No End to the Ugliness in Liberia

Human Rights

After 13 years of pepetuating some of the most atrocious crimes ever committed, Charles Taylor -- the warlord-turned-president of the West African Nation of Liberia -- has finally been indicted by the United Nations Court.

But despite that hopeful turn of events, and a cease-fire that was supposed to pave the way for peace talks, bloody clashes continue in the Liberian capital of Monrovia, leaving the streets littered with bodies.

Liberia, a nation the size of Tennessee, sits on Africa's Western Coast. It has a unique history that links it to the United States, as it is a Nation created as a Republic in 1842 by freed American slaves. For over a century and a half, ethnic based fighting and scrambling over control the nations rich natural resources has been the way of life.

Liberia is rich, with plentiful diamond mines along its border with Sierra Leone, and bauxite, ore and other natural resources that the developed and developing nations desire. Hundreds of thousands of people have lost their homes, lives and loved ones during the conflict leading up to Taylor taking over the country and in the three-year rebellion to oust Taylor that now ensues.

The history of Charles Taylor's grab for the presidency is one full of controversy and question. Taylor was a wanted criminal who was being held for extradition in prison in the United States. He was somehow able to escape from prison in the United States, many speculate with help. He then quickly went into hiding where he was able to recruit a rag-tag group of fighters, like-minded in their quest to control and pilfer the country. These rag-tag renegades, including many abducted and trained child soldiers, led an insurrection that created great civil strife including ethnic in-fighting, summary executions, rape, pillaging and massive diamond and resource smuggling. In 1997, the former rebel leader was elected as President of Liberia.

Liberian nationals who survived and escaped the initial war have endured a daily existence in refugee camps in neighboring countries for the past thirteen years. Their presence has strained the economies of neighboring countries already struggling to maintain and develop their own governments.

Neighboring Sierra Leone, the African nation with the least developed infrastructure, could not survive the flow of both refugees and rebels into its land. Its diamond mines were also on Taylor's list and soon after he began his pillage in Liberia, he extended it to Sierra Leone. Refugees then fleeing from Sierra Leone added greatly to the refugee crisis in West Africa.

While Taylor's forces fought for control in Liberia, they employed scare and control tactics that included use of some of the most horrific crimes against humanity ever conceived. During these initial struggles, now President Charles Taylor was personally involved in the execution of many human rights abuses against ethnic groups not to his liking. Taylor's forces systematically kidnapped young girls as young as eight and made them travel with them as their so-called "wives." Taylor's group also recruited and/or abducted young boys, also as young as eight, and turned these children into unconscientious killing machines. Liberians from ethnic groups other than Taylor's were seen as enemies and were either repressed or slain.

As an Officer for the US Resettlement Office of the Department of State during the war in Liberia, I was attached to the American Embassy's Consular Office in five West African Countries. I worked along the borders with Liberia and in refugee camps where I took testimony from refugees of human rights abuses in asylum cases. During this time I learned first hand accounts of the abuses employed by Taylor's people during the war. Some of the stories I heard are so horrific; I will never repeat them to a single individual during this lifetime. I also met and spoke with young child soldiers in Danane, Ivory Coast. They had crossed the border from fighting in Liberia and acted as a "protector" force for Taylor. During their free moments, they put down their AK-47's and played with small matchbox cars in the dirt. This is an image I will never forget.

Then warlord Charles Taylor and his adult fighters were guests at a hotel that I stayed in during my work along the border. Taylor and his men remained there the entire weekend. My colleague and I were summoned to join the group for dinner and drinks at the only local restaurant and club in the village. They had guns and we had no choice. Though I was terrified, they viewed us simply as relief workers and not a threat. And despite the guns, they did not harm or force us into anything. What I did learn was confirmation that these were scary people who had little or no respect for life -- either that of others or the children they employed. They also did and took exactly what they wanted.

While a UN Court finally seeks to indict Charles Taylor in 2003, much time has passed and lives lost. The United States Government should aid the case of the United Nations. There are more than 5,000 testimonies of human rights abuses by Taylor and his people that the American government is in possession of within the filing cabinets of American Embassies in West Africa.

If the saying is true that what goes around, comes around, then Taylor's days are perhaps reaching their end. An indictment now stands and Taylor's term as President ends in August. Whether charges will stand remains to be seen, but as events of recent days show, Taylor is clearly refusing to steps down without a fight. If the past is any indication of how things will go, the Liberian people are in for more pain and suffering. There also remains the ugly question as to how much more suffering in Africa the world is willing to turn its eyes away from. Let us not forget that suffering is universal in each and every human and so should be caring and justice.

This article is dedicated to Joshua, a war survivor, refugee and friend who lost his home and family as a child. Your life and courage give me hope and inspiration for humanity.

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