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© Chris Hondros

Cry Monrovia

by Chris Hondros

Monday was a day of horrors in Monrovia. A massive artillery barrage was unloosed Liberia’s capital city, artillery shell death falling from the sky and killing anyone in the blast range when they landed. Journalists in the press hotel were huddled in the lobby, wondering how to cover this barrage, when the story came to us--a shattering boom, right outside. Everyone ducked, and eventually I ventured out to see a terrible sight—a boy, around 10, slowly dying in front of me, his last gasps rasping as he laid prone on the ground, a pool of thick blood spreading from his head, killed for the crime of trying to bring a load of cassava leaves back to his family. The cassava leaves sat beside him in the red dirt.

I walked away from that tragic scene just as another shell hit, this time across the street in a small school compound about fifty yards away. Everyone scattered. It was chaos. I ducked inside a concrete guard shack at the gate of the hotel, wondering what I should do, as the barrage seemed endless. Finally I screwed up enough courage to run the 50 yards to the door of the school. I wandered in.

It was a vision of hell—wailing children and women, crying men, blood, horror, fear. The shell had landed in the middle of an interior courtyard, and it had directly hit a woman, who’s mangled and lifeless body lay in the center of a radiating blast pattern. The wounded and dead were everywhere.

I took a few pictures, but then realized that no one was handling anything--that five minutes before, a mortar round had landed here, and that the survivors were too dazed to do anything at all. I was the first to arrive.

Do enough conflict zone photojournalism, and eventually you grow accustomed to seeing the horrors of war. Though usually, in even the worst tragedies, journalists have little role to play other than in doing their documenting and reporting—aid workers, soldiers, and locals do all the actual heavy lifting of saving and feeding. But occasionally something happens that requires intervention.

“Is anyone doing anything here? You need to get these people to the MSF clinic down the street,” I said, loudly but to no one in particular. Dazed looks.

“MSF? You know MSF?” Suddenly I realized that a lot of people might be half deaf from the blast.

"Look, you two," I shouted to a pair of burly Liberians standing by a wall in a daze, inconsolable but unhurt. "The wounded need to be carried to the MSF clinic. Now!"
They said nothing for a moment, then snapped out of their reverie.
"But we have no car," one finally wailed.

"It's right down the street! Small small," I said, using the Liberian slang to say something is close by. "Like this boy,"--I motioned to a child with searing cut across his head--"and that man there. Come on! Carry them!"

For a few minutes we went on like this, me playing triage coordinator for this very small and macabre scene in the world’s ongoing tragedy (or farce) of war. They made a move for the woman who'd been directly hit, but I stopped them.

"Not her, she's dead," I said. "First the living people." They passed over her motionless body and went on to tend a boy whose leg had been perforated. Then many others, with a ghastly array of punctures, amputations, and wounds. One by one the injured were carried out to the MSF clinic a hundred meters away. Finally they were finished. We huddled down inside their little shanty with dozens of others, fearing another mortar strike on the courtyard.

"There is still the woman," one said.

"She's dead, I told you," I said.

He seemed confused. "But look," he said simply, motioning to her through the window. And outside, the woman, who'd been directly hit by a mortar shell and nearly sheared in two, was attempting to sit up off the pavement. My head lolled down onto my chest in despair.

"Good God!" I muttered, and we ran outside. She was conscious and moaning. Someone rolled over a wheel barrel, and we picked her up and plopped her in. One of her feet, sickeningly hanging on by a flap of skin, hung over the edge of the barrel, which was slowly filling with blood.

After this, I walked back across the street to the hotel. The streets were empty, as the shells were still striking in the distance and another could land anywhere at any moment, but I was too spent to run. Lethargically, I ambled up to the guard shack in front. The Liberian local militiamen who patrol the hotel had watched the shell hit and the bodies emerge, one by one.

I sat down, glassy-eyed and dazed. But they had no sympathy, only scorn. "You see Liberia, white man? You see how we live?" I was mute and communicated only with my eyes, like I'd just run a marathon. Then, shaking my head, I walked up the hill to the hotel. Dozens of Liberians and journalists were huddled against the walls of the dark, ground floor lobby, like a huge litter of kittens in a tiny box.

No one, it seems, wants to make the first move to help Liberia.
Americans least of all want to take any initiative. The cautionary tale of Somalia is often trotted out, but you might as well discuss the parallels to the Liberian conflict and the Revolutionary War. Somalia is an utterly lawless land, full of Muslims with few ties to the West and where seemingly every household is armed to the teeth and ready to fight. Liberia’s population tilted much more to the West. Most Liberians are benign and surprisingly well educated, with even refugee children in rags carefully spelling out their names when you ask. Most different of all is that Liberians are generally unarmed and are universally weary of war.

