Firestone and the WarlordView film
Firestone and the Warlord
WRITTEN, PRODUCED AND DIRECTED BY
[The story you are about to see is based on previously unreported court documents, declassified State Department cables and interviews with key participants. The journal entries and documents are verbatim recreations from Cigna v. Firestone, Case No. CV-94-06-1878, in the Court of Common Pleas of Summit County, Ohio.]
NARRATOR: This is a story about business and war. It’s a story about a small group of Americans and the choices they made many years ago, a story about the cost of operating in a volatile and remote country. Its setting is a rubber plantation in Africa owned and operated by the tire giant Firestone.
BRAD PETTIT, Fmr. Controller, Firestone: I am Charles Bradford Pettit and go by Brad. I worked 31 years at Firestone. I really kind of felt that we were above this war somehow and that both sides wanted us there and—so that they’re going to leave us alone.
STEVE RAIMO, Fmr. Senior Accountant, Firestone: We were one of the largest, if not the largest employer in Liberia, certainly paying taxes to the government, certainly providing a lot of employment for—for locals. And we would hope that they would honor that and just leave us alone and let us continue to do what we were doing. Unfortunately, that didn’t occur.
KEN GERHART, Fmr. Senior Manager, Firestone: We’d been through several coups, and nothing changed very much. We just expected to go right back having our good life. [laughs]
NARRATOR: They helped run the largest rubber plantation in the world, a multi-million-dollar investment stretching over 220 square miles.
BRAD PETTIT: I don’t think you ever realized how big it was. But yeah, my first impression was, “Hey, this is a beautiful forest.” It was a—it’s a beautiful country.
KEN GERHART: Oh, very pretty. The trees are all planted in a row, and so forth, and a lot of humidity, a lot of rainfall, about 140 inches or more a year. And you can actually smell the—what I would call must or decaying materials in the country. And it’s something you get used to.
NARRATOR: The two dozen expat managers who lived there along with their families were in their own world.
1st CHILD: Here is our houseboy. Hi, Mom. What are you drinking?
Mrs. RAIMO: This is pure filtered, boiled water from Africa.
1st CHILD: That’s Rick, our other yard boy.
2nd CHILD: Where did Mom go?
1st CHILD: I don’t know. She was over there.
STEVE RAIMO: You really didn’t feel any danger, other than a few of the rogues who would either break into your house or try and steal your money when you’re in town shopping. Nothing seemed unsettled to me. I loved it. It was very, very enjoyable.
NARRATOR: But outside the plantation’s perimeter, a rebellion was brewing. It was 1989. Liberia’s President, Samuel Doe, was losing his grip. Doe had cracked down, jailing opponents, eliminating rivals. It all came to a head on Christmas Eve.
JON LEE ANDERSON, The New Yorker: Christmas Eve, 1989, when a man called Charles Taylor emerged in the northern jungle, declaring a revolution against Doe’s regime.
CHARLES TAYLOR: This is not a military coup, this is a pure civilian uprising.
JON LEE ANDERSON: If Doe opened Pandora’s box just a little bit, Taylor, you know, ripped off the lid.
NARRATOR: The man behind the revolt was a little-known American-educated, smooth-talking charmer, Charles Taylor.
CHARLES TAYLOR: I have to honor these men, that we must be able to make a difference. We must be able to bring back what we’ve—you know, what we’ve all wanted.
Amb. DENNIS JETT, Dpty. Chief of Mission, Liberia,1989-91: He was very slick—you know, kind of used car salesman slick, and not particularly threatening or overbearing, but not the kind of person you’d buy a used car from.
CHARLES TAYLOR: All I want to do is to bring back some sanity, some fair play in the country.
GERALD S. ROSE, Dpty. Chief of Mission, Liberia, 1991-93: An evil, venal sociopath, who was charming and glib. I knew he was a criminal, that he’d absconded with almost a million dollars, that he’d mysteriously escaped from jail in Massachusetts. He was a very unsavory character.
NARRATOR: At the time of the uprising, Taylor was running from the law, accused of embezzling nearly $1 million from the Liberian government. To pull together his guerrilla force, he had cozied up to several dictators in Africa, including Muammar Gaddafi.
Amb. HERMAN J. COHEN, Asst. Secretary of State, 1989-93: Libya, we knew at the time, was a very pro-revolutionary country under Gaddafi, and they were training Africans to be guerrilla fighters. And we had all sorts of intelligence informing us about that. And so Taylor and other Liberians whom he could recruit went into training there.
NARRATOR: Newly trained, Taylor launched his offensive from the north with a small ragtag army with little to no combat experience.
SCOTT STEARNS, Freelance Reporter, Liberia, 1990-92: You would have rebels advancing with their AKs held above their heads, just firing randomly down the road. There wasn’t a lot of marksmanship, there was a lot of firing in the air. There was a lot of running away.
ARTHUR WELWEAN, Fmr. Accountant, Firestone: They were not in army uniforms. They were in, like, casual clothes, you know, wearing wigs on their head, having some white chalks on their body, claiming it was some protection against bullets. They were weird-looking, really. But they were mostly kids.
JON LEE ANDERSON: These young fighters wearing fright wigs, and you know, shower caps and women’s dresses and bathrobes and shooting wildly and wearing ju-ju— you know, the talismans of Liberian witchcraft.
NARRATOR: As Taylor’s army in masquerade wound its way towards the plantation, Elizabeth Blunt, the BBC’s correspondent for West Africa, made a trip to Firestone to find out if the managers were concerned.
ELIZABETH BLUNT, BBC West Africa, 1986-90: We were invited to Sunday lunch, a couple of other journalists and myself. We went off to Firestone. And it was— it was beautiful. It was green. It was peaceful. And we had lunch in the clubhouse.
I think our hosts were working very, very hard to persuade us that everything was normal. I don’t think it was as normal as they made it look. And I think they were hoping that if the rebels did come, that they might be able to carry on.
NARRATOR: And for a while, at least, they did carry on.
STEVE RAIMO, Fmr. Senior Accountant, Firestone: It really didn’t affect us much until we knew that they were getting closer to Monrovia, and therefore, obviously, closer to us. I was hoping that, actually, the rebels would go around the plantation, not come onto the plantation, and we would be able to continue to operate.
KEN GERHART, Fmr. Senior Manager, Firestone: There was a lot of political turmoil. Conditions were pretty good then, even under the circumstances, so we expected that if a civil war did get to Liberia or Monrovia, that it would be very quick and things would return to normal.
NARRATOR: For the expats, life on the plantation was enjoyable.
STEVE RAIMO: We actually had a nine-hole golf course. The greens were oiled sand. Certainly, during the rainy season, the fairways were nicer than they were in the dry season. You would have at least the length of your— of your club to find some grass in which to put your ball. But it was— it was nice.
