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Opinion

Carter Camp: 20 Years after the Massacre

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If you are on a hiking expedition in the Harbel-Carter camp area and happen to stumble upon four large open ditches under a cotton tree that appear like dugout gutters, don’t mistake them for something else; they are reportedly mass graves of more than 600 civilians, mainly children, women and the elderly who were heck to death June 1993 by armed bandits from one of the warring factions during the country’s brutal civil war.

In a ceaseless game of warfare by rebel factions in the country in which civilians were primary targets, this vulnerable destitute population became a fair target by a bunch of rapists, looters and murderers who stood ready to execute any order from their master.  For the Carter Camp victims, it was immediately decided by aid workers in collaboration with government authorities that the bodies of dead victims should be buried nearby due to the state of mutilation. Without much burial ritual, several mass graves were dug and the remains of 600 plus were hastily interred.

With the exception of a few bullets fired, most of the 600 plus massacred victims were found to have been bungled to death by sticks, axes, cutlasses and knives among other weapons. Many victims were found chopped into pieces and their bodies appeared to have been desecrated. A young pregnant woman seemed to have first suffered raped amidst the chaos before she was murdered. A child about a year old still in diapers had his guts pulled out while another infant strapped to his dead mother’s back had his skull wide opened with elements splashed all over the place, an indication of how gory the massacre was.     

A petrified 12 year-old teenager found at the massacre site hiding in an abandoned open-air fenced bathroom appeared very nervous and unable to explain what he saw during the pandemonium. Other survivals of the massacre equally terrified by such unspeakable crime they had witnessed and unable to discuss it, fled the Firestone vicinity and sought refuge with relatives and sympathizers elsewhere.  

Following the genocide, the killers kidnapped scores of survivors (most of whom were women, children and the elderly) and fled the camp before help could arrive. Abductees, particularly children and the elderly who exhibited signs of exhaustion and unable to continue the treacherous journey were murdered and left along the trail.  Journalists along with some aid workers who visited Carter Camp found the mutilated bodies of dozens of civilians along trails used by the killers to escape. From Carter Camp, the killers bypassed several Firestone Divisions and shut their way to Division 11; then crossed the main Harbel-Gate 15 road, passed close by the Dusa Division 10 Hospital and headed towards “Greater Liberia.”

This June marks exactly 20 years since the massacre. But while elaborate ceremonies are being held each year to commemorate the anniversary of various massacres of similar magnitude such as the July 1990 Lutheran Church massacre or even that of Bakedu in the Quardu Gboni chiefdom of Lofa County, nothing is heard of the Carter Camp massacred victims.

News of the genocide at Carter Camp had first reached our newsrooms in Monrovia in the form of gossip and before long it had quickly circulated across the capital due to the scale of the massacre. I was among a team comprised of professional medical workers, journalists and military observers taken to the scene by the Defense Ministry’s press team led by Col. Arthur B. Dennis within twelve hours of the incident. We all became horrified and speechless by what we saw on arrival. I had never seen mass killings on such a large scale. An awful smell engulfed the entire area and as we approached the scene, millions of flies swung around from every direction.

And for a while, I felt nervous and nauseated and unable to shoot photos.

Today, what bring people close to the genocide are the personal belongings of the massacred victims left there. Rusty cooking pots along with other utensils were found scattered at the site; a reminder of those who once lived there. As my colleague Musue Haddad and I toured the ruins of the camp recently we also found fabrics on the “HALLOWED GROUND” near the burial site. At the mouth of one of several mass graves in Carter Camp, Musue curiously picked up a soil drenched fabric (a paint collar to a female shirt) apparently believed to belong to a victim.

Until the horrific Carter Camp genocide, divisions of Harbel, Firestone, manned by soldiers of the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) and ECOMOG were considered to be saved. And it was basically for this reason that many of the camp residents having escaped murder and rape in other parts of Liberia between belligerent rebel factions, settled here to make living with the hope to return to their respective homes after the war. That dream however, didn’t come through.

