Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Love of Liberty Brought Us Here


Maryam Sakeenah

The proud façade of Liberia’s historical monument overlooks war-ravaged Monrovia, reading, in bold white lettering: ‘The Love of Liberty Brought Us Here.’ The city around struggles to keep a tenuous peace after decades of a civil war that ravaged the country. The irony of the words painted on the interface is stinging.
For, Monrovia today is deeply scarred with the aftermath of a terrible, long-drawn war. Refugees living in extreme poverty, most of them shelterless women and war orphans inhabit the many refugee camps and UN shelters. ‘The war has been bad,’ says a social worker here, ‘It has done great damage among us. It’s terrible having no home, no food. People are scattered like that all around.’
The civil war started by rebel leader and former president Charles Taylor has now abated and one finds UN blue helmets everywhere. But peace in Liberia came too late, after the war had raged on for over a decade with the international community especially the US_ that Liberia considers itself closely allied to_ not stepping in to stem the violence despite the nation’s desperate appeals. When peace finally was made possible, there was little left to save.
Liberia, historically symbolizing the liberation and freedom of Africa and being born out of the American Dream, has suffered. A young Liberian student whose family was lost to him in the war says as horrible memories resurface in his mind, “We forgive them for all that happened, but we cannot forget. For the damage it has done to us is all around us, everywhere.”
The war’s toll has been enormous. One wonders, how did it come to this? Especially, when one considers Liberia’s close kinship with the U.S and the long history of association and strong ties with the country. The bond the two nations historically shared is very palpable on the street. One finds teenagers going about wearing shirts carrying the U.S flag, bandanas and baseball caps. Some of them carry telling messages: ‘Be thy brother’s keeper’, a Biblical dictum thoughtlessly cast aside in the cold, hard, all-too-real arena of international relations. “We are born out of America,” says a reflective middle-aged Liberian, “and our education is strictly from America.” Others wonder why with the U.S and all it stands for so vital in that society, the expected intervention of the U.S was so belated, so half-hearted. A sentiment of disillusionment bordering on anger is certainly perceptible. “We want to know why America didn’t help_ we are part of America, and our people died,” says a young Liberian. A tearful woman, being one of the few fortunate ones airlifted into safety by U.S helicopters_ having the privilege of U.S citizenship_ is very vocal about the American policy, “They should have just stepped in and taken over_ everybody expected them to.”
The question turns baffling when one compares it to American intervention in the Middle-East, Iraq and Afghanistan. Expectant, desperate, bleeding Liberia, one finds, happened to be outside the area of America’s newfound strategic interest. An expert on African affairs insightfully remarks: “Liberia has been America’s abandoned mistress. Throughout the thirties, forties, fifties, sixties and seventies, it was essential to what the Americans wanted, but with the emergence of new interests, it was abandoned and neglected. The message Liberians got to hear was that in this world there are no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests_ a message hard to take, indeed.”
The pieces fall into place as one goes back into Liberia’s past. It all began with America’s slave trade on the West coast of Africa. For years, the slave in America’s plantations struggled under oppression and cruelty. In 1791, bolstered up by the new spirit of freedom in independent America, the slaves sought their chance to turn the tables. There were slave revolts in which angry slaves killed their white masters and won emancipation. It sent waves of fear in the minds of slave owners who felt that those still struggling under slavery might emulate the practice, encouraged by freedom granted to slaves in the northern territories. The apprehension resulted in the formation of the American Colonization Society_ a conglomeration of U.S diplomats, abolitionists and terrified slave owners who decided that freed slaves, instead of being allowed to remain creating desire for freedom in the still enslaved blacks, should be shipped off to West Africa. Ostensibly, they would be repatriated as free citizens in a free African society, thus reducing dangers of slave revolt and spreading the ‘civilizing influence of Christianity to the black continent.’
The blacks had considered freedom in a society that had not accepted their humanity as incomplete. To them, the offer of repatriation to Africa was like ‘God’s Promise’ of final emancipation and a return to the ‘motherland.’
This was, by far, a rosier view of things. The slave settlers on the West African coast brought with them the experience of slavery under Americans. Most of them had been second, third or fourth generation Africans in America and had by then readily internalized the American experience. Here in the African wilds, they could not mingle with mainstream indigenous African life and culture, and looked down upon its rawness as barbaric. They considered the coercive civilization of Africans as a noble mission and carried it out with missionary zeal. More importantly, American supervision and scrutiny of the lives of these settlers remained strict and close. Reports of the conduct of their personal lives were sent home to ensure the settlers lived there as sufficiently American, sufficiently Christian. It is also significant that in building up the place, the settlers devotedly followed the American pattern, naming places after those in America and even copying Western architecture.
