A Close War
The Liberian civil war lasted fourteen years, between 1989 and 2003. It is a conflict I came to know well when, in 2006, I taught in a school on a Liberian refugee camp in Ghana. But while I was there I never discussed with Liberians their own memories of the war. It was not my war to bring up.
I had seen images on the news of the surreal costumes—wigs, frocks and dressing gowns—that the rebels wore. The tribal loyalties that divided Liberia were events I’d only read about. In 2005 after two years of peace, Liberia elected the first female African head of state. I read Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s memoir, and understood how a peaceful human being could end up working for Charles Taylor; she believed the country’s finances were safer in her hands. I followed Charles Taylor’s trial through the BBC and Aljazeera—the despot who dictated the conflict from the forest, and intimidated Liberians into voting him into office. On screen he looked a sad, tired man; it was hard to believe he was capable of such systematic violence.
Karrus started the school on the camp where I worked—a Liberian refugee who spent eleven years in exile. We stayed friends after I left Ghana and in June 2014 I went to Liberia to see Karrus again. I was surprised when, after years of us never talking about the conflict, he shared with me his personal experiences. He was neither precious nor protective of the details. Nothing brought me closer to the war than those conversations I had with Karrus.
One conversation with him I remember clearly. It was late and we were on the porch of the guesthouse overlooking an empty concrete courtyard; the monsoon season had started and the first fat beads of rain had moved everyone inside. Karrus had a bag of mangoes that we he wanted peeled for freezing. When they are ripe you can score the skin with a thumbnail, an eyelid opening, and slide the cool yellow fruit out in one move. We did a whole carrier bag like this, watching streaks of rain flash in the beam of the hurricane lamp. He told me about Taylor’s rebels moving through the country.
“When you got to the checkpoint they’d just pick you out,” Karrus said. He put the mango in his lap and held up two fingers, like a gun. “PAPAPAPAPAP! In Careysburg they were chasing people like animals.” We had driven through Careysburg, north of Monrovia, earlier that day. A brief town almost deserted. “They shot the guy.” Karrus paused. “They shot him and he dropped like he was dead. But he didn’t die.”
Karrus had been my friend for a long time. I assumed he was somehow immune from witnessing such scenes; he always looked ahead into a bright vision of the future, and seemed eternally cheerful. But I know almost every adult Liberian has a story like this. He went on: “When he got up, they followed the blood and chased him into the forest—all the way to Kakata. It was terrible.”
We continued scoring the mangoes in silence and eventually I asked him if he was at home, in Gbarnga, when the war began in December 1989. We were due to leave for our trip to his hometown the next day and I was worried it might stir difficult memories. “I was not in Gbarnga when the war started,” Karrus said. “I was here in Monrovia and the war got to my area, I think, July 1st 1990.” The date was stamped on his mind.
Charles Taylor had been on the scene for a while by 1990, planning a coup that would remove Samuel Doe from power. Throughout the 80s Doe had governed Liberia as a dictator, persecuting and oppressing anyone who was not from the same Krahn tribe as him and fixing elections. Taylor wanted revenge, but for different reasons entirely. From 1983-1985 Taylor had been in prison in the US for stealing money from Doe’s government. He absconded to the States after being discovered, but Doe had issued his arrest warrant. After mysteriously ‘escaping’ from his maximum-security jail in Boston (he’d bribed guards), Taylor returned to West Africa. For the next five years he travelled through Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Ghana and The Gambia recruiting soldiers to help him take power from Doe, promising them riches and comradeship. Taylor—an American-Liberian—was well connected: Colonel Gaddafi had agreed to help train Taylor’s new recruits for guerrilla warfare in Libya, and The Ivory Coast’s President supplied him with arms. Houphouet-Boigny had his own grudge against Doe; he had murdered his son-in-law.
On Christmas Eve 1989 Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) invaded the country from the north through Nimba County, a central region of Liberia covered in mountainous jungle. Karrus is from Bong County, right in the centre of the Liberia—the NPFL would have arrived there soon after invading. “There is this beautiful waterfall in Bong,” he told me. “It’s the only thing the rebels could not destroy.”
Taylor was quick to establish a new band of Liberian recruits making their way to Monrovia in search of Doe’s blood. They dressed in bizarre costumes—wedding dresses, wigs—to frighten people, and to mark themselves out as rebels. Some even believed their outfits had talismanic powers, giving them immunity from danger.
