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Turmoil in Liberia

June 26, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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TERENCE SMITH: Liberia’s civil war has been on for more than 20 years.

Hundreds of thousands have been killed in the West African nation of three million people that was founded by former American slaves. Today, as rebel forces approached the capital of Monrovia, President Bush called on the country’s president, Charles Taylor, to step aside. Joining me now by telephone is journalist Sebastian Junger. He’s on assignment in Liberia for Vanity Fair Magazine.

Sebastian Junger, thanks so much for joining us.

SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Thank you.

TERENCE SMITH: Tell us what the situation is there right now, what the situation is there today and as we speak.

SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Well, in every conceivable sense, the situation is terrible and getting worse. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled the areas of fighting into Monrovia, and then fled parts of Monrovia itself, crowding into Mamba Point, which is deemed to be safe by them– it’s not at all. They’re sitting out in the streets. They don’t have water. They don’t have food. Disease is spreading. There’s a humanitarian crisis that’s building, and ultimately, if not resolved, will kill many, many more people than the bullets.

On the battlefront, the government had some success in pushing back the rebels. The rebels had gotten right to the edge of town two days ago. They had some success yesterday in pushing them back, but I just got this in a few minutes ago from a contact here: they’ve received reinforcements.

They’ve fought their way all the way back to the edge of town. They’re a few kilometers from where I’m sitting right now, and everyone is bracing for a fierce, fierce fight tonight or early tomorrow morning. There’s an absolute possibility that the government forces will not be able to hold them back this time.

TERENCE SMITH: There were reports, wire reports, of another rocket attack in the capital today. Is that so?

SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Well, occasionally you hear explosions, artillery coming in. Today was certainly quieter than yesterday. Yesterday was a horrendous day. There may have been casualties today, but information is very confused and hard to come by. Rumors spread like wildfire. But it certainly was not yesterday.

Yesterday two mortars or rockets landed in the compound right near me. I was a few hundred feet away at the U.S. Embassy, and initially reports had it that four were killed and scores wounded. I saw countless people taken by me in a wheelbarrow, bleeding and torn, to the Doctors Without Borders compound, where they tried to treat them.

But in fact, it’s possible that as many as 19 or even as many as 25 people were killed. Apparently the locals are saying that there are still many, many bodies in the compound, but that a local security company working for the embassy will not let anyone into that compound, at least any westerners.

TERENCE SMITH: The wires are also reporting that a number of the bodies of those victims have been laid out in front of the embassy compound, in effect in protest and as an expression of anger. Have you been able to see any of that? I recognize that you’re somewhat pinned down where you are.

SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Yes, we did manage to slip out of the front gate and walk up to the embassy only a few hundred yards, but even that is a terrifying excursion: militiamen driving around threatening people; thousands of people in the streets, yelling and begging and…it’s really quite unspeakable.

But at any rate, we did make it up there, and just a heartbreaking, heartbreaking scene; 11 bodies piled up on sheets of cardboard right in front of the main gate to the embassy. Two of the bodies… I’m sorry, three of the bodies were children, several women, all civilians. People just torn to people — torn to pieces– excuse me– by shrapnel from the attack yesterday. And it was there that locals told us and tried to bring us into the compound where the other 19 bodies were, but we were turned back.

TERENCE SMITH: And this act of delivering those victims, those bodies right in front of the U.S. Embassy compound, what was the message in that?

SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Well, the sentiment here seems to be quite mixed in terms of the United States. You meet many, many people who, seeing that you’re a westerner, come up to you and just beseech you to somehow communicate with the American government, to please, please send troops, send peacekeepers and stop the suffering of Liberia. But increasingly, you are… I’m experiencing real aggression, people that are now angry at America, angry for not intervening, for ignoring the suffering of these people, and angry for allegedly supporting the Lurd rebels. They don’t have proof that that’s happening, but I think it gives an indication of just how desperate people are, that they turn to that kind of hypothesis.

TERENCE SMITH: That they believe that the U.S. is supporting the rebels and therefore the fighting?

SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Yes, exactly. They do believe that. But then the next person you talk to grabs you by the shoulders and says, “Please help us. Please tell your government to send people.” But absolutely those bodies were a message. There was a sign in front of the bodies, handwritten, that said, “America, what more do you need to see?” In other words, what more do you need to see before you send peacekeepers to stop this slaughter?