KEN GERHART: We would stay at each other’s houses so that all the golf teams didn’t have anything to worry about. Clubs would be open for the evening for the ones that really liked to party. And there also was a fishing club there that nearly everybody had a boat for. And we’d go deep-sea fishing, have fishing tournaments, et cetera. You’d have a boat boy that took care of your boat, and all that good stuff. And it was fantastic because off the west coast of Africa, some of the best fishing in the world— wahoo, marlin, tuna, sailfish. Everything is there. It was fantastic.
NARRATOR: For Taylor, it also had the makings of a perfect base. The plantation’s center was in Harbel, named after the company’s founder, Harvey Firestone, and his wife, Idabelle. It was strategically located only 45 minutes away from the capital, Monrovia, and right next to a key regional airport, Roberts International.
ELIZABETH BLUNT: They were just such tempting targets. They had everything that a rebel army would want. They had fuel supplies. They had generators. They had communications. They had food, and they had nice facilities. They had clinics and they had really nice houses. So it was a very, very good base to operate from.
BRAD PETTIT: I would say whoever was going to run Liberia needed Firestone. And I think Taylor felt that he was going to be that man, so yes, he needed Firestone. Let’s say we were very influential on what happened in the country and what went on in the country.
NARRATOR: The story of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company of Akron, Ohio, begins in 1900. By the roaring ‘20s, the company was a household name, and Harvey Firestone had become one of the top industrialists of that gilded age.
HARVEY FIRESTONE: [1928 video] Few people realize the importance of rubber and what it means to our commerce and welfare.
NARRATOR: With its auto industry booming, the United States was consuming around 70 percent of the world’s rubber, most of it imported from British colonies in the Far East. Harvey Firestone was determined to find his very own source of rubber.
HARVEY FIRESTONE: _[1928 video]:* And I urge upon the United States to get relief by investing in a country under their own control. This can be accomplished in Liberia—
NARRATOR: Liberia was ideal. The country was an ally of the United States. It had a large untapped labor pool and miles and miles of land for planting rubber trees.
JOHN CHAPMAN, Fmr. Production Manager, Firestone: The 90,000 acres was divided in 45 divisions, each division having hundreds of trees, about 12 feet apart by 15 feet apart. So you had eight-and-a-half million rubber trees all in rows.
NARRATOR: In 1926, Liberia offered Firestone a chance to develop up to a million acres of land at 6 cents an acre.
ELWOOD DUNN, Historian: The Liberian negotiators were not knowledgeable about these things. So Firestone got a deal that said they would ranch huge acres of land for small amounts for a long period of time. But I don’t think that original deal was in the very best interests of the country.
NARRATOR: The deal was controversial from the start. But for the Liberian government, it marked the beginning of a convenient business partnership.
ELIZABETH BLUNT: Firestone was huge in every way, and the revenues were absolutely crucial. So what would happen would be that the government, when it ran out of money, would anticipate the revenues. They would get Firestone to pay future revenues up front. So the government was always in hock to Firestone.
NARRATOR: It was a mutually beneficial arrangement. Firestone eagerly courted Liberia’s elites, holding parties like this one, where management invited Nina Simone to sing. That’s Harvey Firestone’s son, Harvey Jr., on the right, next to the guest of honor, Liberia’s long-ruling president, William Tubman.
JON LEE ANDERSON: The country had been ruled since the 1930s by a man called William Vacanarat Shadrach Tubman, Jr., who smoked cigars, wore homburgs, and appeared at official functions in— in tails.
NARRATOR: President Tubman was an Americo-Liberian, a member of Liberia’s ruling class, many of whom were descendants of the freed American slaves who founded the country in 1847.
Amb. WILLIAM TWADDELL, U.S. Chief of Mission, Liberia, 1992-95: Liberia was one of the very few parts of Africa that had not been colonized by a European power. It was settled in its more or less modern configuration by freed American slaves, and this group became known as the Americo-Liberians.
NARRATOR: The Americos had established their own brand of servitude, which excluded from power local ethnic tribes, like the Kpelle, the Bassa, the Kru.
Amb. JAMES K. BISHOP, U.S. Ambassador to Liberia, 1987-90: The Americo-Liberians to some extent replicated the society that they had left in the United States, but they became the plantation owners and the Liberians became the workers. Not surprisingly, the workers sort of resented this status.
NARRATOR: Life in much of Liberia mirrored the plantations of the American South. Some saw echoes of that at Firestone.
EDWIN CISCO, Firestone Workers Union: The entire structure of the work on the plantation was like in the South. That means you had laborers and you had headmen. You got gang leaders. You have overseers— you know, the same thing that used to operate in the South to control the workforce.
ELWOOD DUNN: The people at Firestone imported here a lifestyle, and it was a lifestyle that was designed for the Americans who came from the United States to work for Firestone.
Amb. JAMES K. BISHOP: Officers on the plantation lived very nicely, in attractive, comfortable, well-furnished homes. You know, their lifestyle was obviously on a plane greatly superior to that of the Liberians who were working with them.
NARRATOR: The plantation had over 8,000 workers, most of them tappers.
ELWOOD DUNN: I had never seen something like this in my life before, this scene of the tappers with the buckets, slinging on their— on their shoulders, moving around, emptying the cups of latex, one after the other, and going to the truck and emptying it there, and so forth.
NARRATOR: Collecting sap was grueling work, sometimes done by entire families for a few dollars a day.
ARTHUR WELWEAN, Fmr. Accountant, Firestone: This hard work is demeaning, and the pay is very small. If someone tries to complain, even though we were little (ph), but we hear them say, “Well, if you try to complain, you know, people will tell you, aren’t you counting yourself lucky that you have a job? You got to stop complaining.” So people just live with it like that.
NARRATOR: Liberian middle managers had it a little better.
JUSTIN KNUCKLES, Fmr. Factory Supervisor, Firestone: I’m Justin Knuckles. I was hired in Firestone in the year 1973. And I work for Firestone in various position up to 1990.
The first house I have what— I can say were terrible, because you had to get out and go and use the bathroom outside. You had to do everything outside. And a lot of flies. It were terrible.
ARTHUR WELWEAN: The houses have now changed, but up to 2002, that was the type of housing they had. I mean, no running water. And about 90 percent of the people live in that condition.
NARRATOR: But in one of the poorest countries in the world, Firestone offered its workers generous benefits.
ARTHUR WELWEAN: I got a scholarship coming from junior high school because I was the second in my class. And then I got a scholarship again to go to college. So they pay my tuition in college.
