Part One: Digging Deep
It was in mid-August of 2003, just a day after President Charles Taylor had departed Liberia and I found myself on the bridge that linked the country’s main port to downtown Monrovia.
Called “New Bridge” (“Old Bridge” was
just a hundred yards away), it was the site of much of that summer’s fighting. Day in and day out, the LURD rebel army attacked from the port and the Government forces defended from the city, each side firing endless rounds of AK 47s and RPGs at anything that moved and much that didn’t. Only a few days had passed since Taylor had departed and the bridge was still covered in spent bullet shells, hideous reminders of all that had gone wrong that summer.
During this time it was certainly one of the most dangerous places in the world, but today, I sat quietly with my friend and guide, Zubin Cooper contemplating the future, both mine and that of Liberia. Reflecting back on what we had seen and dreaming what we might do going forward, I suggested to Zubin that we create a trilogy of films.
I’ve made documentary films for nearly two decades and for me, the more complex a story the more intriguing. Liberia, both because of its historic connection to slavery and its unique relationship with the United States, is certainly as complicated and intriguing a place as I’ve ever found.
There are 53 countries in Africa, 15 that make up West Africa, two that have never been fully colonized and one, Liberia, that’s the oldest republic on the continent as well as the one country in the world, because of its linked history to the U.S., worthy, or burdened, to be America’s step child.
As any good storyteller worth his salt knows, when you find a rich vein you dig deep. For the past seven years I have dug deep into Liberia.
In 2002, I traveled with the LURD rebel army convoy from Guinea to Liberia. In 2003, I was in Ghana when Taylor was indicted for crimes against humanity. During the final summer of the Civil War I filmed on the government side, while my partners on the project shot on the rebel army side. My camera captured Charles Taylor’s farewell speech to the nation at his White Flower home office. I was there at the airport when he left for Nigeria. I visited with Jacques Paul Klein while looting disrupted the completion of disarmament. I returned when Ellen announced her candidacy and returned once again during her first year in office. I spent time with former women combatants while shooting a film for Amnesty, made a promotional film for the Government of Liberian to investment in the country. My footage has appeared in documentaries about the role of women in contributing to peace and about Doctors Without Borders bringing care in a war zone.
Through it all, I have come to love this crazy and wonderful country and its strong willed, open, generous and kind people. I hope that by being friend, observer, traveler, chronicler and storyteller I can be of service to a nation deserving of a far better fate than the one it has so far experienced.
During these years I have heard many stories about Liberia told in the media, read books by both Liberians and non-Liberians, and listened to hundreds of extraordinary accounts about the country. I have seen extraordinary acts of courage, witnessed horrible outbursts of violence and been moved by the most generous of deeds. I’ve done my best to listen carefully, capture on video and put together films that are my best effort at representing truth.
Along the way I have learned that in a country as complex as Liberia discerning truth as an outsider is not easy. Among its population of 3.5 million, Liberia has 16 different tribes speaking as many languages; a community of descendents of formerly freed slaves, known as Americo-Liberians; and 500,000 more citizens living in the Diaspora. Like many people, I came armed with opinions, but Liberia has challenged most all of them, leaving me to sort out the blurry but wonderful line between imagination and reality. It can be frustrating at times, but ultimately, it is why I keep coming back.
Now, with former President Charles Taylor on the witness stand at The Hague facing eleven counts of Crimes Against Humanity, the question of truth has rarely had greater value or consequence. The trial attracts my interest not only because Taylor is the first sitting President in history to be so charged, but also Liberia’s connection to the US raises critical questions about the role of international justice.
Taylor, already assumed guilty for the wars that tore apart his own country, is facing charges, not for what he did in Liberia, but for acts of brutality that took place in Sierra Leone during the years 1998 – 2002. While he himself did not physically commit the crimes for which he is being charged, he is considered the person ultimately responsible. To make matters more complex, the proceedings are physically taking place in Holland, although the trial is under the jurisdiction of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, a hybrid court that is partly based on Sierra Leonean law, partly based on international law. It was set up as an alternative to the International Criminal Court.
The charges Taylor is accused of include killing of civilians, torture, sexual crimes and the use of child soldiers. The motivation as explained by the Prosecution was to gain access to the rich diamond fields in the neighboring country and thus help him pursue his ambitions. Not only is he presumed to be criminal to the extreme, but witnesses have testified to having seen Taylor drink the blood of his enemies and eat their hearts. The court does not have the option to impose the death penalty, but if found guilty, Taylor will serve out the rest of his life behind bars.
While there are extraordinary challenges and prohibitive costs in pursuing this case, the opportunity it provides for furthering justice cannot be underestimated. Certainly, convicting a man for these horrific crimes might serve to heal a deeply wounded nation and make the region a safer place in the future. Furthermore, holding a powerful political figure accountable in the face of intimidation and fear, thus demonstrating that impunity exists for no man, is an important statement of justice’s power and purpose.