TERENCE SMITH: Has there been any reaction there, official or unofficial, to the call by President Bush today for President Taylor to step down?

SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Well, earlier, President Taylor referred to the U.S. influence in Liberia — in other words, their support of the rebels — as “the dark hand behind Liberia’s suffering.”

Today, the word came from the United States, from President Bush quite late in the day, and if there has been an official reaction, none of the journalists here have heard it. And we don’t know — I spoke with embassy officials today — we don’t know if the reaction by President Taylor will be one of belligerence or repeating what he has said before, which is, “America, you’re our friends. We need your help. Please come help us.”

TERENCE SMITH: Finally, what’s the situation you, and I know just a few other western journalists and westerners, find themselves in, in the capital as we speak?

SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Yes. I’m the only American reporter, and a couple of other reporters just arrived. But until then, it’s just been me and a French radio guy and a Financial Times reporter. That’s it. We’ve been here all by ourselves, quite lonely actually.

We are increasingly unable to work. The press has had its credentials withdrawn by the government. I’ve actually been expelled from the country, except that I can’t leave. I came under some suspicion because I’m American and there’s a lot of paranoia here about America. And essentially you cannot leave… you cannot leave the hotel. I tried to yesterday, and we came close to witnessing a gunfight between two factions of the government fighters. They were fighting over looting rights. They looted the embassies, Veterinarians Without Borders, the convent. I mean, absolutely everything that can be looted has been looted.

TERENCE SMITH: Sebastian Junger, keep your head down and stay safe. Thank you very much.

SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Thank you.

TERENCE SMITH: For more on Liberia and the U.S. role there, we get two views. Richard Joseph is a professor of political science and director of the African studies program at Northwestern University. He has written extensively on democracy, development, and conflict resolution in Africa. Emira Woods is co-director of foreign policy and focus at the Institute for Policy Studies, an international affairs think tank in Washington. She was born in Liberia and came to the United States in the late 1970s. Welcome to you both.

Emira Woods, Sebastian Junger was saying the people there believe the U.S. is in fact supporting these rebel forces, who are closing in on the government. Is it?

EMIRA WOODS: First, do allow me to take a moment to commend the NewsHour for finally turning the world’s attention in helping to shed light on the conditions in Liberia and recommendations for a way forward. In terms of the rebel movement, there are many speculations about the U.S. Involvement, either direct or indirect, in channeling arms, in channeling support, political support and other material support to the rebel factions.

What should be understood is that these rebel movements, both Lurd and Model, are not new to the political scene in Liberia. They are, in many ways, reincarnates of previous movements, some of whom participated in earlier conflicts with the very Charles Taylor. So these are not new actors necessarily, and the role of the U.S. has been speculated, the role of neighboring countries as well, particularly Guinea and Ivory Coast, has been underscored by many, both in the region and elsewhere.

TERENCE SMITH: Richard Joseph, do you see the hand of the United States behind these rebels, and if they do prevail, would that bring greater stability to Liberia?

RICHARD JOSEPH: I’m afraid that’s not really the real central issue of the moment. The real central issue really has to do with those bodies that were placed before the U.S. compound — the U.S. responsibility for Liberia, which goes back a very long time, our refusal in 1990 to live up to those responsibilities.

I think it was very good that President Bush today announced that Charles Taylor should step down to avert further bloodshed, but this is a man, who has been responsible for a great deal of bloodshed in the country and in neighboring countries, and for that reason has been indicted by the special court in Sierra Leone.

It’s really important for the United States to heed the word of the British ambassador to the U.N., which is that the international community would welcome the United States leading an intervention into Liberia and bringing an end to this tragedy. It is time. We have shirked that responsibility. President Bush today said that the U.S. has always lived up to its responsibilities in Africa. I beg to differ, especially in the case of Liberia.

So I think it’s squarely before us. It’s squarely in our camp. We have been very deeply involved in Liberia. This country has supported the United States in two world wars, provided tremendous security assets for our communications. We were closely allied to Sergeant Doe during the 1980s. And then throughout the 1990s we preferred to play a very secondary supportive role. That is just not good enough.

This has been the center of a cancer that’s eating away at this region. The U.S. should step in. It should work with its allies in terms of the transitional government. It should proceed to see that Charles Taylor is apprehended and taken to face justice before the special court, and it should prepare the reconstruction of Liberia and introduce a security conference for the region so we could start rolling back this terrible situation that has now affected Sierra Leone, Guinea, the Ivory Coast. Thank you.