JUSTIN KNUCKLES: I can say you considered yourself blessed if you were in Liberia working for Firestone because Firestone have a good educational program. They give you food. They give you water. You didn’t make much money, but for a man to live, you got to have certain, certain things, and Firestone provide those things.
NARRATOR: But the Firestone workers were not immune to the resentment that was building across Liberia. After 133 years of Americo-Liberian rule, a young enlisted man from the Krahn tribe changed the course of Liberia’s history on April 12th, 1980.
NEWSCASTER: Liberia’s president, William Tolbert, a descendant of American slaves and a good friend of the U.S. was assassinated today in a coup lead by an army enlisted man, who said that they’re fed up with the government corruption. The new head of the government is the 28-year-old sergeant named Samuel Doe.
JON LEE ANDERSON: Master Sergeant Samuel Doe eviscerated Tolbert in bed, disemboweled him. Doe then invited the world’s press to come to Liberia to witness the execution of all the cabinet ministers that he could lay his hands on.
ELIZABETH BLUNT: It was very shocking, really, because of the way they executed the cabinet, who were old men, who were civilians. I think people would expect them to be locked up after a coup. They wouldn’t expect them to be tied on the beach outside town and shot.
SCOTT STEARNS: The execution of the Tolbert cabinet on the beach, broadcast live on Liberian television, sent a pretty clear message that this was his country to control.
JON LEE ANDERSON: For the first time since its birth, Liberia was no longer run by these mulatto, lighter-skinned Libero-Americans but from someone from the interior.
NARRATOR: Doe gradually filled government posts with members of his Krahn tribe, many who were uneducated and ill-prepared to run a country. One of the notable exceptions was Charles Taylor, who had recently returned from Boston, where he had received a degree in economics from Bentley College. He worked his connections and became the head of the General Services Agency.
JON LEE ANDERSON: Doe, who was a pretty uncultured man at the time, had the— had the good sense to put Taylor in charge of the office which is— which appropriates funds for government purchases.
NARRATOR: Taylor used the position to gain influence with Doe’s staff. He bought new cars for the cabinet and surprised Doe with a stretch limousine. But as head of procurement, there were other opportunities.
ELIZABETH BLUNT: As you can imagine, that was a very lucrative job and he made a lot of money. And nobody really minded until the money he made was President Doe’s money, and then he fell out with the president and fled to the United States.
NARRATOR: Doe accused Taylor of embezzlement, demanding his extradition. Taylor was arrested and locked up, but not for long.
SCOTT STEARNS: Charles Taylor makes a rather dramatic prison break from a jail in Massachusetts, along with several other inmates. All of those inmates are eventually captured. Taylor is not and regales in the— afterwards that it was the CIA who helped break him out of that prison because he was destined to lead the rebellion to bring down Samuel Doe.
JON LEE ANDERSON: There’s all kinds of legend around it., but it seems he had a kind of underground network of people who helped him. He literally disappeared. Nobody knew where he was.
KEN GERHART: We heard all the rumors that he had been to the States and escaped from jail and was making his way back to Liberia.
NARRATOR: Four years after the jail break, Taylor’s forces began their assault, heading towards the Firestone plantation.
[Donald Ensminger’s diary] “Day 1, Tuesday, June 5th, 1990. Last evening, 8:00 P.M., reported rebels crossing river towards factory area.”
NARRATOR: Donald Ensminger was the head of the Firestone plantation when Taylor’s rebels stormed in and seized control. Much of what we know about what happened comes from Ensminger’s diary and a phone interview. He declined to appear on camera.
STEVE RAIMO: I found him to be very genuine, a very nice man, genuinely cared for us as expats, and for the rest of the people who worked for Liberia.
JOHN T. RICHARDSON, Fmr. Adviser to Charles Taylor: We found Ensminger to be very rude, very uncooperative and a very arrogant son of whatever.
NARRATOR: In his diary, Ensminger notes that 8 to 10 rebels burst into the golf club, demanding vehicles. Later on, they took fuel, bags of rice, handheld radios and petty cash, including forty dollars to the rebel leader, Peter, a hothead and drunk.
Ken Gerhart was stationed down the road from the plantation at the Coca-Cola bottling plant, a property of Firestone. He was in constant communication with Ensminger.
KEN GERHART, Fmr. Senior Manager, Firestone: We still had radio communications, he and I, and well, they were saying things were heating up because they were getting so many demands from Taylor’s army— money, food, whatever, you know? They wanted whatever they could get. And unfortunately, when they couldn’t get it, they would go out in the villages and take what they wanted. So things were really heating up.
ARTHUR WELWEAN, Fmr. Accountant, Firestone: We knew they were going to be out for trouble. They’d go into your house. If you had a private vehicle, or even a Firestone vehicle, parked in your yard, they would take the vehicle, take valuables. I mean, they said that they were at war with Mandingos and Krahns. So they were looking for Mandingos and Krahns, and as they identified them, they were killing them.
NARRATOR: President Doe’s forces, the AFL, were mainly Krahn. Doe gave the order to push Taylor off the plantation.
EDWIN CISCO, Firestone Workers Union: The AFL came in, too, you know, got on the scene and targeted people for [unintelligible] business and killed them, you know? This was a kind of a seesaw, you know, battle that was happening,
STEVE RAIMO, , Fmr. Senior Accountant, Firestone: And it appeared, from my perspective, that it was turning more into a tribal warfare, in essence. Doe, who was a Krahn, from the Krahn tribe, certainly didn’t have any love lost between some of the other tribes that were apparently joining in the rebellion with Charles Taylor.
And we knew that people were getting killed. We knew that it was very dangerous for them. From my perspective, a little apprehensive to determine what we would have to do, whether it would be safe for us to stay on the plantation or whether we would have to evacuate.
NARRATOR: The U.S. embassy had advised U.S. citizens to evacuate, but the managers stayed put. On June 7th, day 3, thousands of Firestone workers fled their homes.
Steve Raimo took these photos. Many of the workers sought shelter at Ensminger’s mansion.
JOHN CHAPMAN, Fmr. Production Manager, Firestone: We started to see people walking towards the house, and like— and then more. Then more. And we estimated somewhere around 1,500 people were standing in front of the general manager’s house seeking refuge. They were crying. They were afraid. And they wanted refuge.
NARRATOR: Many of the expats, too, gathered at the main house.
STEVE RAIMO: We would during the day kind of try and keep ourselves occupied. So I still played golf. [laughs] Some of the other guys did, too. And we just watched to see what would occur. We were hoping that once they had had this initial battle, that things would move off the plantation. That was my hope, anyway.
NARRATOR: As the battle raged, Firestone workers continued to seek refuge at the main house. But Ensminger says he had no other choice but to turn them away.
