The remnants of war

It’s been quite a while since I wrote anything, I know. I’ve had a few days in Lisbon in a meeting (lovely place – with a great Oceanarium), and a bit of time in Dakar when I did nothing worth writing about. I thought I had made a new friend there, someone who invited me to stay at his place down the coast for a weekend, but he behaved much like other Dakarois I have met; Saturday evening we went out to eat, and he spent the entire evening on his mobile, then Sunday he invited friends round and they spent the whole day talking to eachother in Wolof. Not a friendship I shall be pursuing.

But the next day I flew to Liberia, for a two-week assignment in Monrovia. As usual, I read up a little on the history before my trip, and what a fascinating history it is! 300 black families from the US set up the independent republic in 1847. Despite their own descent from slaves, they considered ethnic Liberians to be inferior, fit only for exploitation. In fact as recently as 1931 an international commission found organised slavery in Liberia.

In 1980 the descendants of these settler families were overthrown from power, the indigenous population (95% of the country) rejoiced, and the semi-literate Samuel Doe took power. During the 1980s the economy was the worst performing in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, as real incomes fell by half and unemployment shot up, and there were a series of rebellions, often involving child soldiers high on alcohol or drugs. Some of his soldiers believed that by eating bits of a great soldier’s body could take on some of his greatness, and the leader of a failed coup was apparently cut up and eaten in public.

Finally Doe was overthrown by a rebel group led by Prince Johnson. He was captured, stripped to his underpants and interrogated, and when he didn’t give the right answers, Johnson ordered one of his soldiers to cut off one of Doe’s ears, which Johnson promptly ate in front of him. Our Finance Manager in Liberia currently lives next door to Johnson (now a senator), who has told him that the story of the ear is not true. However a video he took of the whole thing has apparently been seen by many people all around West Africa.

Johnson’s forces only really held Monrovia so fighting continued between his troops and those of Charles Taylor. Both sides indulged in cannibalism, and one group of men fought naked in the belief that this protected them against bullets. During the mid-1990s. No, really, I’m not making all this up…

West African peacekeeping forces also got involved in the mess, while infrastructure was destroyed, women were raped en masse, and half of the country’s population fled their homes. Eventually, after 14 years of civil war, a peace accord was signed and implemented. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was elected president (narrowly beating former World Footballer of the Year, George Weah), 18,000 UN peace-keepers were brought in and the trial of Charles Taylor for war crimes began in The Hague.

A year later, this was where I was headed. Displaced people are returning home and the peace-keepers are still in place, but unemployment is at 85% so armed robbery is common. We were told not to leave the hotel (surrounded by high walls and razor wire) after dark. A WHO survey across the country showed that 75% of women have been raped, mostly gang-raped. Indeed rape was only made a crime in 1993. Everywhere there are posters telling readers where to go if they are raped, how to report crime, and exorting them to give up their weapons and live in peace.

In one of the areas where we have started work the baseline survey shows that there is one toilet per 5,200 inhabitants and one textbook per 27 pupils. I also read that there are only 26 pharmacists in the whole country, all of which are in the capital. Indeed I was warned before I came here that I would have to bring with me any medicines that I might need, such as malaria treatment, as there are virtually none available in the country.

The signs of the war are all around, with plenty of ruined buildings, others covered in bullet holes. There are plenty of amputees around too. But the people are all very friendly and there are no outward signs of the mental traumas they must all have gone through. Everywhere there are UN blue-berets and land-cruisers, as well as dozens of vehicles marked with the logos of the 58 international NGOs who are here trying to help. The Chinese are here too, rebuilding the roads, and the Lebanese opening hotels and restaurants for all the aid workers and hopefully in the future lots of international businessmen. It’s quite a strange place, a bit unreal.

The countryside, meanwhile, is pretty empty. Lots of greenery but very few villages. Not for long, though, as Liberia currently has the highest rate of population growth in the world. I suppose that’s what you do when a long and brutal war has finally ended.