Loyalty only to mayhem Civil war: Liberia has a past tightly linked to the United States and a present that bodes poorly for West Africa's future.

April 14, 1996|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MONROVIA, Liberia -- When times were good, a crowd always gathered for the incoming flights at Payne airport, a concrete building with a corrugated metal roof. The economy had long ago collapsed, but you might earn a dollar carrying the bag of someone going to Monrovia, the capital, a city without water or electricity or much hope for lasting peace.

The good times, even as measured by the terribly low standards of West Africa, ended last week. A different crowd came to Payne, named for a freed 19th-century American slave who became one of Liberia's presidents. It was looted and burned. It had replaced another airport, pillaged years ago by another mob.

Liberia, the closest thing the United States ever had to a colony in Africa, has resumed warring with itself.

War here is a temper-driven, destructive brawl rather than a battlefield clash between grand armies. There are warlords, not generals. Instead of orderly battalions, there are gangs. An attempt by five warlords to dismiss a sixth from a makeshift government re-ignited the violence, and the capital seemed ever since to be controlled by young men with loyalty only to mayhem.

The battlegrounds were city streets and the few buildings that have not already been ruined during a 6-year-old civil war that has killed 150,000 people and earned the country a reputation as a locus for African madness.

Liberia has a past tightly linked to the United States and a present that bodes poorly for West Africa's future. The country ,, that was established in the 19th century by freed American slaves is now less a nation than a ruined countryside fought over by militia chiefs without ideology other than personal animosity and greed.

It was for a time an American stepchild. With the idea of "ridding" itself of blacks, Maryland promoted the country's creation. In modern times, Baltimore sent school supplies, then garbage trucks. The trucks were last seen being commandeered by soldiers. New York sent surplus uniforms for Monrovia's police, dressed to this day in a dark New York blue that is stifling in tropical heat.

No country in West Africa received more U.S. aid dollars until the end of the 1980s. For Washington, Liberia was an important electronic listening post, a broadcast point for the Voice of America, and an airstrip for refueling and missions through- out the continent and the Middle East. It was created by Americans and, in ways good and bad, built in America's image.

Now, no country in the region better shows the destructiveness of greed for power and for minerals and rubber. Liberia's main exports have become political instability and warfare.

Its war has been infamous for its child soldiers, strikingly personal violence and unusual savagery.

"These people would kill you because of the way you talked," said Theophilus Sonpon, a former deputy minister of education living in an apartment without water on a rubbish-strewn street. "They thought that if they killed you, then they got your property. Sometimes they would write their names on the walls of the houses of people they had killed.

"That's what is behind all this killing, the greed for power and wealth. People don't want to work hard for things; they want to get things that way, with the gun."

There have been extreme cruelties, including cannibalism. "They would split the bone right here," said Joseph Ghainhea, a hospital worker in the town of Gbarnga. He drew with his hand a line down the center of his chest.

"Then they would take out the heart, boil it and eat it. That happened quite a lot," he said. "Soldiers from all the factions did that."

He tells of a half-dissected body of a woman, parts of it cooked and the rest left on a business street of Gbarnga, a one-time sister city of Baltimore. "They would give away the meat to the people who passed by."

Some of the soldiers are not yet in their teens, recruited because their young minds are easy to control and not yet equipped with a sense of remorse. For them, the warlords become father figures, cult leaders for whom they were prepared to die.

"They were innocent," said Allen Lincoln, who counsels former child soldiers. "They didn't know what it means to kill somebody."

"If they wanted something with a gun, they could get it," he said. "It was exciting for them to see elderly people begging for mercy from a child."

One of those soldiers took as his name "Senegalese," perhaps because soldiers from Senegal are considered among Africa's best. He was 16, he said, and began fighting at the age of 10. He told his story in a slum of Monrovia as matter-of-factly as if his was an account of a passage through the early grades of school.

When he was 10, he visited a sister, he said. Her boyfriend was fighting for one of the factions. At the boyfriend's suggestion, Senegalese also joined. He was shot through the leg in a battle near Gbarnga. While he was recuperating, he was recruited by members of a second faction. He fought for them, too.

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