A United Nations human rights commission known as the WACO Commission set up to investigate the killings in the months that followed the genocide was quick to denigrate the AFL and accused it to be responsible for the Carter Camp genocide. Among reasons given by the right commission headed by a Kenyan national were; first, members of the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) had a military base in the area; secondly, said the report, the doers supposedly AFL soldiers, had carried out the killings in order to steal rationing food that had been distributed among the camp residents a day earlier.

Following the release of the WACO Report, it barely took days when the press department of the AFL in a series of newspaper articles blasted the commission for what it termed the commission’s own shortcomings by ignoring realities centering on the genocide. Using every available piece of evident including diagrams, the press department countered the WACO Report by highlighting various military bases of the NPFL that were situated within the Firestone Company striking distance from the Carter Camp compared to the AFL’s Camp Sherfflin Military Barracks on the Robert’s Field Highway. It further argued that members of the AFL had enough food stored at their barracks to feed on and as such, under no condition its soldiers could have carried out such gruesome killings for the purpose to stealing food.

The Defense Ministry press bureau’s argument was quite logical and convincing to the point that members of the WACO commission left Liberia almost in shame with little or nothing to celebrate. Although the AFL’s wartime record had been tainted by its reported participation in extra judiciary killings at the height of the war such as the July 1990 Lutheran Church massacre in Monrovia, many people including journalists who were quite familiar with the political dynamics of the war equally took serious exception to the WACO Report.

But whatever motive for staging such gruesome acts, many political observers insisted the massacre was a political ploy by Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) rebels, heartlessly staged to cause serious image problem for the AFL (which had begun to regain the trust of fellow Liberians) and the ECOWAS Peace Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) which Mr. Taylor’s NPFL had long resisted for thwarting Mr. Charles Taylor’s plans to seize power through the guns.

Since the massacre of June 1993 followed by interment of the dead, the camp has since remained abandoned with no human activity in the camp where the massacre occurred all due perhaps to the horror stories surrounding the camp. People from nearby Firestone divisions who currently operate a workshop in the vicinity recently told a team of visiting journalists which included me and a colleague, Musue Haddad that no one has been seen visiting the site for the length of time they have worked in the area.

Nearly 20 years following the genocide, Carter Camp which is part of the Firestone rubber company and once a bustling laborer camp with several quarters, plenty of houses and zinc shacks, has become unrecognizable at present. The entire area has been overtaken by weeds and hard bush thus making it a perfect habitat for creatures like groundhogs, birds and snakes. Besides, the soil there too, for some strange reason, has become barren and unable to nourish crops. During our visit Sunday February 12, it became obvious that a garden planted recently by someone on the spot where the massacre occurred had died off.

But that wasn’t the only strange thing we discovered during our visit. We also noticed something shockingly bizarre about the four mass graves there. All four appeared entirely empty with no signs of human remains. Contents of the mass grave seen were tons of dried leaves. The graves appeared as if they were excavated and left open years ago. Each of the graves can measure anywhere between 4 to 5 feet wide; and about 4 to 5 feet deep. The largest of all could be about 30 yards long and all four are located under the foot of wild reefs next to a cotton tree which once served as the symbol of Carter Camp.

A nearby resident (name withheld) who served as our escort to the site became equally as puzzled like us at such weird development.

“Something isn’t right here,” I murmured. Agreed Musue and our escort after both had carefully examined the site. The graves are situated on hard grounds next to a cotton tree that was once the landmark for the camp. It’s therefore unlikely that such phenomenon would take place even after 20 years. So what could have possibly led to all four graves being emptied? I asked the question in honesty hopping my fellow visitors could provide some answers.

There is still a need for more explanation to this question, but from whom, no one can tell for now. All attempts by my colleague and I to locate and speak to a survival of the massacre failed.

All that is now left of this “HALLOWED GROUND” once called Carter Camp are landmarks. And the most noticeable ones are a cotton tree, reefs and a rock-designed pathway that leads to the direction of Dolo’s Town. But amidst all the ruins of Carter Camp, an Aladura church nearby continues to serve as a symbol of light and hope in the area for both the living who assemble each Sunday to seek salvation from God for themselves and perhaps, for those victims who perished in the madness.

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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