Rebuilding Liberia, one brick at a time.

Author:Ackerman, Ruthie
Position:REPORTAGE
 
FREE EXCERPT

Eleven months after Ellen Johnson Sirleaf took office as Africa's first female president, I headed to Liberia to report on her inaugural year. The horrors of Liberia's recent history were quite clear to me, but not the magnitude of the task before her, until my plane began its nighttime descent into Monrovia's airport. I looked out the window, seeking lights from the runway or the capital below. Instead there was utter blackness. At that moment, I wondered if all of Liberia was blanketed in darkness--if even when the sun rose, night would still hover over this beleaguered nation.

President Sirleaf's unlikely political ascendency seemed to cap a hopeful rebirth for the accursed country. When I arrived in December 2006, it was still healing from civil wars that ran almost-unceasingly from 1989 to 2003. Over the course of 14 years, murderous warlords supported by Sierra Leone and Gambia fought government forces and each other. Both sides unleashed child soldiers and inflicted wanton violence on the civilian population, killing an estimated 200,000 people and driving 850,000 more into bedraggled refugee camps in neighboring countries. Some three years after the warring sides laid down their arms, nearly 15,000 blue-helmeted UN peacekeepers were still there, ensuring that violence didn't flare up again and supporting vital humanitarian aid projects. The capital, Monrovia, was still shattered. Poverty was endemic. Running water and electricity did not exist.

Yet when I landed, I soon saw glimmers of hope. Hours after my arrival, I sat outside St. Peter's Lutheran Church. The pavement was illuminated by flickering candles and a group of women were dancing barefoot, their heads covered in white scarves. As the sound of the music died, the Rev. Katurah Cooper spoke, reminding the women that she knew them when they were "skin and bones," when "things were so tough we didn't have time to think about what our hair was doing."

These were the women who suffered through Liberia's two civil wars, spanning some 14 years, and came out the other side, helping elect Sirleaf to office. The nation seemed headed in the right direction. New markets were being built, policy forums were held for civil society leaders, and children who only knew war were now going to school. On the road between the U.S. Embassy and the Mamba Point Hotel--between hors d'oeuvres set out on silver platters and beers at the hotel bar--I saw a girl, eight years old at the most, studying her multiplication tables in the dark outside a makeshift market. Alone, with the distractions of a pickup soccer game and drunken men all around her, she found the determination to better herself. To me, this young girl symbolized the hopes of a new Liberia, where everyone is entitled to a secure future.

Yet, in the midst of all of this progress was the other Liberia--indeed, the other Africa--where former combatants still wait to attend the rehabilitation programs promised to them at the end of the war in 2003, and where amputees who lost limbs during the fighting limp through downtown Monrovia begging for change to feed their families. Many now live on the beach or in abandoned government buildings, their families and houses long gone. Even the lucky ones, who had gone through rehabilitation after disarming, find it difficult to get jobs in a defunct economy. Or they find rehab inadequate--too few teachers, resources, or opportunities to be of any use at all. The end result is a whole generation of Liberians left not only with a broken country, but with a shattered future, endangering the fragile peace that the Sirleaf government is trying to maintain.

Now, some three years into Sirleaf's tenure as president, the burning question remains how to reconcile these two Liberias: how to encourage its citizens to respect human security and become a law-abiding people after 14 years of war, violence, and horrendous crimes; how to build a nation from what was once a cancer in the midst of a war-torn region of West Africa. The answer may lie in demonstrating that the government's top priorities are justice and accountability. To heal the wounds of war, Liberians want to see that those responsible for atrocities are punished and the victims repaid.

But no one said it's going to be easy.

No Seats at the Table

The opening ceremony of the Liberian peace talks took place on June 4, 2003, in Accra, the capital of Ghana. This was not the first time Liberia's rebel leaders agreed to enter peace negotiations. At least 15 other peace agreements had been signed since the war began. None of them stuck. While women civil society leaders attended the negotiations to fight for a greater peace that would encompass all of Liberia and the entire West African region, rebel leaders sought only power for themselves and their cronies.

Although women (and children) are the most brutally victimized in most African wars, they are often not considered stakeholders when it comes to securing peace. Liberia was no different. Although Liberia had five women observers in the room during the talks, they were not part of the official negotiating delegations--and they made no demands. Their only goal was to achieve peace. So they kept silent, powerless in the face of the destruction they were watching unfold.

An International Center for Transitional Justice report on the peace talks details the dilemma the women faced in Accra. When a warlord's demands were not being met, one of his delegates at the peace negotiations would make a call on his cell phone to the front lines, ordering more shelling of Monrovia. Everyone at the negotiating table would then watch on live television as murder and mayhem ensued until the warring parties granted the warlord what he wanted. "One or two rockets would be sent into Monrovia, and people in Monrovia would be telling us, 'you have to give them anything they want, to get it to stop,'" recalls one participant. "Once they felt they were getting what they wanted, the fighting would simmer down. Sometimes I thought they were blackmailing us."

The 2003 peace negotiations dragged on for 76 days with former warlord (and then-president) Charles Taylor's National Patriotic Party vying for power and control over natural resources. His party was arrayed against the warlords leading two key rebel groups--Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy and The Movement for Democracy in Liberia. These warlords also wanted key political positions. They got what they wanted, even though many had been known to commit appalling acts of violence. Severing of limbs and mass rape were common.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

As to future prosecution for these heinous crimes, the warlords had little...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP