Sister city of Baltimore left in ruins Connection: It is a reminder of ties between Liberia and Maryland dating to 1822, when the first freed slaves sailed from the United States to create a nation.

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

GBARNGA, LIBERIA SUN STAFF WRITER JOHN RIVERA IN BALTIMORE CONTRIBUTED TO THIS ARTICLE. — GBARNGA, Liberia -- Daniel Weetol, working now as a nurse, stands amid the ruins of his town and recites the name he remembers:

"William Donald Schaefer."

He has that name, spoken like a mantra, and a pewter plate given to him when Mr. Schaefer was mayor of Baltimore and Mr. Weetol was mayor of Gbarnga and when these were sister cities. The names and the plate are virtually the only the things of the past not pillaged.

Gbarnga (pronounced BANG-a), a community of 10,000 people, half of them refugees from somewhere else, is a mostly ruined town. It is a reminder of ties between Liberia and Maryland dating to 1822, when the first freed slaves sailed from the United States to create a nation.

The state of Maryland was especially enthusiastic -- because it was determined to reduce its black population. In 1833 it became the only state to organize an expedition and country of its own: 19 African-Americans sailed from Baltimore with financial backing from the Maryland General Assembly to become the founders of a tumultuous, short-lived nation they called "Maryland in Liberia." It became part of Liberia in 1854.

Liberia's president that year was a native of Dorchester County, Stephen Allen Bensen; his successor, Daniel B. Warner, came from Baltimore County. "Maryland" survived as the name of the easternmost part of the country. The regional capital, Harper (named for a Baltimore lawyer), named its two largest thoroughfares Maryland Avenue and Baltimore Street.

Bong County is 120 miles northeast of Monrovia, the capital. They are connected by a narrow road traveled only with care. On the outskirts of Gbarnga are tin shacks, bombed-out buildings and advertisements for haircuts, meals, car repairs. As if there were traffic.

It is one of the most fought-over places in the long civil war.

Charles Taylor, the most powerful of the country's warlords, chose Gbarnga as his de facto capital and thereby made it a target for his foes. A Nigerian peace-keeping force bombed the city in 1992, causing devastation that has not been repaired. In 1993, rebel factions battled each other in the ruins, slaughtering at least 1,000 civilians.

Mr. Weetol and his wife joined the rest of the population by spending months living in the wild and subsisting on plants. Gbarnga has been without electricity and telephones since 1990; the 1992 bombing destroyed the water plant.

He prefers to talk of the 1980s, before the fighting began, and when he was mayor and traveled to Baltimore.

"We didn't even have one wheelbarrow," he says. Baltimore responded by sending three surplus garbage trucks that arrived by ship in Monrovia in 1989 and were driven up along the narrow road. "That," Mr. Weetol says, "was a big day in Gbarnga."

A year later, as Charles Taylor's troops advanced, government soldiers hijacked the vehicles.

Baltimore also helped with the postal system.

"They showed us how to put numbers on the houses so, if you have a piece of mail, you didn't have to spend all day looking for the person," Mr. Weetol said. "We were just putting that in when the war came." And Baltimore donated more than five tons of books, desks and typewriters for the high school.

Mr. Weetol wants to show what's left, which entails a visit to the superintendent, George S. Mulbah.

He is in every sense a big man, a large figure who strides from his wreck of an office building with the confidence that comes from being Mr. Taylor's man on the scene. Mr. Mulbah launches into a critique of the relationship with Baltimore.

"In the past some of these benefits did not reach the people of Gbarnga," he says. "I am the official representative of these people, so you must tell the people that any of these sister city dealings must come through me."

The school is without a roof, windows or furniture.

"Baltimore gave us so many things for that school," Mr. Weetol says. "Now they're all gone."

His community has not been forgotten in Baltimore.

J. Mamadee Woah-tee, once the high school principal in Gbarnga, teaches fourth grade at Callaway Elementary School in Northwest Baltimore. He came to the United States in 1978 as part of the sister city relationship with Baltimore but was unable to return home because of the violence there.

"I've been sick in the stomach for the past week," he said. When his mother telephoned last week from Monrovia, she was under her bed because of gunfire.

Mr. Woah-tee is founder of the Bong County, Liberia-Maryland Educational Cultural Foundation, established to improve ties between Maryland and the Gbarnga area. With two other members, he traveled to Liberia last August for the inauguration of the interim government, whose internal disputes led to the latest violence.

Milton J. Hayslett, who accompanied Mr. Woah-tee, realized during the ceremony that Mr. Taylor was about to walk past.

"I stuck my hand out to say something to Taylor," he says. "I questioned in my mind what I could say to this guy who I know is a murderer."

He settled for saying "God bless you" until a guard intervened. "He grabbed my arm and didn't let go for a lengthy period of time," he said.

There never was a chance to speak with Mr. Taylor.

Pub Date: 4/14/96

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