Liberia: Give Peace a Chance
A journey home
BY Josef Sawyer
May 31, 2007
Background Facts and Related Links
Learn more about Liberia's turbulent modern history and follow links to the forthcoming trial of former Liberian president Charles Taylor.
Josef Sawyer graduated from the University of California Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism in 2006. After graduation, Sawyer completed his FRONTLINE/World Fellows report on Liberia's efforts to rebuild after 25 years of war. He currently works for New Images Productions and with director Avon Kirkland on an upcoming PBS documentary about Booker T. Washington.
Every family has its secrets. Josef Sawyer found his in a drawer. As a boy living in suburban Massachusetts during the early 1990s, he found a videotape stored among a collection of home movies and photographs. Watching the tape, Sawyer witnessed a murky, chaotic scene: A group of ragged soldiers, drinking beer and shouting, were torturing a man.
Years later, Sawyer would learn that this footage was from a military coup in a faraway country. It was his native land, but a place he barely remembered. When he was a small child, his parents fled the political violence in Liberia to live in the United States. His mother and father had sheltered him from the turmoil that engulfed Liberia -- until he discovered that tape.
As a FRONTLINE/World Fellow, Sawyer returned to Liberia last year to find a country emerging from decades of civil war under a new, democratically elected president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. Sawyer's story, "Give Peace a Chance," shows how he has carried with him the memory of that shocking videotape. It also reveals that the man being abused in the once-hidden footage was Samuel K. Doe, a former sergeant who had seized power in a 1980 coup that marked the beginning of Liberia's descent into 25 years of murder and mayhem. Doe himself was ousted and killed by rebels in 1990.
After Doe's demise, there was a lull in the fighting, and a civilian became interim president. That man happened to be Sawyer's uncle, Amos Sawyer.
"I was too young to understand, but for years I would play back the Doe tape and wonder why my Uncle Amos would take a job where the last man had been overthrown and murdered," says Sawyer. "I began to think: What started this war? What was Liberia like? Where had my family lived?"
Flying into Monrovia, the capital, on a plane filled with missionaries and United Nations peacekeeping troops, Sawyer is dismayed by Liberia's poverty. Still, he finds people friendly and cautiously hopeful about the country's future under President Johnson-Sirleaf, who is known affectionately as the "Iron Lady." Sawyer reunites with his uncle, who is now a member of the president's cabinet, and as he talks with people on the streets and in refugee camps, you can hear him slip comfortably back into a Liberian dialect.
Though U.N. troops have restored peace in Liberia, the country -- and the region -- are still on edge. Former president Charles Taylor, a warlord whose reign lasted from 1997 until his ouster in 2003, goes on trial in The Hague on June 4 for war crimes committed in neighboring Sierra Leone. President Johnson-Sirleaf tells Sawyer she's concerned about regional stability and stresses that it will take courage and time to transform Liberia's political system, which has been based on corruption, patronage and violence. "Post-conflict countries that do not respond to the needs of their people can go back into conflict, and we're very aware of that," cautions the president.
As Sawyer observes, bodyguards often surround President Johnson-Sirleaf, and that's a presence he finds intimidating during his interviews with her. But after talking with some of the young men in her security detachment, Sawyer is impressed by their faith in the future: "I began to think that Liberia, which was founded by ex-slaves from the United States, has a chance to once again live up to its name, 'land of the free.'"
-- Stephen Talbot
About FRONTLINE/World Fellows
Josef Sawyer's personal journey back to Liberia marks the latest story in the FRONTLINE/World Fellows program, sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. It is part of our ongoing effort to identify and mentor the next generation of video, print and online journalists.
The program, started in 2003, has showcased the work of talented young journalists, who have traveled across the world to report their stories. You can see them all here.
As part of the latest Fellows projects, made possible through our partnership with the U.C. Berkeley, Columbia and Northwestern Graduate Schools of Journalism, we will be publishing one more story in the current series, a report from Morocco about women's soccer. Stay tuned.
falculty g. - ankara, turkey
Thanks for sharing a very impressive account of your travels and perception of Liberia. I am especially grateful for the ironies you presented. The "market woman" squatting in the abandoned building with 20 other families, yet her positive and optimistic view of the country; in contrast to an "ex" rebel leader speaking about the volatile internal peace structure. The people you interviewed represented a variety of backgrounds as well as a variety of viewpoints. Good to know that the dialogue is at least free flowing and seemingly without fear of government backlash. Again thanks for sharing and for the insight. Very good. You did a great job of telling the story of a country in transition -- the perils that Liberia faces and the hope that Liberians have placed in the new Administration. And thank you for taking us along on your own personal journey of discovery of your family's past. I'm interested to know if more Liberians abroad are considering returning to help rebuild the country. The entire Pan-African community, especially African-Americans with resources in the States, should contribute to Liberia's resurgence. You did a great job. A great story and nice way to learn more about a place I know so little about. And what a surprise finding out that Mr. Sawyer hailed from Springfield, MA (my hometown). My grandmother's family (Skipwith's from Virginia) were some of those ex-slaves who were a part of the colonization of Liberia in the 1830's. I never learned any of this until adulthood. I hope peace and reconciliation comes to this country and that Mr. Sawyer has a long career in journalism.
