I had never been to Africa when I deployed to Liberia in August 2005. The country is on the west side of the continent and lies just at the point where the head of the great land mass takes a turn south and bends back east towards its middle. The western border of Liberia is the Atlantic Ocean, with Sierra Leone and Guinea to the northwest and northeast respectively, and Cote d'Ivoire to the east and south.
I had no idea what to expect, other than knowing that the country had been through nearly thirty years of turmoil that started with Samuel Doe's coup d'etat that overthrew the elected government in 1980 and eventually escalated into all out civil war. Two civil wars, actually, with Prince Johnson murdering Doe in 1990 and engaging Charles Taylor's forces in ongoing battles throughout Monrovia, the capital, Taylor's subsequent election, and then the bloodshed that followed in the late 1990's into the early 21st century.
Liberia had long been a U.S. ally, since the 1820's when the American Colonization Society shipped free blacks back to Africa and they, the ones who survived malaria, yellow fever and other diseases, gave the country its name. Less than thirty years later they formed a government with a constitution based on the document written by the newly formed American republic sixty years earlier. The Americo-Liberians, as they came to be known, abused their political power and refused to allow native-born Africans land ownership and voting rights, basically treating them as slaves were treated in the U.S.
My purpose in writing this is not to provide a history of the country, but to give the reader an idea of what it was like to deploy as a CIVPOL, a civilian police officer hired by the State Department as an advisor and seconded to the United Nations. For a history of the civil war and what led up to it, I recommend an excellent book by Stephen Ellis entitled The Mask Of Anarchy. It details not only the political atmosphere but the temperament set by successive governments that led to Doe's coup and the civil war, including the shameful recruitment and use of child soldiers, some of whom I would make acquaintance with during my time there.
Liberia was an unarmed mission for civilian police, unlike my previous tours in Kosovo and Afghanistan. The only self-defense tools issued were pepper spray and an expandable police baton, which I seldom carried. Later, when I arrived at my duty station, I purchased a machete, what the Liberians refer to as a cutlass, for home protection.
Monrovia at that time was a city without electricity (it still was when I returned for a second tour eight years later) and generators were a necessity for power. Embassies, hotels, restaurants, grocery stores, everyone relied on generators in the absence of a functioning power grid (kitchens always used gas). The noise and smell were obnoxious. Power poles had thousands of wires connected to them by people who illegally tapped into the lines to steal electricity in the days when the lines actually carried current. There was no sewage system. The beaches were used for toilets by the majority of the locals. We were cautioned not to swim in the ocean for that reason, and also because the rip tides were notorious. There was a bulletin board in the main UN building with the photographs of those who were MIA and had last been seen diving into the waves.
We were put up in a hotel run by Italians and staffed by Liberians, just off of busy Randall Street. The rooms were basic but good-sized and had beds with sheets, most had bathrooms, and in general were pretty clean with only the occasional cockroach scampering across the floor or wall, but it was Africa, after all. I really did not expect the hotel to be as nice as it was. It had a restaurant with a Euro style breakfast (hardboiled eggs, bread, fruits, etc) and wood burning pizza ovens that were just being installed. The bar was decent. By decent I mean well-furnished, well-stocked with liquor, and reasonable prices. Most importantly, it was air-conditioned. The national beer of Liberia is Club beer, and it was kept ice cold.
We arrived at night several hours late at Roberts International via Brussels and Washington, D.C., on Brussels Air. We were met by the deputy program manager who advised us that due to flooding from rain we would have to take a roundabout way into the city. We finally got to the hotel, checked in, got the welcome to Liberia speech, and went off to bed at four A.M. only to get up at seven. We went to the first day of UN orientation dead tired, but that afternoon got back to the hotel, napped, and several of us made plans to walk about the center and see what the city had to offer.
We met in the bar, had a beer, then stepped out on to the sidewalk of the busy street to.....witness a man dying. He was crawling on his belly, his torso on the sidewalk and his legs in the street. His trousers were down around his knees and he had obviously messed himself. He was moaning and begging for help. Pedestrians were stepping over and around him.
We were a group of eight, all former or retired police officers. As we debated what we could possibly do for the man a Red Cross ambulance with two young black males in it drove by. They were laughing and joking about something. They glanced our way and never touched the brakes. Remember, this is the third world. There is no 911 and, as I would learn over the coming months, Africans view a hospital as a place where people go to die, not a place to get better. Not that it mattered for this guy. Whatever he had (I suspect cholera or typhoid) it was probably too late to treat, but even if he was treatable he would've needed money up front to get the services of a physician and the drugs to cure him. No money, no treatment. That's the way it goes in third-world countries.
Close to where we stood there was a vacant lot full of vendors. They were selling virtually anything you can think of out of wheelbarrows. The barrows were all numbered, a system not dissimilar to license plates that identify a car, but it was unofficial and painted on the sides by the owner. Someone in the crowd shouted out, "Why don't you help him?"
I shouted back, "Why don't you help him, he's your countryman."
That shut him up, but it didn't solve the issue at hand.
One of the guys spotted a Liberian National Police officer on the corner. He was wearing the green baseball cap that signified Traffic Division. Our officer jogged over to him, showed his credentials, and brought the LNP officer back to the dying man. He didn't look like he knew what to do with him and that was because there was nothing to do with him. No ambulance would pick up a dying man unless he had money and the same with a taxi. Even if someone could be bribed into taking the man to the hospital, he would never get treated. We left the poor bastard in the hands of the LNP officer and went about our business.
One of the guys was interested in a jewelry store and we located it on Broad Street. He had heard that the gold in Liberia was inexpensive. He was shown some pieces while the rest of us browsed, but I have no recollection whether or not he purchased. The whole affair left me unimpressed. It was a seedy, cheap looking place and not typical of a western jewelry store.
We left there and located a shop run by Indians that sold electronics. It was a handy place to pick up a plug to fit the sockets in the hotel walls, a phone or laptop charger, or CD player. The laptop prices were more than double what we had paid in the states, but that was to be expected. We browsed more stores, several of the guys looking for a deal on a mobile phone. I had brought the one I had used since Kosovo, a simple flip phone that I used in every country but the USA. It was simple to swap out the SIM card depending on what country I was in, although post-911 it was necessary to show a passport or photo ID in European countries prior to purchase. That was because of the tendency of terrorist and criminals to purchase dozens of SIM cards, use them for illegal purposes and dispose of them. National intelligence units wanted that information.
If you're white and never been in a country where nearly everyone else is black, you can certainly feel the eyes of the locals upon you. Whites and Arabs had been in Liberia, in particular, and Africa, in general, for centuries, of course, but still we drew stares as we walked through the area. I never felt unsafe walking around Monrovia during the daytime, not then and not when I returned eight years later. I did not go on foot at night, but then again neither did Liberians. There were too many roving gangs made up of former war combatants who were jobless, desperate, and hungry.
We returned to the hotel a couple of hours later. The body of the dying man was gone and I do not know what became of him, but that was my introduction to the harsh reality of life in sub-Saharan Africa. I had been in the country less than twenty-four hours.
My next post will be about Harper, my duty station.