Gradually, the settlers rose to a hierarchy of exploiters and oppressors to the locals. It created sharp schisms in the society, and the civil war can be traced down to this bad start. Through the subjugation of indigenous people and their culture, the settlers tried to establish a central ruling elite committed to the making of a ‘Little America’ for the dissemination of civilized, liberal, democratic values, with heavy financing from the U.S.
In this new social order, the locals were as second class citizens at best, under a black ruling elite who carried in themselves the colonizer’s attitude, unleashing a sort of neo-colonialism with black-skinned Americo-Africans at the forefront.
Twenty years later the settlers declared the formation of ‘Liberia’_ an ‘independent African republic.’ It was hailed with fanfare as it was the only black republic in Africa and became a sort of symbol of African independence and freedom, thus the name ‘Liberia.’
The capital was named ‘Monrovia’ after U.S president James Monroe who had facilitated the neo colonization with heavy financing. The flag was a replica of the U.S flag, as was the government seal. The constitution was drawn up according to the American constitution, idealizing American values and the culture of liberality, freedom and democracy. Quite significantly, any reference to the locals and their rights was entirely absent.
The senate and the government was supported and financed by leaders of the Western world. However, soon the democracy transformed into an exploitative oligarchy which started coercively sending indigenous blacks to America and the European countries for little or no wages, never to return home. It was slavery de facto, but never stated as such. The settler elite made money out of the trafficking while the League of Nations feebly objected. Even at home in Liberia, rubber plantations grew, worked by indigenous blacks in conditions much the same as under the American slaveowners. Rubber turned into Liberia’s ‘gold’ as the growing automobile industry in the U.S created billionaire tyre magnates like Harvey Firestone.
Fast forward to World War II. The Liberian army faithfully served the U.S to guard the African coastline and beat back suspected attacks by the Axis powers. In the cold war years, Liberia again played faithful anti-communist ally and virtually became a ground in Africa for anti-communist propaganda with the Voice of America and the CIA setting up their headquarters here.
On the homefront, Liberia had by now grown steadily to become a two-tiered society. Given its firm fidelity to American Capitalism there was a Westernized, moneyed elite at the top, subjugating a poor indigenous population. This was aggravated by ongoing political turmoil and exploitation by repressive and corrupt military coup leader Samuel Doe’s regime in his desperation to hold on to his unpopular rule and weakening power. As Doe ensured American support by his virulent anti-communism propaganda, dollars flowed in to help Doe safeguard against an imagined ‘possible communist threat.’ President Reagan announced, ‘A firm bond unites us with Liberia.’
The money flowing in was used up by the Doe government officials and cronies resulting in extravagant ways of the corrupt elite. The man on the street was forgotten and as disillusionment and deprivation turned into anger and frustration, Doe resorted to terror and violence as his defence, particularly directed at the tribes enemy to his own. As Doe armed tribes for terrorizing the other, the ugly face of violent tribalism raised its head.
As the country seeped deeper into turmoil and the communist threat dissipated in the early 1990s, the U.S significantly disengaged itself from Liberia. Doe felt threatened and insecure without the U.S, and wide opposition brewed up. Desperately, the president clung on tighter to terror tactics.
Enter Charles Taylor, a charismatic U.S-educated rebel leader who vowed to start a destabilizing armed struggle against the unpopular president. Financing his war with smuggled money from neighbouring Sierra Leone’s diamond mines, Taylor adventured with shocking war tactics. He whipped up massive support of the youth, cleverly recruiting young boys in his rebel army by promising them an AK-47, a baseball cap and a tee-shirt, and a hope that with these they could get all they needed. Golding’s insane world of savage boys in the wild materialized as reckless teenaged boys armed with guns sold themselves to the civil war.
After the rebels gunned down Doe, Charles Taylor was installed as president, quickly followed by a massively rigged election; but the violence and furore he had ignited went on unabated. The trends set by Taylor were quickly taken up by emboldened tribal warlords who did not accept Taylor’s regime. The rebellion against the government was, in fact, a venting out of long bottled-up frustrations for repression of the indigenous people. The civil war widened itself, now directed against Taylor himself_ it became an all-consuming fire, a madness gripping Liberia and shattering it forever. As the country desperately appealed to the U.S to save it from itself, American helicopters came to airlift U.S citizens, but the toll on human lives continued to rise. Whitehouse diplomacy said loud and clear: “Liberia to us is like any other country. We have no real interest there.” James Bishop, a former U.S diplomat reflects: “Liberians assisted us in our worst times, when we were in need, and frankly, we have let them down in their time of greatest need. They look up to the U.S as one might to a godfather or a godmother, but we have been negligent godparents.”
