Turmoil in Liberia
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JIM LEHRER: Now, more on the situation in Liberia, and to Terence Smith.
TERENCE SMITH: American military forces stand ready for possible deployment to Liberia to help monitor a fragile truce that has taken hold between troops loyal to President Charles Taylor and insurgent forces. Today, President Bush repeated his demand that Taylor, re indicted for war crimes, leave the country. Journalist Sebastian Junger has just returned from Liberia, where he was on assignment for “Vanity Fair” magazine. At the height of the fighting, he was one of only a handful of western reporters on the ground in country. Sebastian, welcome back to the program.
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Thank you.
TERENCE SMITH: It does appear that the Bush administration is moving closer to sending troops in to Liberia, although it decision hasn’t been announced yet. If they do go in to Liberia, what should they expect?
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: My impression of the people in Liberia and Monrovia, was that there was an overwhelming fondness, affection for America based mainly on their idea that, in some ways, they are American. Monrovia was founded in the 1840s by freed American slaves, and there’s a very, very strong feeling of kinship with this country, maybe analogous to Puerto Rico, something like that. Of course on these shores we’re not as aware of it as they are. But my sense is that if American troops came ashore, they would really be greeted as saviors in that country. The country is suffering horribly. And just from talking to people on the street, talking to soldiers who wear the American flag when they fight, I frankly I don’t think anyone would even take a shot at them.
TERENCE SMITH: We have some of the video that you shot, Sebastian, while you were there last week. And tell us what it was like there at the height of the fighting and explain, if you will, who’s fighting whom and over what.
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Well, that disentangling who’s fighting whom is a difficult job. But basically there are two rebel groups in the country fighting the government of Charles Taylor. Now, Taylor’s forces are composed of to a really motley group of militia, police, quote, unquote, soldiers. One of the big problems in the war isn’t so much the fighting between government and rebels, but is the utter lawlessness of the government forces themselves. They have not been paid in two years, so when fighting breaks out, they sort of rub their hands in glee because the civilians flee and there are entire neighborhoods that are open to be looted by the very soldiers who are supposed to be protecting those people. War… the war there, in many senses, is a money-making scheme. And I think it was set up that way by Taylor so that, a, he didn’t have to pay his forces; and b, they’re so disorganized that they could never possibly overthrow him. I saw gun battles in the streets between different factions of the government forces over looting rights. It’s extremely chaotic.
TERENCE SMITH: You had pictures, as well, of these armed men, although in civilian clothes, driving around in jeeps and open trucks. It looks chaotic.
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Yes, it’s terrifying, frankly, as a journalist, I found it absolutely terrifying. We went up to a town called Ganta on the northern border with Guinea that the soldiers up there said that the Guinean army was actually shelling Ganta from the border. They had just taken it back from the rebels a couple of days earlier. The guys I was with were teenage soldiers, twelve, fourteen, sixteen years old, armed with machine guns and R PG’s.
TERENCE SMITH: Rocket-propelled grenades.
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Rocket-propelled grenades exactly, like you see in Afghanistan and Iraq. They seem to have tremendous loyalty to their immediate commander. It wasn’t clear to me that they had great loyalty to Taylor. In fact, the government ministers that I was with up in Ganta were visibly nervous around these guys. I had the feeling that they were not convinced they really were in control of these very forces who were supposedly protecting their government.
TERENCE SMITH: In Monrovia, you have images there of houses burning and damage in the city. How extensive is it?
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: We, as journalists– and you know, there was only four of us there during the height of the fighting– we were severely limited in our mobility, in our access to the city, not because of the fighting. That’s actually not particularly hard to navigate around, but because of the lawlessness of the militias. Every checkpoint you went through, and there was one on every block practically, you ran the risk of having them seize your car at gunpoint, being dragged out of the car and beaten up. After a while, they were actively looking for Americans. They thought that I for one was a spy, and I was in quite a lot of danger because of that. Basically, for a few days, no one dared go out because the street was so lawless. But what we saw afterwards and what we heard from locals was that artillery had started fires in town, had killed people in town, and that there was mainly a huge amount of damage from the looting by government soldiers. That seemed to be the main sort of destructive force in Monrovia while the battle was going on. It was looting by the government itself.
TERENCE SMITH: What’s the humanitarian situation there in terms of public health and any sort of medical facilities?
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: It’s nothing short of a disaster. The people in the countryside had fled their homes months ago and were — hundreds of thousands of people were in refugee camps, displaced person’s camps, outside of Monrovia. This last round of fighting drove those people into the capital itself. There is literally hundreds of thousands of displaced people who are just squatting in the streets. They have maybe a bag full of rice and not much else. They’re exposed to the weather, they’re exposed to increasing risk of cholera. And you know, I spoke over and over again with people who hadn’t eaten days. I think fighting or no fighting, if the relief organizations cannot get in there within the next week or two, you’re going to start seeing mortality rates from disease and starvation that will absolutely eclipse the deaths from the actual fighting.
TERENCE SMITH: What about… the people you talked to there, Sebastian, did they expect President Charles Taylor to heed President Bush’s call to step down, at least at some point?
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: They seem sort of split on that. They do have a strange loyalty – a sort of fondness for him. The day after the cease-fire… I’m sorry, the afternoon of the cease-fire, there was a very belligerent rally in town, tens of thousands of people, by my guess, and they were shouting “We want peace.” But it was the most war-like, “we want peace” that I’ve heard . I think in their terms it meant step down, because the Lurd rebels were attacking Monrovia because of Taylor’s reversal of his position to not step down. On the other hand, they look to America to sort of come in and impose a peace regardless of what Taylor does. The overriding feeling I got in Monrovia of was of a people who are desperate for peace and they don’t real care who’s president or not. This is going to end up being a power struggle in some ways between Taylor and the war crimes court in Sierra Leone, possibly the U.S. Government.
TERENCE SMITH: Sebastian Junger, thank you so much for sharing your observations, your video and your experience with us. Thanks very much.
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Thank you.