TERENCE SMITH: Okay, Emira Woods, is that the answer: U.S. intervention on a significant scale?

EMIRA WOODS: Just to underscore, the world is at an opportune moment now — post-Iraq conflict, where the U.S. went in a unilateral way with a solution that was really not sustainable, that actually made the world more unsafe. Liberia should be seen as a test case for multilateral action.

The U.S. should join its allies, should join the international community, to come up with the financial support, to come up with the troops and the necessary material support needed to create a stabilizing force that will be able to bring about a peaceful resolution to the crisis. The U.S. should not go this alone. That should be clearly made and clearly understood.

TERENCE SMITH: But is a force of some kind required at this point to bring order to what sounds like chaos?

EMIRA WOODS: Given the….

RICHARD JOSEPH: Sorry. We do need….

TERENCE SMITH: Go ahead.

RICHARD JOSEPH: I was not calling for unilateral American intervention. What I am saying is that the United States should participate in a multilateral force, but it should provide the leadership the way the British have provided the leadership in Sierra Leone, the way the French have been prepared to step in to Ivory Coast and have been called upon to do so in Eastern Congo. We should not simply step back and say, “let others do it.”

TERENCE SMITH: That point is made, but I think the question really is, how can that be done, given the chaotic situation, Emira Woods, that was described earlier by Sebastian Junger?

EMIRA WOODS: It’s quite clear that the situation is dire on the ground. Many have already noted that the marines are not very far off the shores of Liberia.

TERENCE SMITH: That there is a marine expeditionary force on a ship just off the coast.

EMIRA WOODS: On a ship just off the coast of Liberia. The U.S. should work with its international actors on the bequest of the U.N. with this fact-finding mission that is going now to West Africa to come back and to lead the international community in a multilateral response to the situation in Liberia. So, yes, there should be forces sent onto the ground to stabilize the situation, to end the spiraling downward cycle, but that force must be multilateral in nature. It cannot be U.S. cowboy responses.

TERENCE SMITH: All right. Richard Joseph, is it crucial to remove Charles Taylor? You spoke of bringing him to justice because he has been tried. But in terms of Liberia, is that essential?

RICHARD JOSEPH: It is absolutely essential. I mean, this man has been behind a great deal of suffering in that region. He was quoted as saying that the U.S. is “the dark hand behind all the terrible things in Liberia.” I beg to differ. It is Charles Taylor. He has to step down. There is no solution with Charles Taylor.

And, furthermore, the man is now an indicted person, who is supposed to be apprehended and brought to face justice. So how that is brought around and brought about in terms of the local forces and so on is something to be arranged. But he has really had the time. He was elected in 1997. Here we are, you know, six years later, and the country is still, you know, where it was when he started. I don’t see any way in which Charles Taylor is going to be able to carry this country forward. He needs to move aside, and the country needs to be able to be put back together again. And that’s going to take a tremendous amount of effort.

TERENCE SMITH: Okay. Emira Woods, you mentioned before the neighboring countries that are playing a role in all of this. What sort of role, and to what end? Constructive or otherwise?

EMIRA WOODS: Once again, the crisis in Liberia is not a Liberian crisis alone. It is a West African regional instability that has cut across the porous borders of that sub-region. So if you look at the crisis in Ivory Coast, if you look at the crisis in Sierra Leone, if you look at the troubles in Guinea — all the result of the flows of arms, the flow of elicit diamonds across the porous borders. The international community must really stand behind the Sierra Leonean criminal court to underscore the fact that no one is above the law, that it’s not Charles Taylor or any heads of state nor any of their lower-level ranks that should be held below the law.

There should be international norms that are respected. This must happen. What needs to happen now is an expansion of the jurisdiction of that international tribunal, so that it’s not just looking at Sierra Leone and crimes within Sierra Leone, but it’s looking truly at the sub-region, looking also at the conditions in Liberia now and the enormous atrocities that are happening very much described by the journalist today. There needs to be an international response to this that will curb the flow of arms throughout the sub-region, that will end the flow of illicit diamonds throughout the sub-region, that will work towards a regional both peace and reconciliation, and also a regional war crimes tribunal.

TERENCE SMITH: Emira Woods, Richard Joseph, thank you both very much.