Sunday, June 30, 2013

Liberia's Army Now, But What About Liberia's War Then?

Last week, the Economist's Baobab blog featured a story about Liberia and its army, written by a Liberia-based journalist (Australian-born Clair MacDougall, who also writes the blog North of Nowhere).

Although the focus of the post was the military dimension of Liberia's post-conflict recovery, there was only the most passing mention to the dire, hellish conditions of the country exactly a decade ago. The article passed up the opportunity to juxtapose Liberia's milestone participation in a regional peacekeeping force with the situation ten years previous, in which Liberia's government, especially its security contingents and armed forces, were attacking civilians and otherwise contributing to the violent destruction of the state in virtually every imaginable.

This missed opportunity (perhaps not appropriate for a quick blog post on a major publications' site) only further highlights the utter lack of any marking of this passing milestone, in both Liberia's domestic media and the global press, even those that source their reporting from international journalists on the ground. My posts and tweets from this past week have been the only mentions of 2003 that I have found.

Full text:

ON A drizzly morning at Liberia’s Roberts International Airport, beneath the bright yellow lights of an aircraft hanger, a brass band and 45 uniformed soldiers stood waiting for President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Past the white United Nations cargo containers and the muddy edges of the runway, the Liberian jungle stood veiled in fog. These men, from the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL), would soon be trading the rainforest for the Sahel to engage in their first peacekeeping assignment with the Africa-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA).
“This is a proud day for all of us, as Liberians,” proclaimed President Johnson Sirleaf (pictured in purple). “For so long—decades, in fact—we have been the beneficiary of support from our ECOWAS [Economic Community of West African States] neighbours, and friends from far and wide, who came to our shores to help us restore the peace and rebuild a shattered nation. It is time for Liberia to give back, in whatever small way that we can.”
Following the legislature’s approval in January of the president’s decision to send troops to Mali, the infantry platoon underwent five months of training at Camp Sande Ware in the country’s northwest. American marines have acted as mentors, supplying equipment and logistics. Once in Mali the unit will be embedded within the 333rd Nigerian battalion for three months.
It has been more than half a century since Liberia committed troops to the UN’s operation in Congo, and only a decade since the end of the 14-year civil war which left 250,000 people dead and the nation in tatters. The commitment to the Mali peacekeeping mission is small, and Liberia still hosts 8,000 UN peacekeepers and police officers in bases across the country. But the ability to send troops is being touted as a marker of the nation’s progress.
Liberia’s Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which ended the civil war in August 2003 and led to the exile of the former president, Charles Taylor, called for the nation’s factionalised armed forces to be restructured. The new AFL, a 2,000-man force, was reconstituted six years ago by DynCorp International, a contractor for the United States State Department, but has been beset by attrition and complaints over wages, benefits and living conditions.
The army embarked on its first combat mission last year to root out militants who had been allegedly engaging in cross-border attacks in western Côte d’Ivoire. Now headed by a Nigerian commander, Major General Suraj Alao Abdurrahman, the AFL is due to be fully operational and autonomous from the second half of 2014.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Ten Years Ago Yesterday

Continuing to mark the terrible occasions of a decade ago, this was the story out of Monrovia on a decade ago yesterday: (emphasis added)

100s dead in Liberia rebel push

Thursday, June 26, 2003 Posted: 1:53 PM EDT (1753 GMT)

MONROVIA, Liberia -- Liberians were clearing the dead from streets of downtown Monrovia Thursday as rebels intent on overthrowing the government of President Charles Taylor ringed the city.
Liberia's information minister said more than 200 people had been killed as rebel forces fought their way toward the heart of the capital.
Information Minister Reginald Goodridge said the rebels had come from Sierra Leone "and other areas supplied by the United States and Britain with heavy weaponry."

He called on the U.S. to condemn the aggression and said the Liberian government wants to return to the peace process and bring about a political solution to the problem.
He said local residents had taken the bodies of four Liberians killed in the fighting and had displayed them in front of the U.S. Embassy as a protest against Washington's help for the rebels.
In Washington, U.S. President George W. Bush called for Taylor to step down.
"The United States supports the cease-fire signed earlier this month," Bush said in remarks to African leaders. "President Taylor needs to step down so that his country can be spared further bloodshed."
There were rumors Wednesday that Taylor had fled, but he went on state radio to announce he was still in power and was going to "fight to the bitter end."
The heavy fighting, which effectively smashed the recently signed cease-fire, could be the final and decisive battle in a three-year-old rebel attempt to oust Taylor and his government.
Goodridge said the well-armed rebels are firing indiscriminately and are shelling several areas of Monrovia, a city of 1.5 million people. Military vehicles moved up and down the streets as soldiers clashed with rebel fighters.
Jordi Raich, of the International Committee of the Red Cross, told CNN thousands of refugees had fled from the fighting.