1990 was a terrifying year: when the NPFL arrived at villages, men were forced to join up or murdered. Women and girls were raped. Houses burned and looted. Taylor recalls a different story: “As the NPFL came in,” he told reporters, “we didn’t have to act. People came to us and said: ‘Give me a gun. How can I kill the man who killed my mother?’” He galvanized large groups of men by opening the prisons and arming inmates. He went to orphanages and organised the notorious Small Boy Units. Images of children in oversized t-shirts holding up Kalashnikovs almost as big as they were made headlines all over the world. Drugged, they were able to kill without conscience.
On the refugee camp I had known young men who had been boy soldiers. They lived in their own community and went to rehabilitation sessions. On the allotments at the far boundary they grew cucumbers and peppers for selling door-to-door. They travelled around the camp with their vegetables for sale, showing everyone they were useful and sorry. I remember a young man called Georgie who used to visit me at home in the afternoons after I’d finished teaching. We’d play a Ghanaian game called Oware together in the shade of the overhanging roof. In Oware you drop dried beans into cups and try to take your opponent’s, leaving them with nothing. It’s a strategy game, but there is luck involved. Georgie had no family on the camp. It was just him. He wanted to be an actor, he told me, so he could tell his story to the world. The scar running from his cheek to the corner of his mouth gave a sinister context to his life.
By June 1990 Monrovia was being attacked from the east by NPFL rebels, and the west by a second group of insurgents. By September, Doe would be dead. Karrus was somewhere on the outskirts of Monrovia by this time and had been moving on as the NPFL closed in. He eventually found safety in a small district of Monrovia called Bong Mines where a German corporation was still in operation—mining iron ore and exporting it to Europe. They stayed in the city despite the encroaching violence. International companies had huge investments in Liberia, which is rich in timber and iron; they had a lot to lose by leaving.
“You know that July is a terrible time in Liberia for rain,” Karrus said. “There’s nowhere for shelter and everything just gets wet.” The rain that night sounded like far away thunder on the tin roofs across the city. He stood up and stretched, then continued: “Somewhere round here is a military barracks. We left from there and went to Careysburg. Again, trouble. So we went to Bong Mines. We were safe; we had the Germans there, we used their supermarket and we stayed in the house all day with the AC watching movies. You could go to the supermarket and come back—the rebels were around but they were not really doing anything.”
I wondered which movies Karrus watched—did he remember? I didn’t ask. Ironic, I thought, how all the drama was happening on a screen. We assume war is all about action. But in reality, off screen, it is tedious. In between bursts of combat life is halted, inert. We don’t think of war zones as boring.
Monrovia was under attack and the city had no power or running water; people began to starve. Around half of Liberia’s population was internally displaced and people were leaving the country any way they could—on buses, boats, or just running to the border. America sent a Navy rescue vessel, but only saved foreigners.
The Buduburam refugee camp, where I met Karrus, was set up by the UNHCR. It began life as a few rows of white tents, but grew bigger each day as people arrived in their hundreds. No one imagined the camp would still be there in twenty years time.
I asked Karrus what happened when the Germans left Bong Mines.
“As soon as they went the story changed,” he said. “The rebels started killing people, dogs, and looting. I think they killed because,” he paused, choosing his words carefully, “to show their power. To create fear in everyone else.”
Karrus stood to shake out the mango juice from the empty carrier bag—we had a good pile now. We rested our feet on the low wall, leaning back in our plastic chairs. The downpour had raised the drain level and a sweet stench rose up. The humidity draws smells from the earth here. Karrus explained how during the war the rebels became paranoid and started killing people over trivialities—a look, a word, as if there were no rules.
“Sometimes you are not Mandingo or Mano,” he spoke as if the war was happening right now, “but they see you are very black and say you are a criminal. They see you are wearing socks and decide you are military personnel. If they see your hair is very clean they say ‘hey! you are a recruit—you’re going to join the army to come and kills us.’ People are all wicked in different directions.”
“Not everybody is wicked,” I said.
Karrus’s phone rang, a frantic tune that cut across our conversation. He went to take the call inside and I was left alone on the porch with the piled up mangoes, watching the relentless June rain soak the city.