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
one, it seems, wants to make the first move to help Liberia.
I had many versions of this conversation:
"What do you want to happen now in
Liberia?" I would ask.
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
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:
Eternally expecting help from "Big
Brother" however--and eternally being
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