"It is a fairly small area which had no running water or electricity before."
He added the local hospital was working around the clock in an attempt to deal with the injured, many suffering from rocket shrapnel wounds.

About 300 casualties had been brought to the hospital, with medical staff carrying out between 25 and 30 operations per day.

A U.S. State Department official in Washington said two rocket-propelled grenades hit the Greystone compound across from the U.S. Embassy, killing several Liberians. The compound is an annex of the embassy.

Spokeswoman Brooke Summers said the dead included some local residents who had taken refuge there, a Liberian guard and a gardener who were employed by the embassy.
"We deeply regret this senseless loss of life," Summers said, adding that the State Department "calls on all parties to honor the cease-fire" signed earlier this month in Ghana.
The U.S. Embassy in Monrovia is in contact with the remaining U.S. citizens in Liberia to inform them of the latest developments on safety and security, Summers said.
Another State Department official said the explosion appeared to be a stray round from the ongoing fighting in the city.
Goodridge, talking about the casualties, told CNN: "The infrastructure is clearly not able to cope with this catastrophe, and the Liberian government needs all the international help, humanitarian help, it can get."
An international monitoring team had been due to arrive by next Monday to oversee the cease-fire brokered June 17. That cease-fire, it appears, never took hold.
Thousands of Liberians, who had come to the capital in the mistaken belief it would be safe, were fleeing in hordes toward the airport 40 miles west of the city.
Local journalist Alfonso Toweh, told CNN, civilians just "wanted an end to hostilities....the situation is desperate."
Earlier this month, the State Department ordered all non-essential U.S. Embassy personnel and their families to leave the country due to the security situation.
It also issued a travel warning for the country, urging Americans to defer travel to the country and recommending that U.S. citizens in the country to leave immediately.
-- CNN Correspondent Jeff Koinange and State Department Producer Elise Labott contributed to this report

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A Decade Ago

Ten years ago this week was, by recorded accounts, a hellish week in Monrovia. The city was under attack from the outside, by rebel forces shelling the city, and from within, by looters and marauding bands of government forces and other gangs across the city center, Sinkor, and Paynesville, both during the day and at night, looting, pillaging, raping and killing. 

From a World Health Organization assessment report:

Wednesday, June 25 2003 
Fighting was intensified in the center of the city, and the exchange of mortar was more frequent and deadly. Hundreds of people, especially the IDPs, were caught in the cross-fire and consequently died. 

Two rockets landed in the compound of the American Embassy (Grey Stone) where about 30,000 internally displaced people were seeking refuge. About 20 persons were killed when the rockets landed. 
The second note is one of the most high-profile and horrible of the entire battle of Monrovia. Rebel forces, most of them LURD, had been launching rockets toward central Monrovia from their positions in Virginia and elsewhere north of the city as they advanced on the capital. During this week, they made their way into Bushrod Island, taking the Club Beer Factory and other important commercial warehouses, before finally controlling the Freeport of Monrovia itself, before retreating under a ceasefire. 
  • The forces, many of them underage and inexperienced, and often intoxicated, shelled the capital's central areas without much tactical precision, just as these areas swarmed with tens of thousands of fleeing civilians, displaced from earlier fighting. Thousands died during the fierce battles, a decade ago this week. 

    The Greystone compound, outside of the US Embassy walls but nominally controlled by the US government, and covering barely an acre in area, held an astounding 30,000 IDPs in deplorable conditions, without much food or water. Mortars hit the huddled masses here exactly ten years ago today, killing at least 20, including young children. 

    While the massacre made the nightly news, I can't find any footage of the incident on the internet. I remember that James Barbazon's Liberia: An Uncivil War included the massacre and also gave an incredibly rare insight into the chaos of Monrovia in that week. Here is the best I could find on YouTube, including clips of the hopped-up young fighters loading up mortar rounds and haphazardly pointing them skyward: 

Today, the new United States Embassy, opened in 2012, is located in the old Greystone compound. Supposedly there is a small memorial to the victims of the massacre on the embassy grounds, although it isn't much noted. In fact, I have seen very little in the press, or on social media all spring marking the painful events of 2003 leading up to the end of Liberia's civil conflict. 

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