You did an excellent job. I've met some colleagues from Liberia and heard about their stories. But it was not clear enough before watching your documentary. I thank you and PBS for letting us to know what is happing in our world.
kendra edmonds - springfield, ma
A great story and nice way to learn more about a place I know so little about. And what a surprise finding out that Mr. Sawyer hailed from Springfield, MA (my hometown). My grandmother's family (Skipwith's from Virginia) were some of those ex-slaves who were a part of the colonization of Liberia in the 1830's. I never learned any of this until adulthood. I hope peace and reconciliation comes to this country and that Mr. Sawyer has a long career in journalism.
Addison Sherman - Montgmery, Alabama
It is a perfect work of journalism. Please accept my gratitude for the insightful report on the transformation process of Liberia following years of deplorable and dehumanizing life of despair and hopelessness.May God Almighty continue to lead President Johnson-Sirleaf in the rright path as she works to bring love, peace and happiness to Liberia, her children and friends once again.
Courtney Dillard - Bladensburg, Maryland
I have now watched this piece with 3 generations of my family. You articulate the hope and the passion that I found during my missionary work in Ghana West Africa. I hope this reaches the government administration here so they can see and support the components that are a part of successful and responsible nation building. I am saving now so I can take my children to visit the Motherland one day soon.
Lawrence Adutwum - Staten Island, NY
Great work. I recently paid a visit to my mother in October 2009. I was stunned about what I saw in this country. This once beautiful country is now decades behind countries like Ghana and Ivory Coast. Lack of jobs and basic survival necessities (light and water), seems to make
life hopeless. Liberia really needs the assist of its expatriates human capital resource. I believe we are the individuals who can really help rebuild this nation.
Beatrix Bowen-Griffith - Boston, Ma
Thanks for sharing your story; my kids ask me the same questions too. I went into Liberia in 1991 and brought out my mother, sister and her family of 2; brother and wife with kids of 3 and a brother. When I sit to tell them my story of Liberia they want to visit. Now I let them watch this video and they really want to go. THANKS FOR SHARING.
Julius Weeks - Washington, DC
I will be going to see a viewing of the movie tonight here in DC at the National Press Building. I hastened to send an emial to family, friends and co-workers regarding this showing. I look forward to seeing this video. To Kendra Edmonds, although unlike you, I grew up in Liberia but like you, my ancestors hailed from Petersburg, Richmond and Norfolk and migrated to Liberia back in 1829. We just this last weekend had a reunion in Richmond, Va where we gathered some 200 descendents of four brothers that migrated (The Coopers). Contact me at email@example.com if you would like to learn more.
Alvin Peabody - Pensacola, Florida
Thanks for sharing an inspiring account of what's really happening in Liberia. Your piece does show that Liberia has a very long way to go. Certainly, it's one step at a time, but a very long ways to go. Good job, though.
Philip B. Suah, Jr - Stockton, CA
Congratulations for a job well done. I completed a documentary (called Kukujumuku- chk www.callliberia.com), encouraging young Liberians in the diaspora to attain education and skills. I think your work shows the impact we have on development in Liberia if we acquire skills and training.
Joe Cassell - Antioch, CA
Josef, what an impressive narrative.The documentary captures the challenges ahead for the people of Liberia in terms of a post war nation building. President Sirleaf, according to your interview with her, seems bent on introducing a government of transparency and democratic pluralism,qualities that have been hard to find in previous Liberian leaders. Great job.
I. Bull Yonly - Tampa, FL
I am impressed with the passion and the interest you have shown in this footage. With the current administration efforts on the ground, there seems to be a path to greater days to come.
michael plumer - detroit, michigan
Bob Butler - Antioch, CA
I know how much you struggled to just get to Liberia and I'm happy that you were able to gather so much information. I especially liked the use of the old videotape and how you presented the irony of the former soldier who led the interrogation of President Doe now warning how the country was in danger of creating future rebels. Excellent!! A job well done!
