Charles Taylor, Belatedly

For reasons personal and professional, I’ve been away from the blog for a while now, during which several important events occurred. I’ll try to address them in upcoming posts.

The first, and perhaps most important, was Charles Taylor’s sentencing in the Hague to fifty years in prison for his role in atrocities committed in Sierra Leone during its civil war in the 1990s. I have a very personal—albeit indirect—relationship with Taylor.  Before backing the unspeakable acts of murder, rape and mutilation in neighboring Sierra Leone, he invaded his home country of Liberia in December 1989, in an attempt to unseat the then-dictator, Samuel Doe.  That was five days before my wedding to a U.S. diplomat, Dennis Jett, who was the deputy-ambassador at our embassy in Monrovia.  We went ahead with the ceremony anyway; Monrovia was a long way from the fighting upcountry and the invasion seemed a minor thing.

That illusion was dispelled in the following months. Taylor and another rebel hacked their way through the country in what became a civil war of remarkable brutality. Never, even as a journalist working in other part of Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, had I witnessed such wanton atrocities. After a while, the original aim of the conflict—the ousting of the president, the defense of the government, the primacy of the tribe—ceased to matter; only the killing counted. As a result, the State Department ordered me out of the country in June 1990, just as Taylor was about to march into Monrovia.

I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving Dennis and our friends to likely disaster.  Many of the other diplomats were hiding Liberians who were of tribes that were being hunted down by either government troops or Taylor’s rebels. (Shades of Nazi Germany.) So before departing, I told the stewards and gardeners and guards who worked at our house to move into the first floor with their families. Although we didn’t have Marines protecting the place, I hoped the fact that it was an official U.S. residence would dissuade soldiers and/or rebels from breaking in and spiriting people off to executions on the beaches around town.

A few years later, I received a letter from Mohammed, one of the stewards.  He was illiterate and must have gotten a professional letter writer to pen the missive. In it, he thanked me for saving him and his family, and the families of the other employees; at one point, he said, there were upwards of 40 people, many of them children, living in our house. (Dennis moved to the safety of the embassy compound almost immediately after my departure.)

This was a small consolation, compared with what happened to many of my friends and acquaintances. Later, I would interview survivors who had made it to neighboring Sierra Leone. The stories they recounted were almost too unbearable to hear.  A teenaged boy who tried to flee the fighting told of being detained at a rebel checkpoint manned by Taylor’s Freedom Fighters. A rebel suddenly, and for no apparent reason, fired two bullets into the chest of a man standing ahead of him in line, then sliced off the man’s head with a machete. Holding the head by the hair, the rebel dangled it in the face of the man’s wife. “Clap for your husband’s head,” he said, then turned to the horrified people waiting in line. “You must applaud this head,” he shouted, and they managed to clap their hands. “Now laugh at this head,” he cried, and the people tittered. “Now sing: up, up Major (Charles) Taylor.” The people sang.

While the young man was waiting at another checkpoint, a Jeep came roaring up and stopped abruptly. A highly agitated rebel emerged from the vehicle, demanding to see the checkpoint’s commander. “Here I am,” said one of the the Freedom Fighters, stepping forward.

“I have something to show you,” the rebel said, bringing forth a plastic bag and emptying its contents–a large pile of human penises–on the ground.

“But what did you do with the men?” the commander asked.

“Oh, nothing,”  the rebel laughed. “I just cut off their penises and told them to get going.”

“Well done,” replied the commander. The two men counted the severed members; there were fifty-two in total, which prompted the commander to decree that the rebel henceforth would be known as the Fifty-Two Reporter.

All this happened before Taylor conquered Liberia and, as president, turned his sights on Sierra Leone. When I was evacuated, I went only as far as Sierra Leone, the next country to the west. I wanted to remainin Africa, if only for the news. As long as the conflict continued, and Dennis faced real danger, and I remained separated from my home, and my friends suffered unknown fates, I hungered for news. In the U.S., Africa hardly countseven in its most tragic moments. In Sierra Leone, however, there were hourly bulletins. The BBC, Voice of America, American Armed Forces Radio, the English services of the French, German and Dutch broadcasting companies–all beamed at Africa, all focused on the war in Liberia.

I stayed at a coastal resort catering to French tourists, where I watched them arrive and depart with a kind of tidal regularity, and the beach boys–as they called themselves–from the nearby fishing village, who had turned into tour guides. They all had wonderfully biblical names such as Moses and Samuel, except for one who was called Alfa Romeo.  Evenings, I’d wander up to the bar. Nursing a beer and trying to kill time, I’d talk with the bartenders and waitresses about the latest news from Liberia. We only knew in general terms the horror that was being visited on the people there by both Taylor’s fighters and the soldiers of the incumbent president, Samuel Doe. But it was enough to make the Sierra Leonians decry their neighbors as barbaric and unholy. Nothing like that could ever happen here, they insisted; we’re not like the Liberians.

Indeed, they seemed the gentlest and kindest of people. Virtually all were working at the resort to save money for schooling. And in the ensuing years, watching from afar as Sierra Leone descended into the hell that Charles Taylor aided, abetted and funded, I often thought of them. And hoped and prayed that they had somehow escaped the maelstrom. At least now, with Taylor’s sentence to 50 years in prison, I can be certain of one thing: justice, however glacial in its progress, has been served.