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Special Feature

22 Years Later: My Emotional Journey to Fendall

By culture, Lorma young men are not supposed to cry at their fathers’ or mothers’ funeral for doing so implies defeat and feminism. For men who have already graduated from the bush school, the word “defeat” or “feminism” is totally abominable. They would therefore rather prefer death than take such titles. Men who stand the test are enviously hailed by the locals as being brave and strong.

It has now become apparent to this writer that it was this kind of psychological ideology used by the Lormas, and perhaps, other Liberian tribes to recruit potential warriors to protect their boders, towns and villages against enemy invasion. Though such culture may be fading, it however still exists even today.

As a ninth-grade student in 1981, I had been warned by an uncle not to shed tears during my father’s funeral procession in Liberia’s northern Lofa County. I obeyed, and continuously fought back tears throughout the rituals in spite all attempts by my four grieving aunts (my father’s sisters) to provoke me into crying. Upon receiving my mother’s death news September 11, 2001, I managed the same way to hold back tears. I remained strong and didn’t cry till weeks later when her passing really hit me hard and that’s when I let it out!

But on Friday, Jan. 27, 2012, that wasn’t the case as I drove up to the Fendall University Campus outside Monrovia following nearly 22 years when my family and I sought refuge there at the height of Liberia’s civil war in 1990. Tears rolled down my chest as I parked my car in the main square of the Science College Building where friends and I passed the day munching on whatever bush nuts we had. The campus was jammed park with an estimate 250,000 displaced and foreign residents.

On my arrival, I became emotionally distraught as a result of flashbacks from my 1990 war experience. It was like a re-play of that war. I thought of numerous things that could snatch people and their loved ones at the time such as hunger, diseases like cholera, dysentery and diarrhea and above all, the guns that everyone feared most. 

Then I lifted my head and the teachers’ quarters came within full view. This is where the rebels had kept all foreigners hostage particularly those from ECOWAS countries like Nigeria, Ghana and Guinea who initially contributed troops that made up ECOMOG to help stop the widespread carnage staged by NPFL rebels and the government forces. Each passing night, NPFL rebels raided the teachers’ quarters and took away scores of hostages and killed them. Rebels also carried out similar raids in the main campus complex including the auditorium of the Science building where I lived with my relatives.

The unpleasant odor emanating from footwear and cloths worn by the rebels suggested some had not have a bath for weeks or even months. They often entered the various dormitories around 3: AM to 4: AM, pointing torchlight in our faces while we were deep asleep in order to search for people belonging to certain tribes targeted by the NPFL hierarchy. They would kick us with their boots and shout with that deep Gio-Manor accented English: “Let all the man get up.” In obedience to order, all the men would quickly wake up, some still dosing in and out of sleep as others sat in sad mood with their hands folded across their chests apparently worried about what might happen to them. The rebel commander and his men would then go around with flashlights searching between chairs and pointing out men and women who should follow them to a checkpoint notoriously called “God bless me gate” located off campus on the main Monrovia-Kanata Highway.

Certain people were targeted prior to each raid. Rebel informers lived among us and pretended to be displaced people. Their work involved collecting data on individual displaced who appeared to act suspicious such as avoiding others or crowds.  Informers would describe the target’s complexion and clothing since in fact most people wore the same cloths for weeks or months due to such hopeless life. Rebels sometimes hovered over us throughout the night like an eagle ready to snatch its prey. Many of those taken away were never seen again.

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Even daylight wasn’t a guarantee for anyone’s safety. One moment, you would be with a friend or a relative, or say a passerby you had seen and within hours, that person would be gone. It was a very scary situation that left many people thinking about where to go, although nowhere under the NPLF was safe. The place was like a huge prison camp surrounded by rebel checkpoints. One had to pass a roadblock more than twice each day to shower or attend to nature. That is, if he/she didn’t feel comfortable showering at a small creek called “Adam and Eve” south of the campus where about 20 to 30 adults men and women would gather during evening hours and shower side by side. 