JUSTIN KNUCKLES, Fmr. Factory Supervisor, Firestone: They told us that he cannot take us in because we are the ones who will be protecting him, not he protecting us.
ARTHUR WELWEAN, Fmr. Accountant, Firestone: He said, “It’s Liberians that are coming. You are going to be safe among your own people. You don’t need to come in. So only the expats can come in, not the Liberian staff.” It made me feel very bad that that present management did not care about the wellbeing of the black staff. You know, hell was breaking loose, and they didn’t care for them.
STEVE RAIMO: We were concerned about them because, certainly, being a part of the tribe that Doe was a part of, we knew that they were going to be targeted. But as far as being able to protect them, we had no way to do that.
JOHN CHAPMAN: It was a very emotional moment to say to all these people, “I’m sorry, we cannot harbor you. We cannot protect you.” I felt like crying. It was sad, very sad. In fact, I get choked up, like I’m nearly getting choked up now each time I tell this story. And— and it was very emotional.
NARRATOR: Another entry in the diary says that the workers were fed rice and told to leave. ‘We can’t offer them protection from either soldiers or FF.” FF— Freedom Fighters, a reference to Taylor’s forces.
By day 4, heavy fighting erupted between Taylor’s NPFL rebels and Doe’s army. Like many workers on the plantation, Mary Pollee had no place to go.
MARY POLLEE: I started working in Firestone. My husband and myself, we met there, on the Division 1.
NARRATOR: She recalls the day Doe’s forces barged into her house looking for Taylor rebels.
MARY POLLEE: When Charles Taylor came in, they were killing. Government, Doe’s soldiers, were killing. Too much killing. And where we were at, my husband, they took my husband from me. One morning, they strip him naked. No clothes. They only leave him his briefs. They carry him from me. I’m crying. They kicking me. They kill my husband way behind that bank. They kill my husband. I know. I lay my eyes on the body.
They came back on me, raped me. They wanted to kill me and my children. The next morning [unintelligible] at 3:00 o’clock in the morning, I left with my children. I go in the bush.
[Donald Ensminger’s diary] “Day 9. We are totally helpless.”
KEN GERHART: The final blow was when they came to his house, where he had assembled most of the managers so that they could be together. And one of them threatened to shoot him with a RPG if he was there the next day. And then we got them all out, out and left the country.
NARRATOR: After 10 days, Ensminger ended his diary with these words.
[Donald Ensminger’s diary] “What an Ordeal!!” on screen
NARRATOR: But for the Firestone employees on the plantation, the ordeal was just beginning. Justin Knuckles awoke to find a note from management on his door.
JUSTIN KNUCKLES: “We’re sorry. We couldn’t stay. We hope there’ll be time when things improve.”
CHRISTIAN MILLER, Reporter: And how did that make you feel?
JUSTIN KNUCKLES: Very, very insecure. because we had a belief— as long as the Americans are on the plantation, we had a little hope. But now the Americans are gone, what’s going to happen to us?
NARRATOR: Over the course of the next several months, the killing continued.
KEN GERHART, Fmr. Senior Manager, Firestone: Well, if they’re the right tribe, they survived. If they weren’t, they didn’t.
NARRATOR: Gerhart’s employees at the Coca-Cola bottling plant were not spared.
KEN GERHART: I had approximately 300, 350 people, and 17 percent of them had been killed— my driver, my secretary. The story that bothered me the most was my driver. The first time, he was beaten. Second time, they cut the soles off his feet. Third time, they shot him.
CHRISTIAN MILLER: They cut the soles off of his feet?
KEN GERHART: Yeah, right, with a machete. It changed my whole perspective of what was happening in the country. No longer did any of us feel that it was going to be a swift coup, and so forth, and human rights would be, you know, adhered to. But they were not. It had pretty much got really out of hand then.
NARRATOR: Over the following months, competing factions fought for control of the country. It was a civil war marked by atrocities on all sides. After months of bloodletting, Taylor and his NPFL gained the upper hand. By the fall of 1990, Taylor had seized most of Liberia, with the exception of Monrovia. The capital was still up for grabs, contested terrain.
And President Doe became the most prominent casualty. He was captured and stripped to his underwear by a former Taylor commander,the warlord Prince Johnson. Elizabeth Blunt was trying to set up an interview when gunfire erupted.
ELIZABETH BLUNT: I was stuck in the press officer’s office with a gun battle going on all around me. While I’d been lying there with my eyes shut, I’d— I heard the president’s voice, which must’ve been when they were taking him away. And I heard what I was sure was the president’s voice going, “Please, I beg you. I beg you.” And I knew his voice. He was bleeding very heavily. I think he probably just died from loss of blood. But they were trying to interrogate him. He died sometime during the night.
STEVE RAIMO: It’s hard to process sometimes. Certainly, evil was taking reign in Liberia. When evil is given opportunity to reign freely, these things occur. And we experience them.
NARRATOR: In the late ‘80s, 40 percent of the latex used in America came from Firestone’s plantation in Liberia. In the industry, Firestone’s product was considered some of the highest quality latex in the world. At company headquarters, top managers were under pressure to get the Liberia operation back up and running.
STEVE RAIMO: When you can’t produce latex, can’t produce block rubber, can’t get it sent out to the end users, I would assume we were losing lots of money.
KEN GERHART: It was a big deal because it was their own source of rubber for the tires. And it was the largest plantation in the world, and they had the market established over many, many years. So it was very important to them.
NARRATOR: Firestone had been bought by the Japanese conglomerate Bridgestone in 1988, and the corporation had been losing money. Executives in Akron began to plot their return.
BRAD PETTIT, Fmr. Controller, Firestone: Firestone’s intent was to make money. Always has and always will. We’re in the business to make money. So if it’s not making money, let’s make it so it does. Why did we go back, because we felt sorry for the people that were there? Probably not. We wanted to get the investment earning money again.
NARRATOR: One of the first things management did was hire a Liberian attorney based in the U.S.
GERALD PADMORE, Attorney for Firestone: The meetings actually took place in Akron in 1990, at the old, big Firestone headquarters, the big building there in Akron. The discussions focused on what to do next. Would you have to deal with Charles Taylor? Could you do that?
There was tremendous worry about the safety of their employees, most particularly the 8,000, 9,000, 10,000 Liberians that they employed. So how can we help these people? What do we do next? So it was a real dilemma for the company, and a lot of, I would say, soul-searching and really tough, tough decision-making that had to be done.
NARRATOR: Much of what we know from the era comes from corporate records that until now were buried in a long forgotten court file and hundreds of State Department cables obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
One of the earliest documents we found was a letter signed by Donald Ensminger on October 3rd, 1990. It’s addressed to Commander-in-Chief Charles Taylor, requesting a meeting.
