Fear of a Return to Civil War Fades in Liberia

Liberia 2010

By Sunni Khalid

January 14, 2011

Also aired on WYPR, an NPR affiliate.

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In Gbarnga--Charles Taylor's hometown and a sister city of Baltimore--33-year-old Mark Dowee recalls living on his family's farm in 1997, when rebels, based in neighboring Guinea, swept into town. They were former government soldiers, trying to oust Taylor, then Liberia president.

"My mother was raped, my sister was taken. So, I said, what man can do, man can do."

Dowee, a lean, dark man with a scraggly goatee, said he quickly joined Taylor's militia.

"I was 18 years old, when I joined the force. Some of us joined because our people were killed So, this make us angry; this is why we joined. So, we went to defend our land."

The war lasted for six years before the armed intervention of West African nations and, later, the 15,000 United Nations peacekeepers, put a stop to it and compelled negotiations. Taylor went into exile and the transition toward democracy began.

More than 100,000 combatants were demobilized--70 percent of them men, but about 10 percent of them boys and girls. More than 60-thousand weapons and six million rounds of ammunition were turned in.

The fighters received a small stipend, some vocational training and then returned home. Some have turned to crime, but most are trying to find work and blend back into society. That's the hard part, Mark Dowee concedes.

"You know, trust is very difficult to embedded. But what we are saying is you have trust in us. As long as we have changed."

The distrusts stems from the brutality of the conflict. Both sides burned down villages, raped women and girls, terrorized raped, massacred, kidnapped or enslaved thousands of innocents.

"At first, they called themselves freedom fighters. That's what they had to call themselves when they started coming."

That's Esther Harris, who counsels young women, the victims of sexual abuse, at an NGO near Monrovia. She remembers when the civil war came to her native Maryland County.

"But when they came, they started destroying government properties. If they knew you before, you know, and you were in the government, they would go and break and beating down. Then, everyone had second thoughts to know that this war, it was not meant for that. Actually, they did a lot of destruction. If you go down to Monrovia, you will see dilapidated buildings, everywhere. It's just recently that they have started rebuilding those areas that were destroyed by the rebels. They would just kill anybody, whether they know you or didn't know you. They just killed, killed and just killed."

Harris said she managed to escape a lot of the killing and destruction, although she lost several family members.

Many former combatants have gone into business for themselves as motorcycle drivers. But Dowee and about 12 of his former comrades and their families have settled on a 25-acre farm in Gbarnga, set aside for them by the United Nations. They grow rice, cassava and other staples. And they have formed a local cooperative with other local farmers, headed by Akwe Kubwa.

She says her husband and brother were killed by Taylor's troops. Now she works with former NPFL fighters, like Dowee, every day. But she said it was difficult to forgive them.

"I was very vexed about it. I was very vexed about it.
"What changed your mind?
"When I vexed, I first go to God and God changed my mind."
"How long did it take?"
"It take about a year. I said, let me sit down and forgive them."

Not everyone has forgiven the former soldiers. And there are fears that as the U-N Mission in Liberia draws down its peacekeepers and phases out, ex-combatants could once again pick up weapons that many suspect have been buried, instead of turned in during disarmament.

"The silence of the guns does not necessarily mean there's peace."

That's Etweda "Sugars" Cooper, chairwoman of the Liberian Women's Initiative and the mayor of Edina, a small coastal town. But she says she's guardedly optimistic that the former combatants will remain peaceful.

"You must not forget that many of them who've grown up at that time, some of them were as young as seven-years-old. If you were seven in 1990, you are now 27. It is more difficult to convince you to pick up arms now than it was then, at that time, when you didn't know what was happening, you were being drugged."

Many former combatants are part of what Liberians call "the Lost Generation." They lost their homes, families, their childhoods and more than a decade of schooling. But many, like Mark Dowee, say they see positive signs in government efforts to rebuild the country.

"We will not sit for the next person to come fool us to destroy our nation because we are seeing development. So, if you come and you say you want to bring war, we will hide all your arms, hide all your ammunition and turn it over to the U.N. We will discourage them."

Liberia's President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf says she thinks all Liberians have tired of war.

"I think the days of war may well be over."

But she said this a month before the ongoing crisis, next door in the Ivory Coast. Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo has refused to step down after losing presidential elections and that nation is bracing for what could be its second civil war in five years. Already, thousands of Ivorian refugees are streaming across Liberia's borders.

Johnson Sirleaf said then she hoped that common sense will prevail.

"Our war was a regional war. And so, we were concerned about the results of the elections in Cote D'Ivoire. But, again, we're reaching the conclusion that even in those countries, the desire for return to war in no longer there, because people have been able to see that the most sustainable thing is to have a developing economy that creates jobs and that provides basic services to people. That's what we're putting our emphasis on."

Yet, Liberia's hold on stability is precarious. Many people believe that there are still many guns hidden around the country. And the nation's progress may be at the mercy of forces beyond its control. But after so many years of war, every day of peace has been a blessing for Liberia. Perhaps nobody knows that better than the ex-combatants.

Sunni Khalid is a senior reporter in WYPR's News Department. He has reported this series, "Starting From Less Than Zero: Liberia Rebuilds," on a grant from the International Reporting Project (IRP).