Because of this dangerous atmosphere, the best safety measure for young men like us was to move about in group; that way someone would be in the position to carry news in case something happens. One rainy morning in August 1990, an upset stomach suddenly led me to an unpleasant sight across the main road headed to Bensonville, home of former Pres. William R. Tolbert. I saw a young female half buried in a shallow grave with part of her legs and fingers exposed. It’s a scene that has never gone away from my memory.

With this much of an experience, I didn’t know where to begin filming after the sobbing ended. I managed to set up my camera on tripod in a self-snapping mode right at the entrance of the auditorium where I once lived. As I filmed from one point to another, curious students often interrupted the exercise to inquire about my visit. Each time, I stopped and explained how my family and I had slept on those concrete slabs after escaping the capital.

“We sought refuge here thinking this campus was safe when in fact it turned out to be one of the worst places in Liberia at that time” I explained.  “But I thank God that people can once more come here to school.”

The students froze as they sympathetically listened to my war story. What actually appeared to me afterwards from the exchanges with the students there is that there is something in particular that every Liberian directly or indirectly affected by the war can easily relate to and that is the pain taken into every Liberian household by the war.

My family’s journey to Fendall began one morning early August 1990. We had been uprooted from our home located in Gardnerville, near Liberia’s Oil Refinery by the Charles Taylor led war that had eventually consumed the entire country in six months with no real frontlines. One day, the battle front could be as far as Broad Street while the next day, it could be right in the center of your neighborhood.  And in spite of my uncle’s procrastination, we eventually had to vacate our residence near the Chicken Soup Factory in Gardnerville.

The source of  power for Mr. Taylor’s rebel army largely came from Nimba County, most of whom were Gois and Manors who had been revengefully targeted by Doe’s death squad after a failed 1985 coup led by former Armed forces of Liberia (AFL) Commanding General Thomas Quiwonkpa, also from Nimba. Now years later, disgruntled Nimba citizens swallowed the ranks of Taylor’s rebel army and were coming back to settle score not only with Krahn rivals, but any Liberian for that matter perceived to have link to krahns and their supporters.

The brutality carried out against civilians by the national army from the onset of the war caused it to loss its popularity and support among the masses. And after carrying out several small civilian massacres in and around the capital leading to the July 1990 Monrovia Lutheran Church genocide, the AFL found itself in total shamble and desperation fighting for survival.

A small AFL unit that provided protection for the Liberia Oil Refinery Company got trapped between Taylor’s NPFL and the INPFL of Gen. Prince Johnson, now a Senator for Nimba. After running out of food and ammunition, members of this unit would emerge from their hideout in the vicinity and strike their rival NPFL forces thus jeopardizing our safety. In one incident, after they have repelled the AFL men, NPFL fighters hunted and killed a Krahn neighbor, Mr. Collins Pyne. Mr. Pyne once owned a motel business in the area. He had sent his entire family to Freetown before the war hit Monrovia. His broad day execution that August 4th morning in 1990 served as a deciding moment for my uncle as to whether we could risk staying or leave our yard.

Barely less than an hour into our journey, it became cleared to all of us that fighters of Mr. Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) masquerading as “freedom fighters” were indeed worst off than the National Army dominated by the Krahns. Unable to return to Monrovia having entered NPFL’s territories which had fast extended beyond Johnsonville we continued to zoom in towards Fandell University Campus.

By the time the morning sun rose, we were already in the Congo settlement of Johnsonville to a spot where NPFL rebels had just set up a new guard post otherwise called checkpoint. We didn’t see any fighter on arrival there but as we inquired information from residents concerning the general security atmosphere along the route to the Fendall Campus, two persons, an adult armed with a single barrel gun, and a teenage boy probably 12 year-old brandishing a kitchen knife, suddenly appeared from nowhere. They were part of thousands of Liberians who have come to “Liberate” their people from tyranny. 