Leoule Goshu - Seattle, Washington
That was a very touching story. As a first-generation Ethiopian American, I think it's so deep that you were able to go back to the country that you were born in, and by being a reporter, had access to people that want to reform Liberia for the better. (It reminds me of South Africa post-apartheid). There are a lot of forces at work that can make rebuilding Liberia difficult if not impossible. but hope is part of winning. I appreciated sharing the story about the lawyer who lied to get help that he really needed. That moment was really touching. Isn't it amazing to be connected to a family member that guided the country?
beatrix carradine - sterling, va.
Thank-you for sharing your trip with us. It was riveting. One can only hope that more of these stories are done so we can help our country move forward
Immanuel Gooding - Atlanta, GA
Good work. Some focus on the children's view of the day and the future would be great. Keep up the good work.
Stacey - Washington, DC
That was a very powerful and indeed insightful report. The hope of the blind man that God will continue to provide for him and his six children was very heavy on my heart. I'm always amazed that people with so little can have so much faith and joy. On a different note, I'm elated to see a woman at the helm bringing hope and stability to this country.
Michael Bannerman-Hyde - Gaithersburg, MD
Mr. Sawyer's excellent documentary captures the soul of what everyone is praying for...peace and stability..the catalyst for progress. Liberians now enjoy the goodwill of the international community, which must be a strong motivation for the sons and daughters of this great country to rally around the leadership for rapid post-reconstruction economic development. Well done, Mr. Sawyer.
Chris Minikon Jr. - Gaithersburg, MD
Excellent job Josef. I really appreciate this documentary about Liberia. And It was interesting to watch it and also to see that President Sirleaf will do her best for Liberia in the name of Jesus. Thanks.
Charlene Clarke - Germantown, MD
Excellent job, Josef! I very much enjoyed watching the documentary. Please continue to report on the situation in Liberia. Journalists, like yourself, immensely help in spreading the word about the plight of the Liberian people. I look forward to seeing your future documentaries.
John Morais (Jr) - Rockville, MD
Excellent piece. Your mix of personal journey and visual narrative were very well done and I learned a lot from the short film. Looking forward to more like it.
Andress Green - Fort Washington, MD
When a documentary is done through personal experience, it is intriguing.....well done Josef! I'm so proud!!!
Elise Sawyer - Gaithersburg, Maryland
Josef, what an excellent account of the emotions in Liberia , from the marketplace to the refugee camps, to the President quarters. The video and your narrative told a compeling story of a young boys roots, a family's history, a nations future. I look forward to more of your work. Well done!
Alyce Anderson - Gaithersburg, MD
Great job, Josef. It's particularly encouraging to know that the younger generation is showing some interest in Liberia. There's a lot of history and a million stories to be told. Don't stop here! Continue the good work. Congratulations.
Very good. Thanks for the courage to take it on. Nice capture of juxtaposing views of the everyday folks, as well as their hope & commitment to the future. I'll make sure to spread the word of your work.
Dr. Barbara Hines - Washington, DC
Nice job, Josef! Your thoughtful, calming presence in a country that hasn't known real peace was important in telling the story. Your report gives us a better perspective on the dreams and experiences of our worldwide neighbors. Those of us in your Howard University family share pride in your continued accomplishments.
I must say, what a telling account. The mix of your personal journey to the information and the current state of Liberia (a place that you have not lived since you were a child) was a pleasant mix. I pray that stories like yours will show people that there is hope and inspire them to do something (if anything) to assist.
E. Peta Vincent Williams - Wake Forest, North Carolina
Thanks for sharing a very impressive account of your travels and perception of Liberia. I am especially grateful for the ironies you presented. The "market woman" squatting in the abandoned building with 20 other families, yet her positive and optimistic view of the country; in contrast to an "ex" rebel leader speaking about the volatile internal peace structure. The people you interviewed represented a variety of backgrounds as well as a variety of viewpoints. Good to know that the dialogue is at least free flowing and seemingly without fear of government backlash. Again thanks for sharing and for the insight.
Unkonda Sawyer - Ellicott City, Maryland
The footage was very interesting and enlightening. The narrative was nicely done. I enjoyed watching and learning. Additionally, seeing footage of present day Liberia was very endearing.
Jason T. Smith - Miami, FL
A very insightful report. You did a great job of telling the story of a country in transition -- the perils that Liberia faces and the hope that Liberians have placed in the new Administration. And thank you for taking us along on your own personal journey of discovery of your family's past. I'm interested to know if more Liberians abroad are considering returning to help rebuild the country. The entire Pan-African community, especially African-Americans with resources in the States, should contribute to Liberia's resurgence. You did a great job.