FRONTLINE/World reporter Jessie Deeter flies into the
jungle of northern Liberia with U.N. troop commander General
Daniel Opande, who has just been charged with securing the war-torn
country. Of the U.N. entourage, Deeter says, "They don't know
what they're going to find here," adding that this is the biggest
peacekeeping mission in the world.
As Deeter deplanes, she sees a ragtag group of men who used to be soldiers in Liberia's national army. Opande -- a three-star general from Kenya -- has come here to disarm fighters like these. This group welcomes the United Nations, Deeter says, because they've been living and hiding in the bush for months.
Opande talks with the former soldiers, and noting their AK-47s, makes them promise that they will disarm. "No more war," Opande tells them.
Against news footage of street fighting, Deeter reports that Liberia's civil war between rebel groups and government forces lasted 14 years and killed more than 200,000 people. The conditions in Liberia, which was founded by former American slaves, were barely livable, and by the summer of 2003, the United States was under pressure to help the country emerge from war.
The United States, stretched by military commitments in Iraq and leery of another Somalia, sent in a token force of Marines and pushed to indict Liberian president Charles Taylor for war crimes. As rebels closed in, Taylor fled Liberia, and the task of cleaning up the country was left to African troops who reported to the United Nations.
Deeter arrives in Monrovia for the first time -- just a few months after the deployment of the African troops -- to find a city that has been without electricity for more than a decade. Eighty-five percent of the Liberian population is unemployed, and one out of every five Liberians is homeless.
Deeter finds 8,000 people squatting in an abandoned Masonic Lodge, a safe haven until fighters are disarmed.
Opande takes a helicopter to the next disarmament site. The U.N. Security Council, Deeter says, has promised money and 15,000 troops to disarm Liberia. General Opande, who had participated in a previous -- and unsuccessful -- attempt to disarm Liberia, has a year to get the various factions to "play ball."
On this trip, Opande is accompanied by Daniel Chea, Liberia's defense minister, a controversial former supporter of Charles Taylor. Opande is relying on Chea to help disarm the government troops whom Chea once trained.
Chea tells the men that war has led the country nowhere. "No infrastructure; our education system is zero; everybody's poor .... This is the end game. Do I make myself clear?"
Opande hears that the former government troops have been setting up roadblocks to extort money and food from travelers. Opande tells one man that he has misbehaved and that he will lose his rank. "The way you want to be treated is the way you will treat other people, you understand?" Opande upbraids him.
The United Nations wants to move quickly with the disarmament plan, Deeter says, but only one-third of the 15,000 troops promised to Liberia are in place. The United Nations is pressuring Opande to get the disarmament going so as to pave the way for fund-raising for Liberia, but Opande worries that he doesn't have enough troops. For example, when word spreads that rebels can trade in their weapons for cash, some 9,000 rebels arrive at a disarmament camp that was designed to process only a couple of hundred trades per day. Opande says his men are overwhelmed.
After mobs of frustrated young soldiers go on a rampage in Monrovia, leaving 12 people dead, Opande is forced to temporarily suspend disarmament and regroup.
Much of Liberia is still in the hands of armed rebels, Deeter says. She goes to visit one group whose members consider themselves the saviors of Liberia because they led the charge to oust Charles Taylor. When she meets Colonel Amos Tomba, he shows her his weapons. Deeter says that these soldiers are eager to disarm because they have been surviving on food gathered from the bush.
One rebel, Wolfcatcher, says that he wants to go to university now that the war is over, but he worries that because of his rebel past, he might not get far in the general population.
"They shouldn't think about the wrongs that some of us did to them," he says. "They should waive everything, let bygones be bygones."
Opande, Tomba says, has a tough job: Taking guns from a group of boys is not easy.
Back on a plane, Opande is headed upcountry with Aisha Conneh, the wife of an important rebel leader and powerful in her own right. Her followers affectionately call her "the Iron Lady." Opande says she was a mother figure for many young rebels.
Deeter explains that Conneh is along in order to help convince the rebels to disarm. But Conneh sees the rally as an opportunity to bolster loyalty by handing out cash. A riot nearly breaks out, and Opande cuts the trip short. He admonishes Conneh for causing chaos by handing out money.
Deeter returns to Liberia in April 2004, when all 15,000 U.N. troops are in place and disarmament has begun anew at sites around the country. Opande tells a group of rebels that the war is over. One rebel is only 14 years old. Deeter says that in trade for a weapon or ammunition, each former combatant gets an I.D. card that entitles him to $300, food and medical care. Job training and schooling have also been promised.
Six months later, Deeter returns to Liberia one last time. The United Nations says it has disarmed 100,000 fighters, and Liberia is recovering. Refugees are returning home from neighboring countries, and the Masonic Lodge that Deeter first visited is now empty of homeless families and being renovated. Former fighters are in school -- 20-year-olds in fourth-grade classrooms.
Deeter says that more than half of the former fighters have applied for vocational training. She visits a program where ex-combatants are learning to sew, but with doll-sized garments because there isn't enough material. "The international community still hasn't delivered all of the aid they promised to Liberia," Deeter says.
When she visits rebels she met on her previous visit, Deeter finds Colonel Tomba still surviving on food he gathers from the bush. He tells Deeter that for him, not much has changed since disarmament.
But for Wolfcatcher, who dreamed of becoming a journalist, things have changed: He is now on the radio, "like a rock star in this country, where people get nearly all their news from the radio." Wolfcatcher, a former rebel, works at a radio station to promote peace with a woman who used to be a government soldier.
"This is my life," he tells Deeter. "I have to fight, of course, for freedom -- but not with guns. I don't believe in it anymore. I have moved on from that stage."
Disarmament is over, Deeter says, but the reconstruction of Liberia could take decades, and war in this volatile region is still a threat.
Opande is proud of his accomplishments in Liberia, but he knows that the hard-won
peace is still fragile: More than half of all U.N. peacekeeping
missions fail, and without international support, the mission
in Liberia could be among them. But Opande insists that Liberia
is not a hopeless case, adding, "I hope my sons and grandsons
won't [have to] come back here to stabilize Liberia again."
Produced and Reported by
MICHAEL H. AMUNDSON
United Nations Mission in Liberia
International Reporting Project
Produced in association with the
BERKELEY GRADUATE SCHOOL OF JOURNALISM
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