I had many versions of this conversation:

"What do you want to happen now in Liberia?" I would ask.
"We want American troops to come and save us."
"If they come, they will probably send a small, peacekeeping force."
"They are welcome. But better will be a large number of soldiers."
"How long would you want them to stay?"
"Many years, if they like. We are tired of war. We want occupation. We need
help. Even a small number of Americans will command respect."

Not a single person I talked to, from refugee to businessman to teenaged soldier nervously fingering his Kalishnikov, was against U.S. peacekeepers occupying Liberia.

It’s apparent to anyone who visits that Liberia considers itself an annex of
the United States--the Puerto Rico of West Africa. Founded by former
American slaves in the 1800s, a significant segment of the population is of American ancestry. The clues of its history--and its hopes for the future--are
everywhere, from the Liberian dollar, which was tied to the value of the
U.S. dollar until 1996, to the American flag bandanas sported on the head of
many a child soldier. Around the country, neighborhoods and counties have names like Virginia, Maryland, New Georgia, and West Point. The government complex is called Capitol Hill. The main hospital is called the JFK Medical Center. A high school is named after Richard M. Nixon, which is so strange I’ve been too scared to ask anyone exactly why. Even the Liberian flag is a direct knock-off of the U.S. flag, so close that when they hang limply they are hard to tell apart.

Reminders of America’s ties to Liberia are literally written on the walls and signs of Monrovia. In one common billboard, a white hand and a black hand clinch in a handshake and their sleeves run into the American and Liberian flags. (Under the graphic it reads, optimistically, "For Peace and Harmony.") In another, a small Liberian boy stands on a road talking with a tall black Uncle Sam:
"We’ve come a long way, Big Brother, but it’s still rough!. We are
suffering!" says the Liberian, his hand outstretched.
"For true?" answers the little balloon over Uncle Sam¹s head, probably the
first time he’s used that particular locution of English.

Eternally expecting help from "Big Brother" however--and eternally being
disappointed--takes its toll. The locals are getting restless. In one of the hundreds of refugee camps that have sprouted up on the literal roadsides since LURD encircled the capital, I met a man slumped in a plastic tent, his only possessions being a tin can
used to burn coal for cooking and a thin reed mat. We talked about the U.S. assessment team and whether or not he thought they’d find the evidence they needed to recommend a military intervention. His answer summed up the feelings of almost everyone I met. "We are dying here, every day,” he said, tears welling in his eyes. “What more to do they need to know?

It's especially difficult to watch such gruesome devastation every day when you know at least a short-term solution is easy. Five hundred Marines in one of the vaunted Expeditionary Forces with helicopter support could probably demolish rebel and government troops alike and would have Monrovia secured in a matter of days. It's heartbreakingly sad to follow the travails of a multi-billion dollar, 150,000 strong soldier attempt to occupy a clearly reluctant Iraq, while another land, much closer to America in history and culture, has to literally beg to be occupied with the number of American troops that pull kitchen duty every day in Baghdad.

But for weeks now no one has been willing to make any first moves, so Monrovians have had to endure hunger from cut off food supplies, death from medieval diseases like cholera, refugee camps, and stray bullets zipping all over town, cutting people down every day. Most feared of all is the mortar barrages, death from the sky that rains down once or day or so, randomly killing anything unlucky enough to be nearby when they explode. These mortar fusillades, probably more than anything, chased out about half of the press.

This latest assault was the third such attack in two months, and this one is by far the worst. The anti-Taylor forces of a group called Liberians United For Reconciliation and Democracy have been waging fierce battles at the edge of town, mobilizing the city’s dubious pro-Taylor government soldiers and militiamen, whose only qualifications to fight are that they’re old enough to lift a weapon. (Sometimes even that isn’t the case.)

But some of us journalists stayed, wisely or no. There's an element of messianic here--politicians may talk doublespeak and advisors might dither, but someone has to be around to show the grim realities of life on the ground in Monrovia. Every day this drags on, seemingly needlessly, dozens more people die—and whether its preventable or not, people need to see it. No one’s going to come out of this and complain, Rwanda-style, of not having known. The facts on the ground at least are clear. Ultimately that’s all the press can do.

© Chris Hondros

To view the atrocities attributed to Charles Taylor's forces in Sierra Leone, go to Martin Leuders' feature story at http://www.digitaljournalist.org/issue9902/diary1.htm

Enter Hearts of Chaos - A Dispatch from Monrovia - by Chris Hondros

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