Without much talking, the adult rebel dressed in rags and tattered sneakers ordered his teen rebel soldier to search our belongings. As the boy pulled the cloths from the bottom of my uncle’s suitcase, what looked like a used tiny bullet shot was discovered.

“Who get gun here?” A deep silence fell as everyone stood dumbfounded.

“Who the soljor among  yor…? He asked with a profound Gio undertone as he stepped back and cocked his weapon.

“Okaaay, let me be honest and tell you….,” said my kneeling uncle as he tried to maintain his balance, slowly raising his right hand as if he was about to take an oath.  “Tell me otherwise, I will kill all of yor,” the young man who must have he been in his late 20s shouted back with some degree of seriousness.

Knowing the history of the rebels, no one was taking any chances. The rebels were known not to spare the life of even the lowest ranking government civil servant such as an office clerk or janitor. The likelihood therefore of any possibility to have us set free was very thin. As the drama unfolded amidst this gradual but chaotic atmosphere, this feeling that “something must be done quickly” suddenly fell upon me. Behold the same idea was already stirring up Brother Jensen. Jensen and I stole glances as we moved closer to the adult rebel holding a single-barrel gun. If anything, Jensen and I would knock him off balance, seize his weapon and free our family. But it seemed the NPFL fighter detected our mood. The rebel quickly took few steps back, pointed his weapon towards Jensen and ordered me to stand next to Jensen.         

My uncle who had been speechless finally mustered courage and strength to talk. He would admit that the tiny bullet found belonged to a gun he kept years back for the sole purpose of protecting his family against armed robbers. After that, he would attempt to beg for mercy but would the rebels easily buy that idea?

The next thing, the rebels confiscated our belongings including a half bag of rice and half tin of palm oil. The adult fighter threw away our cloths and told residents to take the oil and the food because they were useless the fact that he was going to kill all of us.

At this juncture, Keima, who happened to be the fiancé of Karwolorwu, once a brother-in-law to us, voiced out that she and her husband were not a part of the “Mulbah” family and therefore the rebels should spare her and the boyfriends’ lives. The adult rebel reasoned with her request and ordered the rest of us, except Keima and Karwolorwu, to form a single line and head to the riverside, a rebel designated killing site in the area. We were about 17 altogether and it was because of persistent pleas from residents in the area that the rebels set us free.

By the time we reached the middle of our journey, hundreds of civilians fleeing disturbances from nearby towns and villages had joined the mass exodus. In towns along the Johnsonville-Fendall route, hundreds of bystanders stood by the road with their hands folded as they watched the flow of the human traffic. In this state of chaos, some spectators helped provided travelers with cleaned drinking water and reassuring that all will be well.

At NPFL roadblocks along the way, rebels vigorously screened thousands of people for perceived enemies for possible execution. Rebels also tossed every bit of our belongings and took away whatever they wanted from us, displaced including personal treasured photos from friends. One asked me if I won’t mine giving him a picture I took with former Liberia’s football star, George Weah. Before I could answer, he had removed the picture from my album. Many of them were fans of Mr. Weah and had only heard of him but never met or seeing his photo. Giving out my memorable photo was a way to create a sort of distraction so the rebel could stop harassing brother, Jensen in that one rebel commander had begun quizzing him regarding a picture he Jensen took wearing a watchman security uniforms. They murdered people for even the least important thing such as mere letter in transit to a family member that mentioned information about the rebels harassment of civilians.  

We saw countless of dead bodies, mostly civilians. People living in towns along the route came by in search for relatives and friends, or perhaps just to watch the mass exodus. They told us stories about some of the war victims we saw beside the road. Majority of those killed were people reported to have link to tribes targeted, mainly Krahn, Mandingo and Sarpo. Other victims, we were told, were people who worked as civil servant in the crumbling government. Yet still, the good looking feature of some people served as a determining factor in their death. I saw the bloated bodies of two obese men whose hands and legs had stiffened due to the tropical weather.