In the absence of help from the international community, it was the Union of African Nations led by Nigeria that rallied to the nation’s plea. The peacekeeping soldiers were hailed as heroes and saviours by the suffering population and their presence created the conditions for a ceasefire and hopes of a return to stability dawned. The U.N eventually moved in with its peacekeeping battalions too. Peace has returned to Liberia, but it is not only tenuous but much too delayed, for the great damage far outdoes the healing.
The toll of the civil war has been humungous. The country’s infrastructure seems to be in tatters, almost literally, but that is by far the least of the war’s corrosion. It has been a tragedy of enormous proportions to the society. A whole generation of Liberian youth were robbed off their humanity, turned into reckless killing machines, brain-controlled and trained to obey power blindly. More than 70% of the rebel soldiers were under 18, committing unspeakable atrocities on their own people. A ruddy-faced teen rebel explains: “We kept ourselves high on drugs. It made us free. Kind of overbrave, for nothing then moves you. You can kill and laugh all day.” These distorted, perverted specimens of human nature are the worst, the irreparable scars of war.
The boy-rebels, long separated from families and having no homes to return to, lived on the thrill, the adventure of shoot-and-kill. Some of them hardly know why they did it. A twelve year old rebel smilingly tells: “I fought cos I like it. No, I am not too young as you may think, for I can kill.” Some have emotional reasons: “I fought Charles Taylor for he killed my family.” Others insist they are not without cause. A young rebel asserts: “Liberians suffered. And I want to tell everyone that we did not fight a foolish war, but a war to liberate Liberians, okay?”
Yet, beneath the touted bravado of the boy rebels lurks deep sadness, the tragedy of their lives criminally toyed with. ‘Dirty Rebel,’ as he likes to call himself, was a rebel group leader proud of his killing track-record. In the days the war was on full swing, he shared private views with journalists at a run-down inn: “The gun is my mother and my father. When I am hungry, it can get me food, and when I am sick, it gives me medicine. So as for now, this is my mother and father. When I in school, I won’t kill, but in the war when I have the gun I do many things that make me to feel bad. Sometimes I cry when I sit alone, but when I am like this with other children who do the same things, I don’t feel bad. During this war, I killed many people… so I will ask for forgiveness. After I turn this gun over, I will register and go to school, and I will not think about killing no more. Yeah.” Today, lots of boys in rags, sunken-eyed and bony, walk about as eye-soring remnants of the war; most have limbs amputated, and have no families or home.
On the other side are the victims with bitter memories, poverty and homelessness to live with. The worst struck are the orphans, widows and the many women raped by marauding rebel soldiers, mostly in gangs. 17 year old Emilia, gang-raped and mother of a three year old recounts her tale: ‘They killed my brother before my eyes and asked me to bury him…I feel very deep sad, sometimes I feel like I am dead too.” But young Emilia has risen from the ashes and aspires to become a counsellor for raped women and a journalist to tell the world her side of the story. “I encourage the people to share their experiences so that the world knows how we feel.”
Hawa, the only survivor of her family, brutally gang-raped has still not recovered from her trauma. “They open the door and came in, threatened to kill if I hollered. The pain was in my body… I bear it. So other one go, other one come. My body was hurting, I couldn’t even get up… and two of them were children. They just used me in ugly ways. I feel bad. I can’t just laugh cos God faces me and asks me to laugh. My heart break in half. I don’t have a home, I don’t have a man. I think God wanted me to stay with them, but I don’t have nobody.”
Yet, in the darkness and the pain, courage, hope and faith survive still. Mariama Brown, a voluntary social worker who herself suffered greatly in the war has adopted 13 war orphans and runs a refugee shelter, counselling and healing hundreds of suffering women. With her characteristic candour, she says, “Women like Hawa are the reason why I started this centre. I said to myself, I have to go for this, I have to learn to counsel these women, and learn to treat victims of rape. We are building a little community, and I feel good for that. My strength comes from those I serve. They are happy, rejoicing, smile on their faces. I feel so good now, so happy, and when I go home, I can sleep deep like a drunken woman.”
Out of history’s wounds, the morass of ‘civilization’, policy, diplomacy, interest, exploitation, tribalism, the missionary zeal for Westernization, power and the ‘love of liberty’, it is the indomitable spirit of selflessness, humanity, large-hearted charity, love, hope and faith that heals; it is this that stands tall and endures above all.