The second one, sent a week later— “All sides need to recognize that Firestone continues to incur major losses as a result of hostilities.”
Then, three months later, one of Taylor’s aides sent a letter back to Akron. “President Taylor has directed us to inform you that your team should come to Harbel to make the necessary assessment of the plantation.”
A few weeks later, a small group of Firestone managers headed back to Monrovia.
JOHN CHAPMAN, Fmr. Production Manager, Firestone: We were each given a survival kit. That’s your responsibility. The mission is to go back and start the plantation, start up the plantation.
NARRATOR: The managers had been away from Liberia for eight months. They were shocked by the country they found.
KEN GERHART: It’s a disaster, completely. I saw very few dogs left. Everything had been eaten. All the palm trees had been cut down for the cabbage on top because everybody was starving to death. No cats. And if you saw a rat, he was big because he’d been well fed. On the streets, when I started driving around, you would be driving over human bones on the streets. You couldn’t miss them.
NARRATOR: The managers found it hard to get to the plantation. Taylor was making life difficult for them.
JOHN CHAPMAN: The rebels were on the plantation and up to the suburbs of Monrovia. The higher management was talking about getting back onto the plantation, but I think we realized that somebody didn’t want us to go back to the plantation.
NARRATOR: So they waited. In Monrovia, there was an uneasy peace. The city was in the hands of an interim government, but the interim president was president in name only.
AMOS SAWYER, Interim President, 1990-94: The U.S. had abandoned us. The United States government officials were very clear that there was not to be the nature of the intervention that many Liberians expected.
GERALD PADMORE: The concern I had was that there was an interim government without any constitutional bases. There was Charles Taylor, who by force of arms had taken most of the country. And these two different governments, from a legal or constitutional aspect, had no legitimacy, if you will.
NARRATOR: The task of keeping law and order was delegated to a West African peacekeeping force that went by the acronym ECOMOG.
Amb. DENNIS JETT, Dpty. Chief of Mission, Liberia, 1989-91: The acronym got converted by Liberians into “Every Car or Movable Object Gone” because these West African peacekeepers spent most of their time stealing things and looting the country and shipping it back, in most cases, to Nigeria.
NARRATOR: For Taylor, they were foreigners, war tourists posing for pictures. Without a foothold in Monrovia, Taylor set up a parallel government in what he called greater Liberia with a new capital in the town of Gbarnga.
ELIZABETH BLUNT, BBC West Africa, 1986-90: Taylor called himself president. He called his wife of the time the first lady. He called his house in Gbarnga the executive mansion, but it was a house. It wasn’t an executive mansion. The minister of communications, basically, was the guy who carried the satellite telephone. He wasn’t a minister of communications.
SCOTT STEARNS, Freelance Reporter, Liberia 1990-92: The only thing he’s interested in is absolute power, and he has it, nearly, out in the areas he controls, not only by the land mass, but because that’s where Liberia’s riches are. That’s where the rubber is. That’s where the timber is. That’s where the diamonds are. Why come to Monrovia? There’s nothing there to exploit.
NARRATOR: As Taylor’s ambition for money and territory grew, he expanded his reach to neighboring Sierra Leone. He recruited thousands of new fighters, many of them children. For his own presidential guard, Taylor created a special division of young boys.
JON LEE ANDERSON, The New Yorker: They were formally called the Small Boys Unit. They were very young boys, very often orphans that somehow became like his sons, and they would do anything for him. And they manned these roadblocks across the country, wherever the front lines were. They adopted horrifying names, like “General [expletive deleted] Me Quick,” “Dead Body Bones.”
It got to the point where they would bet if a pregnant woman was— was walking towards the roadblock, they would lay bets on what sex the fetus was, and they would open her up with a bayonet to see. And they would just dump the bodies right there.
Amb. WILLIAM TWADDELL: Mr. Taylor seemed quite proud of his SBU, Small Boy Unit. All of them were the Taylor shock troops. There was also a lot of drugs that were circulating and probably administered or encouraged by the NPFL. So it was a pretty— in some ways disorganized, crazy, but also terrifying kind of a phenomenon to be rushed by a lot of folks pretty much out of their heads.
JOHN T. RICHARDSON, Fmr. Adviser to Charles Taylor: During this war, we pick these kids up in villages, in towns, on the highway, just there, 7, 8, 9-year-old kids. You put them in a pickup. You take them home. You feed them. You give them a bath. You tell them, “OK, you are my SBU.” Everybody wanted to be a soldier.
This war was ugly. I saw skulls. I saw dogs eating bodies. I saw bloated bodies. I saw exploding bodies. I saw women dead. I saw children dead. I saw babies dead. I saw a war. I can’t apologize for war. Everybody has had a war.
NARRATOR: There was widespread killing and torture. Two thirds of the Krahn, Doe’s tribe, fled the country.
KEN GERHART, Fmr. Senior Manager, Firestone: He didn’t do all of that firsthand himself. I mean, he let his boy soldiers do that because there was no control of them. He knew it was going on, but he didn’t know who was doing what, when or where.
GERALD PADMORE, Attorney for Firestone: We knew there had been— you know, had been fighting, there had been killing, and there had been some ethnic reprisal killings. But at that time, from the information available to me, and I think to Firestone, Taylor did not appear to be conducting genocidal activities or a war criminal, or anything of that kind. And indeed, the United States government had not discouraged Firestone from contacting Taylor and seeing what could be done.
NARRATOR: But Donald Ensminger told us Firestone was getting reports about the atrocities being committed. Human Rights Watch had warned publicly that the Krahn tribe was at risk of genocide. And in reports, even the State Department had said Taylor’s NPFL forces had been killing civilians, primarily based on ethnic considerations.
Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission would later collect data on the violations committed by the NPFL during the civil war. PROPUBLICA tallied the numbers for the first year of the invasion— 6,424 killings, 820 kidnappings and 631 rapes.
The U.S. did not recognize Taylor’s self-declared government, but U.S. diplomats had tried to engage with him. Assistant Secretary of State Herman Cohen, who was the top-ranking official in the State Department for Africa, had in earlier months made a trip behind rebel lines to meet with Taylor.
Amb. HERMAN J. COHEN, Asst. Secretary of State, 1989-93: It was rather frightening because his compound was surrounded by young boys, I would say ages 12 to 14, all carrying heavy weapons. We go inside, and Charles Taylor is sitting there on a kind of a throne. It looked like a throne. And the first thing that struck me is he had a— behind him was hanging a large picture of President John F. Kennedy and Mrs. Kennedy. It was up there.