As we approached the Fendall Campus, we were order to form a single line. At the head of the line which was longer than half a mile, rebels had set up a post near the college where new arrivals were being interrogated. A mulatto probably in her 30s was credited as the gifted one who spoke all of the local languages that were used to track down members of hunted tribes although her Lorma and Kpelle sounded awkward. She immediately began her questioning once an individual has identified himself and the tribe to which he belongs.

My uncle’s children, most of them girls, were all born in Monrovia and had never stepped out of the capital till the war came. Other than English, none could speak his/her mother’s tongue except to say hello! Besides, we were also traveling with nieces and nephews of my uncle’s wife. But the good news was that this group of children was born upcountry and could speak Kpelle fluently. We were somewhere in the middle of the line with hundreds ahead of us. This gave us a better chance to be able to teach my uncle’s kids a few lessons in Lorma before our turn.

It went like this: “What’s your name?” “What tribe are you?” And after giving the answers to those two, the individual was then requested to say where in Liberia he comes from. The presence of heavily armed rebel guerrillas made the exercise quite intimidating. Rag-tag fighters moved up and down the line and ordering people they didn’t feel pleased with to step aside or follow them for questioning. I saw people identified as Bassa, Kpelle, Gola, Lorma, Vai, Grebo, Kru, Congo, Manor, Gio, Belleh, Gbandi and Kissi. But I didn’t openly hear voices of Mandingo, Sarpo nor Krahn people. I wondered what was happening to my country.

The Campus was no less than a human catastrophe with suffering visible everywhere. The suffering made Mr. Charles Taylor to visit the campus twice in August and promised that international relief was coming for all displaced persons which didn’t happen. The sight of skeleton-like hunger-stricken adults and children feeding on groundnuts and palm kernels became common.

What compounded the entire situation was that the NPFL rebels for their personal reasons kept this huge population at Fendall and refused to allow people to move up country. With the exception of people of Nimba origins, one had to obtain a “G-2 Pass” (which could take up to days to be processed) to travel from Fendall to Carysburg which is just a few kilometers away; not to mention about faraway places like Lofa and Maryland.

Few days to the arrival of the West African Peacekeeping Force, a product of ECOWAS with a mandate to halt the bloodbath and restore sanity to Liberia, NPFL rebels coerced the entire population at Fendall to stage a massive demonstration against the coming of the ECOMOG troops. We were informed that the fighters who had their vehicles decorated with human skulls and skeletons would shoot on sight anyone who refuses to go out and participate in the planned anti-ECOMOG march. In addition, NPFL fighters forced us to show an expression of joy as we sang and paraded before a group of foreign journalists brought in by the NPFL. There, the reporters struggled to get their best photo shots of our frailed-looking faces.

Now coming back to this campus after many years of living in exile in the US inadvertently brought fresh war memories to mind. As I retrospect, I certainly have this feeling that I too could have probably died there just like those I saw if not for God’s blessings. Overwhelmed by those strong memories, I couldn’t help but had to let my tears out as a way of relieving my soul.

Consequently, if there is anything worth remembering about a civil war victim-survival such as me, it should be how the brutal war altered our lives and also our resolve to recuperate from unending nightmare. For me, I have found that writing and sharing my personal experiences as a war-survival and former war correspondent serve as a therapy or a copping method, and not an attempt to re-hatch another war as those guilty of war crimes might want us to think.

Note: The names Keima and Karwolorwu are not the real names of the individuals so named in this article. Fictitious names have been used in place of their names to protect their identities.

James Kokulo Fasuekoi is a journalist and author of Rape, Loot & Murder-Liberian Civil War: A Journalist’s Photo Diary and Sierra Leone’s Nightmare: A Peek Inside Kamajors’ Land, both published in the US in 2009.  A former AP stringer, Mr. Fasuekoi is founder and director of MF Media Consultancy Inc.

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