Me and Joseph Duo
He's been an inextricable part of my life for more than two years now but I'd never known his name, his age or anything else about him. In fact, before last month we'd only met once for a few minutes during a pitched gun battle in West Africa. But our lives connected for good during the millisecond it took to photograph him jumping into the air in exultation during battle.
Neither of us knew the significance of that fraction of a moment, or that it would change both of our lives in ways that are still unfolding.
But I do know one thing now that I didn't know then: His name is Joseph Duo and he's 28 years old.
The offensive lasted nearly a month, an interminably terrifying month where death rained moment by moment from a sky dense with mortar shells and rifle rounds. All of Monrovia was a front line and I spent my time dashing from one adrenaline-inducing gunfight to the next, taking thousands of pictures of the mayhem. At one point, I found myself and a photographer colleague charging across a critical downtown bridge with a platoon of drugged-up pro-Taylor militiamen who were defending the position by pouring gunfire into a rebel position on the opposite bank.
Halfway across the unit's manic, shirtless commander grabbed a rocket-launcher from a young boy who'd been carrying it, hoisted it onto his shoulder and aimed for the end of the bridge. I scurried to about 20 feet behind him, out of the way of the weapon's explosive blowback, and trained my camera on him as he pulled the trigger.
The rocket ripped from the commander's shoulder with a deafening roar. It apparently hit its mark, because, to my surprise, he spun around and jumped into the air shouting in joy, drunk with the rapture of combat. I leaned on my shutter during his celebration. Afterward he ordered his remaining troops, mostly children, to charge the rest of the way over the bridge to keep the momentum of their assault going. Those who hesitated were bashed with the butt of his rifle.
They continued their clumsy charge, a terrified platoon of children with weapons, plunging into the continued uncertainty of Liberia's horrible war. But I was finished, for that day at least; my colleague and I went the other way, running as fast as we could, bent forward to stay out of cross fire. I was on the bridge probably less than 10 minutes.
The next morning I checked my e-mail before heading down to the front again, and to my surprise my mailbox was full. The messages were from around the world, most with subject headings like "Re: Incredible picture." It turns out that dozens of American newspapers ran the picture that day; The Washington Post, among others, splashed it across the front page. Magazines from France to Japan that week ran it across two pages. That picture made the commander a symbol of the intractable difficulties of Liberia's long civil war. Later it was turned into posters and book covers. A Dutch photo association gave it honors, and for a while the picture was plastered on train station benches and bus stop shelters all over Amsterdam. A French journalism festival turned it into a poster much larger than life-sized and hung it from the side of a building. It's been contemplated over cheap Chardonnay in art galleries and various critics have opined on its various pictoral and symbolic elements, such as, being a crucifixion image of the soldier floating in the air.
The picture, in short, became famous.
And ever since, people have been asking me about the dreadlocked fighter whose path fatefully intersected with mine for 10 minutes in July 2003. What was his name? How old was he? What happened to him? I had to admit I didn't know. The one bit of information I had was from a colleague from my office, Spencer Platt, who was in Liberia after I left and saw the fighter driving a truck, the picture printed from the Internet taped to his windshield (which gave us all a good laugh). So I knew he survived the war, at least.
For my part, I never really knew what the picture "meant." Photographers often take pictures of war victims and sometimes these move the world. But here was a picture of a war aggressor that garnered attention. Does the picture condemn or celebrate war? Create empathy for Liberians? Explore the sordid underbelly of the human condition or the darkness that lies latent in all of us? Even now, I'm not sure.
I always thought I would go back to Liberia to find out for myself. But the opportunity never arose until a few weeks ago when Liberia marked a milestone: free, nationwide, internationally monitored presidential elections. I landed in Monrovia's chaotic, run-down airport with a broad smile on my face: I'd missed Liberia.
My first stop was to the home of Ahmed, my Liberian assistant from two years before, who, inspired by all the journalists he met in 2003, was making a living now as a photojournalist, freelancing for various news services. I asked about the fighter on the bridge.
"Oh sure, he lives on the edge of town," he says. "He's famous now. I know the neighborhood. You want to go there?"
I soon found myself bumping down bad streets with a typical African backdrop of acute poverty: ramshackle houses, haggard chickens pecking the dirt and children with bloated bellies bounding through filthy streets.
Ahmed knocked on the door of a concrete shack while I waited by the car. Finally, the door opened and the man whose every detail I'd memorized stepped outside with a nervous smile. He was very short, far shorter than I remembered or than can be guessed from the photo; maybe 5 foot 3 inches at the most. The dreadlocks were gone, his torso covered with a shirt. He smiled a perpetual closed-mouth grin and was shy and nervous. It was like meeting an introspective 10-year-old.
"It's good to finally meet you again," I said, a bit at loss of what to say. "Do you remember me?"
"You the white man on the bridge," he said quietly. "You snapped that picture of me."
I smiled. "You know, I never did know your name."
"It's Joseph. My name is Joseph Duo."
And like the photo, he was, in fact, famous, granting interviews to some other international journalists in town for the elections who discovered that the man who had become the symbol of Liberia's civil war lived within a quick drive of their hotels. I took Joseph aside later and, with difficulty, I tried to tell him that I felt close to him because of the picture even though we hadn't met. It was hard to get across and I left that day wishing I could have said more. But we talked some more a few days later when we went back to the bridge together to take a follow-up portrait there.
Empty of everything but shell casings during the fighting, the bridge was now thronged with cars and people crossing safely from one side to the other. Walking though the crowds, Joseph smiled.
"This was hot," he said. "You couldn't go walking like this down there then. Too many bullets."