So he saw himself like that. He saw himself as a great leader who would bring Liberia to the modern age, you see? And he said to me, “You know, if you want to stop this war, just send in a battalion of Marines. We’ll all surrender,” he said. “We’ll all surrender. U.S. Marines, we’ll all surrender.”
NARRATOR: Around that time, the U.S. was embroiled in the Gulf war. Military intervention here was not an option.
Amb. HERMAN J. COHEN: I sent word back to Washington, and then word quickly came back, “Secretary Cohen, you are under instructions not to take charge of this war. So please do not do that.” [laughs] So we— I just went— I said OK, and I went about my business.
NARRATOR: After months of waiting, the Firestone managers were growing restless. They were holed up in a compound in Monrovia, unable to work on the plantation.
JOHN CHAPMAN: We asked, “Can we go to the plantation, talk to the rebel forces there.” And we want to start the plantation again. We thought that would be enough incentive for them to say, “Yeah, yeah, come back.” But that wasn’t the case.
NARRATOR: Taylor was ignoring Firestone. He may have also taken offense to the tone in Ensminger’s letters. They were not fawning, they were all business. They didn’t even address him as president. Looking for a breakthrough, Ensminger decided to visit Taylor in Gbarnga. He asked Ken Gerhart to come along.
KEN GERHART: Well, we were hopeful that we were going to get a little more latitude on what we wanted to do on the plantation. That was our hopes of going up there. But it didn’t happen. He did not meet with us. He wouldn’t meet with us. We slept on the hard floor all night in the one room he gave us, and went back the next day.
NARRATOR: From the cables, we know that some U.S. diplomats were discouraging Firestone from dealing with Taylor. One cable from January 1991 reads, “We would recommend that Firestone wait until the plantation area comes under ECOMOG control.”
GERALD S. ROSE, Dpty. Chief of Mission, Liberia, 1991-93: In my personal opinion— not the U.S. government’s opinion— I did not feel that Firestone was operating in the best interests of what I saw as our best interests in Liberia. Their choice of becoming closer to Taylor was not the appropriate way that I would want to see them do business. But I— I’m not in the rubber business.
NARRATOR: Other diplomats accepted Firestone’s attempts to talk with Taylor.
Amb. DENNIS JETT: I think that it’s fair to say that we recognized that the most likely outcome was that Taylor was going to continue to control that territory.
Amb. HERMAN J. COHEN: You can’t close down a plantation. You can’t wrap up, you know, five million trees and take them away. So you want to preserve what you can, and so you have to make deals.
NARRATOR: At least one ambassador, Peter Jon de Vos, encouraged Firestone to work with Taylor, and even secured a meeting in Gbarnga which included a delegation of diplomats and a surprise guest. Fourth in line was Donald Ensminger.
Amb. PETER JON DE VOS: This is Mr. Ensminger, the director general of Firestone.
CHARLES TAYLOR: Oh, he works for the embassy now?
Amb. PETER JON DE VOS: Well, America works for him.
NARRATOR: America works for Firestone. Taylor was blunt, accusing Firestone of negligence.
CHARLES TAYLOR: Thousands of people who have put their whole lives for Firestone, 20, 30 years. There’s a little war, and then you run off and there’s no food, no medicine. Thee’s complete breakdown. That’s inexcusable. I don’t think Firestone should do such a thing.
NARRATOR: After the meeting, an official at the U.S. embassy in Monrovia wrote back to State. The cable notes that Ensminger was “scolded” by Taylor in front of the entire press corps. After that meeting, Taylor refused to deal with Ensminger.
JOHN T. RICHARDSON, Fmr. Adviser to Charles Taylor: After Ensminger’s first mistake when he came to Gbarnga, he was very demanding. They just wanted what’s for Firestone to be for Firestone. And after the talks broke off, we insisted that they have to send someone we can work with.
KEN GERHART: Naturally, Taylor wants everything his way. And Don didn’t. He wanted it Firestone’s way. So it was probably two guys butting heads.
NARRATOR: Firestone sent Ensminger’s boss in Akron, John Schremp, to get things back on track.
JOHN T. RICHARDSON: John Schremp, and there was another guy— they came. They met with Taylor. And Taylor said, “Look, you abandoned your people. What about them? When you come back, what can you do for them? What— are you going to give them back pay, what?”
GERALD PADMORE, Attorney for Firestone: Charles Taylor insisted on a number of conditions. Among them would be that Firestone would recognize that he had a de facto government, and that if Firestone came back, it would treat his government as the Liberian government and the government that it must deal with.
NARRATOR: Besides those demands, Taylor made one more ultimatum. Ensminger had to go.
CHRISTIAN MILLER, Reporter: Did Firestone essentially acquiesce to Taylor’s demands?
GERALD PADMORE: Yes, absolutely. It was clear that without that, you would not be able to put a management team on the ground.
NARRATOR: Soon after, Ensminger was dismissed. In an email to PROPUBLICA and FRONTLINE, he wrote that he disagreed with Firestone’s direction, saying, “I felt then, as I do now, that their approach pushed to the very limits legality and or morality.”
It had been a year-and-a-half since Taylor took over the plantation. Firestone was losing money, and it was worried about reports that the plantation was being ransacked. The Board of directors sat down to discuss its options.
Amb. HERMAN J. COHEN: We assumed they were making their own arrangements. They wanted to stay in business, and they would do whatever is necessary to— to stay in business.
ELWOOD DUNN, Historian: They were prepared to do Taylor’s bidding. If Taylor says, “I’m president, I’m at least de facto president,” then they said, “Well, we see the de facto president and we do business with that president.”
GERALD PADMORE, Attorney for Firestone: The easy answer for Firestone, in my opinion, would have been to just say, “We’re out of here. It’s risky. It’s scary. Economically, it doesn’t make any sense. So we’re just going to shut it down and walk away.” But if you felt a sense of responsibility to Liberia, and most importantly to the workers, the people you’ve worked with for years, it had no other choice. The decision was to stay.
AMOS SAWYER, Interim President, 1990-94: They had a choice. They had a choice. I don’t understand this notion of not having choice over the corpses of Liberians. What is that supposed to mean? Choice to become a launch pad to rain war on Liberians? I don’t accept it.
EDWIN CISCO, Firestone Workers Union: It’s about making money. It’s not about the people who help to create the wealth. It’s not about a country. It’s profit, profit, and profit.
NARRATOR: On December 17th, 1991, the board agreed to make a deal with Taylor. It was a pivotal moment for the company. In exchange for being able to return to operations, Firestone would make a significant capital investment to restore the plantation. The company would agree to use a shipping port under Taylor’s command. Taylor would reciprocate by offering security for the managers at the plantation.