I’m not going out on a limb by stating that the vast majority of the people I speak with are certain he is guilty. The media has damned him, the human rights community has condemned him and the world has pretty much gone along.
As a journalist and storyteller, I have no problem suspending judgment to observe and record another chapter in Liberia’s history. So, once again, I am drawn back to Liberia, Holland and Sierra Leone hoping to understand the truth and one day to share it as best I can.
THE JOURNEY BEGINS
I had an idea to make the three films, something about a trilogy that felt right and began imagining the topics. The first would focus on the Civil War told from both sides of the conflict. The story would take us right to the edge of insanity and back again, never losing sight of a people’s capacity to endure against all odds. By 2004, the film was completed and released under the title LIBERIA: AN UNCIVIL WAR (though some might know it as its pirated version, The Rise and Fall of Charles Taylor, readily available throughout West Africa) and shown on television stations and at film festivals around the world.
The second film I suggested would document the arrival of the United Nations in Liberia. In it I hoped to explore what would happen when the world’s most dysfunctional bureaucracy tried to bring democracy to one of the world’s least functioning countries. Unfortunately, this one never got off the ground because just as it was getting going, my main character, the Secretary General’s Special Representative, Jacques Paul Klein prematurely stepped down (a colorful person who was accused of some very colorful behavior).
Unable to continue on and still seeking funding, I switched editorial directions. Working with my friends and colleagues, Daniel Junge and Henry Ansbacher, we made a film about Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s inaugural year in office as Africa’s first elected female President. We watched as the President and her team worked around the clock to bring a semblance of order to the nation. This film was released as IRON LADIES OF LIBERIA and was shown in over 75 countries.
As I sat on the bridge with Zubin that day, Taylor had just departed for Nigeria as part of the agreement to end the war, but I imagined, ultimately correctly, that sooner or later he would be forced to face the charges. Certainly the trial would present a unique opportunity to explore questions about International Justice. It is the film I am now calling THE TRIAL OF THE CENTURY.
The short history of Liberia’s origins is that in the 1820’s the American Colonization Society, a group made up of both northern abolitionists and southern slave owners, raised money to send freed American slaves back to Africa to create their own country. For the religious Northerners it was a chance to do good and spread the gospel. For the slave owners it was a way to rid the south of a better educated and thus more dangerous and incendiary population. They had witnessed the success of the Haitian revolution (the second country to gain independence in the Western Hemisphere) led by freed slave, Toussain L’Ouverture and were eager to avoid a similar fate.
A quarter of a century later, in 1847, Liberia was founded. It was the first republic in Africa; its capital city was named after the 5th President of the United States; its constitution written (and the original still remains) in Harvard and its Pledge of Allegiance a replica of our own. Indeed, it is not a stretch to say that Liberia is the only country in the world that deserves the title, “Made in America.” There is certainly value and substance in this relationship but it, as well, carries a lasting burden.
Imagine what would happen if one group of people sold another group into bondage who were then taken to America and turned into slaves. Generations later the descendants of these slaves, now free, return to Africa. While their ancestors were the ‘weaker’ tribe who suffered the middle passage, these sons of slaves return with the resources – particularly weapons – to take power. Now, the sons of former slaves are in control over the sons of the men who sent their ancestors into slavery.
From the very beginning Americo-Liberians took complete power and maintained control over the indigenous Africans for 140 plus years. One group owned the land and became wealthy while the other worked it and served as second-class citizens. The relationship reached a low point in the early 1930’s when Liberia was kicked out of the League of Nations for “trading in slavery.” Despite being a country dedicated to freedom, as the passport states, “Love of Liberty Brought Us Here,” it was not until the 1940’s that indigenous Liberians were even given the right to vote.
Although born out of America’s own history, the relationship has been asymmetrical. While Liberia has been consistently loyal and responsive to every American need and request, the US has shown interest and engagement for Liberia’s geopolitical and economic value. During World War II they provided an important military base with the longest runway in Africa. For many years it served as West Africa’s CIA base, Voice of America’s headquarters and a station for the Omega Navigation System. They voted in unison with us more regularly at the UN than any country in the world (including Israel), and have often sent their sons to serve in the US army during our many wars. Firestone built its largest rubber plantation here and the US set up Liberia’s Flag of Convenience status for merchant ships after WW
Than in the 1970’s, inspire by the Pan African movement that was sweeping the continent, Liberian President William Tolbert opted for a neutral political status. In 1973, he switched allegiance in the United Nations from the US block and joined the Non- Aligned movement. He opened diplomatic ties with the Soviet Union and broke ties with Israel.
