Soldiers in a Forgotten War

Liberia briefly made U.S. headlines last summer, as rebel troops drove Charles Taylor into exile. World attention has moved on, but there is no peace in this battle-wracked land.

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Dress this soldier in different clothes. Let him wear a new uniform of camouflage fatigues, a helmet, boots. Then let him say farewell to his girlfriend before going off to battle, and it would be much like the scenes we know from the pictures in our newspapers—American GIs parting with loved ones. The photograph—he leaning close, his eyes half shut in resignation, hers tight with urgency—might make our eyes well up.

Instead, the clothes are ragged, the army ragtag. This is Liberia, and these are rebel soldiers fighting for a cause unknown, in a region, West Africa, that we know little about. It’s all too foreign for the welling of tears.

There is good reason for the failure of empathy. The place is alien, and the soldiers themselves don’t know much about their own cause. Some in this army, called simply LURD, don’t know what the letters stand for: Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy. Their leaders can seem less eager to talk about political goals or national transformation than about the prospect of dividing up government posts and selling off valuable concessions to cut and export the country’s timber.

“What is LURD’s vision?” asked an anthropologist friend of mine, who lately spent two weeks among the movement’s leadership.

“My vision,” came the reply from one general, “is to be in the parastatals,” referring to state-run enterprises. He added that it might be most lucrative for him to be head of ports.

And now, to a degree, these leaders and these soldiers have succeeded. Backed by arms from neighboring Guinea and diplomatic pressure from the United States, LURD and another rebel group have chased Charles Taylor, Liberia’s tyrannical president since 1997, into exile in Nigeria. This in itself is progress. Taylor began his rise to power in 1989 partly by means of his Small Boys Unit, a terrifying band of capricious child soldiers. Taylor also fostered one of the most brutal civil wars in recent memory, in next-door Sierra Leone, for which a U.N. tribunal has indicted him as a war criminal.

But with Taylor gone (at least for the moment), what next for Liberia? After 14 years of war, a power-sharing government, combined with a force of U.N. peacekeepers, is supposed to create stability until elections can be held in 2005. But power sharing hardly means unity; it means only that for all the mayhem they have caused—the mass rapes and looting and burning of villages—LURD and a rival rebel faction will be rewarded with control of some government ministries, while Taylor’s top officials will retain control of others. A bit of each side’s vision for Liberia’s future will be realized. “No monkey!” was LURD’s battle cry—with Taylor being the monkey up in the branches, picking all the best fruit. He is accused of plucking as much as $100 million from his nation, which is among the poorest on earth. Now the rebel leaders will have their chance, too. Perhaps there is unity in that.

The United Nations plans to deploy its largest contingent of peacekeepers anywhere—a projected 16,000 by early 2004. But with the United Nations’ bleak record elsewhere in Africa, it is questionable that even a large force will be able to keep the people of Liberia safe.

Meanwhile, rebel armies skirmish in the countryside, and civilians scatter. Western aid groups won’t venture into much of rural Liberia, considering it too dangerous. This is the country’s new peace.

Whatever happens from here on, we probably won’t read much about it. Last summer, when LURD attacked Monrovia and all was anarchy in the capital, Liberia made American headlines—partly because President Bush was about to begin a trip to Africa. Speculation in the media was rife—he will have to do something; America will have to intervene; it will have to rescue this tormented nation that the United States founded more than 150 years ago and that served American economic and Cold War interests until America no longer had any use for it. Bush would have to commit himself before his trip, the experts said. Otherwise, any speeches he gave expressing compassion for the continent would sound blatantly hollow.

Bush followed the perfect strategy—assuming that he and his administration wanted no real involvement in Liberia. He didn’t commit himself. Instead, he delayed sending in any U.S. peacekeeping forces, spent a few days in less troubled spots in Africa, spoke compassionately there, and returned home. Since then, the United States has done little to stabilize Liberia and has given no sign that it will take serious interest in the country’s fate. Bush knew the truth: The headlines in America would be short-lived. Liberians are a people of rags and black skin on a continent of rags and black skin. They are a people of tremendous suffering on a continent whose suffering can seem infinite. The president understood that our instinct would be to forget.


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