The buildings of the University of Liberia campus in Monrovia were pockmarked with shell holes, windows shattered, the scars of war painfully evident. Professors' salaries had been so eroded by runaway inflation they were now being paid only a couple of dollars a month.
But still they came to teach, and the students - seeking an improbable future in a shattered land - came to learn. One classroom was packed with students listening to an economics lecture. In the open-air hallway outside, another student put his ear up to a shell hole in the wall of the classroom so he could hear the lecture, too.
That was seven years ago, an image that lingers from a visit to Liberia, the nation founded by freed American slaves, that now demands the world's attention once again. As President Bush prepares to depart on a five-day tour of five African countries, Liberia, the country he will not visit, symbolizes the problems Africa causes for itself and for the United States.
In 1996, when those students gathered at the university, Liberia had endured more than six years of devastating, sadistic warfare unleashed when Charles Taylor - a deposed, corrupt bureaucrat and escapee from a Massachusetts prison - led a small army across the border from the Ivory Coast. That move ultimately spawned a plethora of other would-be warlords, each with followings of young thugs with AK-47s who were unleashed to kill, maim, loot, pillage and rape. More than 200,000 died. Half the country of 3 million became refugees.
In 1997, Liberians overwhelmingly elected Taylor as their president, a vote most think was driven by fear that should he lose, he would plunge the country back into chaos. But the demons Taylor had unleashed could not be controlled. They surfaced at his urging in neighboring Sierra Leone - where a rebel army specialized in cutting off the hands and arms of those who would not cooperate - and in the Ivory Coast, where French troops landed recently to bring order when another group of nonideological rebels spread chaos. Other West African states were plagued with refugees and civil unrest.
Inevitably, these forces reappeared in Liberia where two rebel groups - loosely organized around tribal lines, each with support from a neighboring country - are now battling Taylor. They have come to the outskirts of Monrovia. Fearful residents constantly demonstrate for U.S. troops to land and restore order.
There is international pressure on the United States to lead a U.N.-sponsored peacekeeping force. Bush has called on Taylor, who has been indicted for war crimes, to resign, though he has not said who should take his place. Taylor - certainly a multi-millionaire after years of looting his resource-rich country, though his Swiss bank accounts are frozen - is said to be planning his departure.
"There is a litany of reasons for why we should go in, moral and historic," says Professor Herbert Howe of Georgetown University. "And there is the self-interest factor. A stateless area, a region of collapsed states is a breeding ground for international criminality and terrorism."
Howe and others note that al-Qaida has been tied to money laundering, diamond smuggling and counterfeiting amid the chaos Taylor has unleashed in West Africa. "The major problem is what happens with the two rebel groups once Taylor goes," Howe says. "If we put troops on the ground we might be more committed to get Taylor out, but are we committed to stay the course?"
That is the problem the United States has always had with post-colonial Africa, particularly in the past decade.
Since a humanitarian mission went sour in Somalia and 18 American troops were killed in 1993, Washington has essentially washed its hands of African problems, leaving Rwanda to its 1994 genocide, the Congo to its protracted civil strife, Zimbabwe to its presidential problems. Even the bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, a precursor to Sept. 11 as it turned out, did not lead to extensive involvement in the continent.
The prevailing view became that Africa was a continent of deep-seated, intractable problems, a morass of tribal rivalries and post-colonial blunders that would entangle the United States in a no-win situation. Though Howe says the United States deserves credit for training military forces in many African states, landing American troops seemed out of the question. Getting involved could be a political disaster. Ignoring Africa would cost few votes.
Ron Walters of the African-American Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland, College Park contends racism plays a role.
"There is not a lot of stomach in the U.S. for peacekeeping in black countries," he says. "If white soldiers are killed by black people, it's an outrage. People are screaming for them to come home. Contrast that with Iraq where all these soldiers have been killed since the fighting stopped, but no one is clamoring for them to come home."