The documents also show that the deal would ultimately include, quote, “tax payments.” In careful columns and rows, internal company records show a schedule of tax payments, including income taxes, social security payments, and rent, equipment and rice, valued at $2.3 million.
Amb. WILLIAM TWADDELL, U.S. Chief of Mission, 1992-95: I had not seen this, and it’s kind of amazing that— and it’s so broken down by columns. And who the hell are the pension beneficiaries? It’s amazing, isn’t it?
AMOS SAWYER: You know, until now, I hadn’t seen this. But with this, I can say very clearly that Firestone was in complicity. And I wish our government today would raise this issue with Firestone. I think the Liberian people deserve some explanations to these types of transactions. I think so.
NARRATOR: We presented the documents to the current president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf .
ELLEN JOHNSON SIRLEAF, PRESIDENT OF LIBERIA: This is one document that has not been brought to my attention, although you do hear rumors that Firestone paid taxes, you know, to the Taylor government and whatnot. But at this stage, quite frankly, we don’t know. And sometimes we don’t even want to know. We just want to proceed.
NARRATOR: The deal between Taylor and Firestone was sealed and made official in A Memorandum of understanding. It was a significant victory for Taylor.
GERALD PADMORE: I suspect he felt this would be a feather in his cap in the eyes of Liberians. So I would think that that was something he wanted.
JOHN T. RICHARDSON: We wanted Firestone on the ground because it gave credibility, one. For every employee at Firestone, as little as they get, they have about a secondary and tertiary family of eight people. So for 1,000 people, you’re affecting the lives and providing sustenance for 8,000 people. We needed Firestone to keep people busy.
NARRATOR: The agreement was neatly laid out on Taylor’s stationery with its tell-tale scorpion emblem.
KEN GERHART, Fmr. Senior Manager, Firestone: I was not party to it. So I— I can’t really comment. Basically, I refused to sign any paper with Charles Taylor’s name on it. But I believe they did do that in order to open back up.
NARRATOR: In our investigation, we found a letter on microfiche from the Firestone executive John Schremp to the interim government. He insisted the company was not taking sides with Taylor’s government, the NPRAG, and he expected hostilities would soon end.
“In the end, we had no viable choice but to accede to the preconditions set by the NPRAG for our return to the plantation. Our choices were stark, either generate some income or abandon our employees and mothball the plantation.”
GERALD PADMORE: With Firestone, it was either you don’t go back, or you have to acquiesce and pay taxes to the government in control of that area. They did the right thing. They did not exploit the country. They did not seek to extract resources on some special deal. They did not pay off warlords or give money under the table, didn’t do any of those things. They did the right thing.
NARRATOR: Firestone agreed to pay its Liberian workers in American dollars, and it would study the possibility of providing power and safe drinking water to workers’ homes. Firestone would also make all arrangements necessary for settlement of present and future financial obligations to Taylor’s government.
The MOU was executed in the city of Gbarnga on the 17th day of January 1992.
ELLWOOD DUNN: I don’t think that Firestone thought about it in moral terms. I think Firestone thought about it in purely utilitarian terms. “Taylor can provide us the security that is necessarily in order for us to continue our operations. We give him a little bit, he gave us some slack here, and we do business.”
NARRATOR: A month after the signing of the MOU, a small group of expats was finally allowed to re-start operations at the plantation. For the managers, it was a huge letdown.
JOHN CHAPMAN, Fmr. Production Manager, Firestone: The factory was just a mess. So when I went back, I managed to get to my house, and it was torn apart. Nothing in it. Nothing in it.
STEVE RAIMO, Fmr. Senior Accountant, Firestone: Our homes had been destroyed, in essence, ransacked. None of our furniture was left anymore. Everything else that they could carry away was carried away. So we lived in Monrovia, and then would travel out to the plantation once in a while, check on things, just look around a little bit, see if there’d been any progress made.
NARRATOR: The managers were not allowed near Ensminger’s old house. They understood that the plantation effectively had a new boss.
BRAD PETTIT, Fmr. Controller, Firestone: Taylor’s the mayor, OK? We actually called him “Mr. President” on the plantation. That was his title. I was impressed with the man. He was articulate. He spoke well. He talked about his plans for Liberia. I felt that this gentleman was— and I call him a gentleman because he acted like one, when I saw him— was going to definitely be the— the future president of Liberia.
NARRATOR: Throughout the summer of 1992, the Firestone managers worked hard to get along with Taylor. The change was brought about by Donald Ensminger’s replacement, Don Weihe. Weihe was a genial, hands-on manager with experience. He had run the plantation in the ‘80s .and had close connections with Liberia’s ruling elites. He passed away in 2010.
JOHN T. RICHARDSON: I think Don understood. He communicated a lot better. But I think that’s who Don was. I didn’t sense any racism in him. He didn’t have that plantation mentality in the course of normal conversation. And so he built up a lot of confidence with Taylor.
BRAD PETTIT, Fmr. Controller, Firestone: I thought he was a good administrator, a good diplomat, let’s put it that way. He’s trying to keep, let’s say, Taylor’s people happy, Firestone happy, and kind of balance it all together.
NARRATOR: Under Weihe, Firestone brought in food, hired back workers and began rebuilding the plantation. Despite the improving conditions, the workers were still wary of management.
JOHN CHAPMAN: They gave us a hard time because we “ran away.” That’s the term that they used. And that was from the regular worker in the factory, up to people that were considered the top families of the country. We’d get into a discussion, and whoever turned to that, their looks would change and said, “But you ran away.”
NARRATOR: The expat managers were determined to win the workers back.
BRAD PETTIT: We were bringing in rice again, so food— allocation of rice. And we were trying to get medical supplies to the hospital so that you could treat some basic illnesses. So by doing that, hopefully, that got some of the trust back.
NARRATOR: Court documents show that Firestone spent $35.3 million dollars on the plantation and its employees between June 1990 and February 1993.
BRAD PETTIT: It was a cash economy, so I didn’t have the opportunity to even write a check, you know? Where would they cash it? It was in a closet. That’s where we kept the money, absolutely, literally, a closet. And it was $5— Liberian dollars stacked from floor to ceiling in this closet.
NARRATOR: After six months, the operation was back up and running. Ambassador De Vos’s replacement, William Twaddell, asked Weihe if he could get a tour of the new facilities.
Amb. WILLIAM TWADDELL, U.S. Chief of Mission, 1992-95: It looked pretty good, but he didn’t, Don Weihe, nor did anyone else say— “We are overrun or fear being overrun by NPFL.” I think they were living with the NPFL among them.
BRAD PETTIT: We can’t take the plantation and say, “Well, let’s pretend it’s over here and he’s not there.” He’s there and he’s in charge and he’s got the guns. Should we have waited? Probably, yes. I will agree that that’s a probable better answer. But we decided that we— that it was doable, and we decided to try.