In 1980, he was executed. After a century half of rage and repression, discrimination and injustice, most Liberians celebrated the coup and danced in the streets at the very moment that 13 government ministers and political figures were tied to poles on a beach and executed. The new president, Staff Sgt. Samuel Doe became the first indigenous Liberian to lead the country and the US supported him whole-heartedly.
I have never seen proof that the US had anything to do with Tolbert’s death, but rumors abound and given our history of overthrowing independent leaders, it’s understandable that many Liberians assume the worse. Regardless of our involvement, Doe’s loyalty was richly rewarded. During his tens years regime, 1980 – 1990, America provided over 500 million dollars of aid, most of it military.
Charles Taylor, who had been studying in the State in the 1970’s, returned home and took a top-level government position in the Doe government. Within a few years, accused of corruption, he fled to the US where he was arrested and sent to prison to await expedition hearings. A year later, he escaped from the Massachusetts medium security facility, in which he now claims he was aided by “agents of the US government,” eventually arriving in Libya where he built a rebel army. On Christmas Eve 1989, with less than 100 soldiers, Charles Taylor and his National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) set out to topple President Doe.
Unfortunately for Doe, with the Cold War finished, the US lost interest in both Liberia and his personal well-being. Like Tolbert ten years earlier, Doe was brutally murdered by Prince Johnson. Better organized, better funded (Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was raising funds for the NPFL) and by far most sophisticated, Taylor establishes himself as the leader of the most powerful force in the country. Within a year he took over most of the country and was poised to take over the country. Pressured by both world leaders and the West African community and challenged by West African peacekeepers, complete victory is delayed for six years.
After many peace conferences, treaties, broken and rebuilt, in 1997 elections are held and Taylor is elected President with seventy-five percent of the vote. Despite claims of “bullying,” the international community officially sanctions his election and Taylor takes office. However, Taylor never manages to get the backing of the US, without whose blessing or support his presidency is doomed.
During the late 1990’s, accusations fly that Taylor, seeking access to the rich diamond fields of Sierra Leone, is bringing chaos and conflict across the border. Millions are displaced. Hundreds of thousands killed. Men and women of all ages have their limbs hacked off. UN peacekeeper are held hostage. Children are forced to join the army. Women are raped. Finally, in 2002, the war in Sierra Leone ends.
The Special Court for Sierra Leone is created to handle the most significant cases. The cost to bring those most responsible to justice will pass $200 million dollars.
It is was then 22 years since Tolbert’s death, more than a decade since Doe’s death, an equal length of time since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. Interest in this region has waned, but the beginnings of chaos were stirring. Another rebel army was being formed of Liberians who are getting logistical support from Guinea. Their goal was to overthrow Taylor. Another war is brewing. It is will be the final chapter in this two decade long conflict. Unaware of why or how, I was drawn to Liberia. The US is turning its interests back to Liberia and I was eager to visit for the first time.
A CONNECTION TO LIBERIA
People often wonder how in the world I ended up spending so much time in Liberia. I’m not someone naturally (or unnaturally) drawn to war zones or conflict areas. I had never been to Africa before. I had one friend from Liberia who had made a film I watched years earlier, but I had no plans to visit there myself.
Yet the link for me to Liberia had been established years earlier on another project that drew my attention in the south of the US. In 1992, I was wandering the halls of the convention center in New Orleans having just shown my film, DAMNED IN THE USA at that year’s American Library Association meeting. In each room there was an author reading from his or her book and I would walk in, listen a while and continue on. Then I came to a room where I saw a man in shackles reading a book, as a guard stood at his shoulder. The reader, and author, was Wilbert Rideau. The book, LIFE SENTENCES. He was serving a life sentence at Angola Prison, but had been allowed out to present his newly published book.
I asked him about the prison and the possibility of filming there. Wilbert told me that the prison administration had allowed him to have his own camera and he was making a documentary at the time. We corresponded and eventually in February of 1996, I entered Angola’s gates for the first time.
Today Angola is a maximum security prison that houses 5000 inmates serving sentences so long 95% of these inmates die there. Its history, like that of Liberia, is deeply tied to one of the ugliest chapters in American history. It was first a slave plantation, named for the slaves who were brought over to work its fields. Then, when the slave trade was banned in the 1820’s, it became a breeding ground for slaves, and after the Civil War finally converted to a prison. That land has seen more suffering than anywhere in our country. If Angola Prison is an obvious manifestation of slavery’s legacy in the US (where 90% of the men inside are African American), Liberia is an equally powerful example of slavery’s legacy back in Africa.
In the twists and turns of life, what seems incongruent becomes clear. Time and space create order out of chaos and so from Angola, Louisiana to Liberia, West Africa, for me, it’s all part of one long, painful, but redemptive story.