"Look," I said, pointing. "There's the wall where I first saw you. Remember how you were trying to get everyone organized to charge the bridge?"
"But they didn't want to come," he said with a smile. "Too hot! And then I saw you two white men and said, 'You come with us on the bridge.' Remember?"
"Believe me, yes."
It started to sprinkle, so I cut it short and we walked back from the bridge toward the car. Then we ran as it began to pour. We found shelter under an awning, both of us soaking wet.
"I have something to ask you," Joseph said, watching the rain. I could tell he was warming up the more time we spent together.
"Sure, ask anything."
"OK, well ..." He was staring at the ground, screwing up his courage. Finally, he blurted out: "I want to join the U.S. Marines. Tell me, how do a man join with the U.S. Marines?"
I'm not sure what I was expecting him to ask but whatever it was it wasn't that.
"Yes, the Marines," I said finally. "Uh, well, as it turns out they generally take, you know, Americans for that sort of thing."
Joseph's face fell, totally crestfallen. I winced.
"But, Joseph - are you sure you want to be a fighter anymore? Liberia is at peace now. Don't you want to go to school or something?"
"Yes, I want to learn a trade," he said with new animation. "But there is no school, no jobs. Plus I finished only to the 10th grade. Then I joined the war."
"Can you read and write?
Joseph was miffed. "I was an officer! I trained soldiers - three months of classes to be the elite fighter. Anti-terrorism unit! How could I do that if I can't read?"
"OK, OK," I said. "So basically you need to finish high school."
The next day, I asked Elliot, my driver, about how schools work in Monrovia.
"Oh, private schools, they so expensive! So expensive!" he said, as we bounced on the pitted roads around town.
"Really? How much for, say, a year's tuition then?" I asked.
"A year? Oh, much money, too much money," he said, sadly shaking his head.
"Four thousand, five thousand Liberian dollars," he said, head still shaking.
I squinted as I made the conversion. Then my eyebrows shot up.
"Yes. So expensive ..."
"For the whole year? Are you sure?"
He was right: one year's tuition and expenses at a private school in Liberia, many of which are associated with one church or another, costs less than $100. So on my last day in Monrovia I found myself touring private schools, carrying a pad to take notes and generally making as much of a fuss as a Manhattan mother touring day schools on the Upper East Side, though with markedly different kinds of questions: "Where is your generator?" "Do you have many former combatants?" "Why haven't you fixed all this shelling damage?"
One school was lovely but was in downtown Monrovia, about a 15-minute drive from Joseph's place in the suburban slums. Elliott thought that Joseph would be less likely to go if he had to get a ride every morning. Another was as good but wasn't accepting any more students. Yet another didn't have any computers, and even in Monrovia I felt computer skills would be important.
Then we found one, a long double row of classrooms adjacent to a Pentecostal church. It was a bit run-down, like most schools in Liberia, but it had a surprisingly ample computer lab, with 20 or so Dell towers added a few years old along with printers and such, and a large new generator sitting in the hallway to power it all. The school was part of the church, but the headmaster told me that it's run independently and they have students of many faiths and creeds. He also assured me that a 28-year-old 11th grader was nothing unusual.
"Are you kidding?" he said with a laugh. "We have eighth graders who are 40 in Liberia."
Enrollment was simply a matter of me paying the tuition and Joseph taking an aptitude test.
I went to get the student.
"You told me you wanted to go back to school," I said, putting a hand on his shoulder when we returned. "Well, here's a school. You'll have to take a test, but I'm going to sign you up, OK? Are you ready to go through with it?"
"Yes, fine," he said, his eyes shining as if he were deciding whether to embrace me or run away.
"Good. Let's go then," and together we walked into the courtyard. I introduced him to the headmaster, and soon we were all sitting in his office, me looking over paperwork, Joseph staring nervously at the floor.
We talked about the general course of study that would be appropriate, with me making most of the decisions with the help of an occasional nod from Joseph, who continued to sit quietly. Once we finished, the headmaster presented me with a carefully prepared bill, itemizing the costs into separate categories: tuition, entrance exam, computer lab, uniform and ...
"Toilet paper? What's this dollar-fifty for toilet paper?" I said, peering over the top edge of the bill.
"Yes, that's very important," said the headmaster. "For the toilet. They have they own paper. We don't want them to use the good paper."
With that, he picked up a sheet of typing paper from his desk and wiggling it by its corner as if it were already soiled.
"Okay," I said, returning to the bill. Grand total, for a year of private 11th-grade education in Liberia, with full computer lab benefits and several other perks I had them throw in: $86.
The headmaster loomed over Joseph and immediately started earning his pay, wagging a finger at his newest student: "Now, this man, he come to pay for you to go to the school. You've got to come to the school! Education, that's your future. You know that?"
"I know," Joseph said quietly, still staring at the ground. Then he looked me dead in the eye.
"I won't let myself down and I won't let you down. I promise."
"Well, this is it, I guess."
"What time are you going to school tomorrow?" I quizzed him.
We stared at each other, I thought again about that day on the bridge, the incalculable suffering that this tiny boy-man has suffered and inflicted; the dreams of all of Africa dashed and distilled right here, on this dirt road, in Joseph Duo, 28 years old, plucked from childhood to fight and kill. It is the only life he's known. Maybe this is hopeless, I thought. Maybe the scars of a lifetime of horror and bloodshed are too deep to heal. But maybe not. And in any case, the future of Joseph Duo is, for the first time ever, in his own hands.
"You'll do me proud, Joseph," I said, getting into the car.
© Chris Hondros
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