Samuel Doe's prisons were far more humane. We didn't have to pay to use toilets and no one stole from us. We shared our food with grateful guards who smuggled in messages to us from friends and families. Yes, there were threats, but no one told us they would eat our hearts. The guards we encountered during the reign of the military junta were normally decent people who had a job to do.
The Sierra Leonean journalist Samura talked about the need for Africans to tell their own stories. He said one of Channel 4's objectives in Liberia was to provide this opportunity, departing from established norms of a white face telling and interpreting the problems and dreams of African victims, surrounded by hungry, emaciated, traumatized dark skins. But whatever the good intentions, foreign voices lend seriousness and credibility to victims' plight, even if some of the voices are singing the wrong songs, as was the case when the BBC West Africa correspondent, after the Liberian elections, ruled that because Taylor is an Americo-Liberian, Liberia will be "great" once again if Americo-Liberians line-up behind him. Had the man known the common historical facts about Liberia, he would have saved himself the embarrassment of such tribal-based analysis because Americo-Liberians, less than 5% of the population, from 1822 to 1980, left the footprints of poverty, illiteracy and underdevelopment that contributed to the conflict. He would have known that "greatness" does not fall from the domination of one tribe over others.
But the magnanimous idea of Africans telling their own stories may all be a welcomed change of heart because even in an African country like South Africa, blacks are still largely marginalized within the media, according to a recent report. In Cape Town, I was disappointed to note that the number of whites attending a seminar and discussing issues related to Africa far exceeded Africans. But this was understood since, as usual, the whites organized and paid for the event.
However, carrying an African voice can be an incapacitating stigma, as Samura discovered in Liberia when he was singled out by Taylor's Ton Ton Macoutes for the most brutal treatment. This emphasizes the constraints of African journalists telling their own stories without the helping-hand of powerful white dominated media entities. For instance, if a local journalist telling his own story is accused and executed on dubious charges, rest assured that Jesse Jackson or the other world figures responsible for the Channel 4 journalists' release wouldn't be heard. You are just one of the hundreds of faces encountered in the prisons. The next constraint is that you have no platform for letting your story known. Mass death, summary executions, arbitrary arrests make no more news when the victims are Africans. The Washington Post journalist Keith B. Richburg, an African-American (he detests the "African" hyphenation) who is grateful that his ancestors became slaves so that he was spared the terror of being an African, in his acclaimed book "Out of Africa", described a scene of killings in South Africa: "This was after all Africa, and crimes similar to this one happened every day--more nameless, faceless victims for the tally sheets".
Amongst Richburg's discomfort and anger with Africa was the fact that he was always treated as an African, not an American. At airports or security points, he noted with bitterness, he would be singled for scrutiny and disrespectful treatment while his white colleagues were treated gingerly. Of course, the poor African security officers could not see "American" written on his face. They saw Africa because of the color of his skin and treated him as an African. This is a common denominator for Africans in Africa. En route from Abidjan to Accra, the conductor of the Ghana State bus company decreed for three African passengers to share a seat meant for one, while a Phillipino woman was crowned as our "queen", sitting in a large seat in front of the bus with the accompanying courtesies. Protests were meaningless because they meant you were thrown out with no possibility of getting another bus. Moreover, many of the passengers, majority of them Ghanaians, were quite pleased with the arrangement.
Liberia's curse is that from the onset of its horrors, powerful voices contributed in concealing the inhumanity now continuing. Weak and unknown voices crying for help could not compete with the thunderous voices of the Jimmy Carters, Jesse Jacksons, Donald Paynes, etc. telling the world the enlightenment that awaited in warlord politics. The world believed these voices! After almost a decade of brutal war, Liberians, brutalized, humiliated, and impoverished, had lost hope and confidence in themselves. It was therefore no accident that those responsible for some of the most ghastly atrocities in recent African history backed by powerful outside voices, were rewarded, instead of being prosecuted. In places where people count, places like East Timor or Kosovo, a policy of retribution, bringing the architects of injustice to justice, was enacted to give victims confidence in the law and government, which meant laying the foundations for a future with compassion. Since such justice in Liberia meant empowering the unjust, the perpetrators of the horrors have no remorse for their crimes. Asked if Liberians have forgiven him for his atrocities against them, Taylor boldly responded that he has forgiven them for depriving him the presidency earlier. After that, over mass but feeble protests from his victims, he demanded $26 million as payment for his war against them.
Voices of Liberian human rights groups have been yelling in the wilderness for three years, hoping for someone to listen to their ordeals. But it took the voices of the British television Channel 4 crew for international human rights groups, ever mindful of the "CNN Effect", to focus on Liberia.
After the foreign voices fade away, and very soon, the hundreds of prisoners languishing in Taylor's prisons will be forgotten, just as the execution of 300 Krahns in 1998, along with series of the summary executions of political opponents and their families, have all been forgotten. Scores of Mandingoes have been arrested, tortured and executed. But the world awaits evidence because Taylor, as usual, finds it convenient denying everything against him. Because Liberians are incapable of producing photos of executions and transcripts of Taylor giving the orders, their voices cannot be accepted as facts. Individuals honored by international human rights groups have been converted and have discovered the saintliness of Taylor, even urging the international community to awash him with money for his deeds.
The powerful voice of former President Jimmy Carter assured Liberians in 1997 that such things during Taylor's presidency were "inconceivable." The Rev. Jesse Jackson said that "he's not" encouraging the war and diamond theft in Sierra Leone. Whatever our wishes, these voices will continue speaking for us while sowing the seeds of our misery.