NARRATOR: Taylor later acknowledged that the deal with Firestone had been particularly important during the early years of his revolt.
CHRISTIAN MILLER, Reporter: Was Firestone startup capital in some way for Taylor’s government?
GERALD PADMORE, Attorney for Firestone: I can’t answer that because I just don’t know the answer to that. I would say no. In the grand scheme of things, these all would have been relatively small amounts.
CHRISTIAN MILLER: And did Taylor use the farm to store weapons and ammunition?
GERALD PADMORE: Not to the best of my knowledge. He certainly— if he did that, it would not have been with the knowledge or acquiescence of the Firestone management.
EDWIN CISCO, Firestone Workers Union: There’s no way the company management will say they’re not aware of it. They were aware. How would the management not be aware? The Firestone facilities, they are providing the fuel. They have the fuel stations, you know? They have the supplies.
ARTHUR WELWEAN, Fmr. Accountant, Firestone: I think Firestone was giving them most of what they needed. Firestone gave them rice. Firestone gave them gasoline. They needed gasoline for all of the cars they ran. And they had taken some Firestone vehicles and they were using them.
NARRATOR: Despite accounts of Taylor’s forces being out in the open on the plantation, Firestone managers say they had no way of knowing what he was planning next.
BRAD PETTIT: You got to realize that you couldn’t see very far in the plantation because everything is trees, and tall trees, to boot. So your vision was very restricted.
JOHN CHAPMAN: Vaguely, I think we saw a convoy of vehicles go through. But then again, we were concentrating on getting the factory running.
NARRATOR: While the managers focused on the plantation, Taylor was arming for the next phase in the war.
SCOTT STEARNS, Freelance Reporter, Liberia, 1990-92: People in Monrovia know that Charles Taylor is exporting raw materials. They know he’s making money on timber. They know he’s making money on diamonds. What is he making— what is he spending that money on? Weapons.
NARRATOR: Firestone’s money was one source of revenue. Taylor had branched into other lucrative businesses, trafficking in iron ore, gold, timber and diamonds.
GERALD S. ROSE, Dpty. Chief of Mission, Liberia, 1991-93: In looking at these conflicts, it’s always good to follow the money, and Taylor was able to generate significant amounts of money. He was able to buy seemingly unlimited arms and ammunition from Eastern Europe. He was able to have them flown in to Roberts international airfield and other covert locations. And he was able to arm a very large group of fighters. So it appeared to us that Firestone, among others, was financing at least a part of Taylor’s insurrection.
NARRATOR: Then one night in mid-October 1992, Taylor made his move, an all-out assault on Monrovia, Operation Octopus. The sound of shelling startled the ambassador at the U.S. embassy.
Amb. WILLIAM TWADDELL, U.S. Chief of Mission, 1992-95: Well, the day began in the dark hours. I don’t know if it was 3:00 or 4:00, but it was— there were some booms, and a pretty continuous barrage that went on three or four or five days. It was pretty wild.
GERALD S. ROSE: The first few days were very, very touch-and-go. Taylor forces got quite close. The perimeter shrunk to probably two miles or something. And you always had a flack jacket hanging up in your office.
NARRATOR: The siege of Monrovia was brutal. Scores of Taylor’s young boys died crossing the swamps leading into the city. After a week of heavy fighting, Taylor’s offensive stalled in Monrovia’s suburbs. ECOMOG decided to take the upper hand.
AMOS SAWYER, Interim President, 1990-94: The plantation had been turned into a major military installation. Firestone provided the backdrop for this, provided the rear base, the rear guard base, provided the ammunition depot from which ambushes could be set and all of this could happen. That operation needed to be dismantled.
NARRATOR: ECOMOG set out to destroy Taylor’s stronghold on the plantation.
BRAD PETTIT: We’re watching the planes dive and dropping the bombs and pulling up. And it— it— it was just, “Oh, that’s cool, look at that. Hey, it’s a show. It’s not going to bother us. We’re safe.”
JOHN CHAPMAN: Reminded me of the Second World War, looking for doodlebugs in the sky. And we would look to see where they were, to see possibly where the bombs would land. But you never— you never had an idea of that. You didn’t know where they were going to land.
NARRATOR: And then just as a group of workers and children had gathered to play a game of soccer, ECOMOG jets appeared in the sky.
EDWIN CISCO: There were guys on the football field playing, and then the next thing we saw, they started releasing bombs and people started running. And the direction people are running in, that’s where we’re going, they’re releasing bomb. People legs got caught and stuff like that. And then, you know, they were running to the hospital, oh, yeah, and dead one, you know? I mean, it was— it was just terrible.
NARRATOR: Around 40 people were killed.
BRAD PETTIT: We got word of it, and Don Weihe immediately jumped in his car with the logistics man, we’ll call, from Taylor. And they went down there to try to assess the damage and see what happened and settle things down.
NARRATOR: After witnessing the scene, Weihe agreed to a televised interview.
DON WEIHE: It’s a devastating experience to witness something like this. I would find it hard to think that what we are engaged in here would have any value other than something that would be to the wellbeing of the world.
NARRATOR: Akron sent a message. It was time to go yet again. But as he prepared to leave, Weihe wrote a final letter to Taylor. “I wish to personally thank you for your kind understanding. I look forward to being able to quickly return to restart our operations.”
The next day, an official at the U.S. embassy in Monrovia cabled to Washington describing Weihe’s last meeting with the warlord. “Taylor said that he was sorry to see Weihe go, that the plantation had been the lifeblood of greater Liberia.”
As it turned out, Taylor would never manage to capture Monrovia. But after four more bloody years of war, Taylor would run for president and win.
ELWOOD DUNN: The mantra was at the time, “He killed my ma. He killed my pa. I will still vote for him.”
ELIZABETH BLUNT: They had the perception that if he didn’t win, he would start fighting again. And what they wanted was the war to stop, so they were pretty sure that he wouldn’t stop it any other way than by becoming president, so they let him be president.
NARRATOR: But under Taylor, Liberia descended back into civil war.
ELWOOD DUNN: He had an opportunity once he was in power to try to build a political coalition that would be able to govern the country, but he chose to be dictatorial, and I think that was his undoing.
NARRATOR: Taylor’s ambitions to establish a greater Liberia expanded to neighboring countries. He crossed into Guinea, and in Sierra Leone continued to finance and arm rebels known for raping and dismembering civilians. His pursuit of timber and diamonds fueled the conflict. 300,000 died.
JON LEE ANDERSON, The New Yorker: This was a regime that was unlike anything I’d seen anywhere. It was like if you gave a country to a serial killer. That’s what it felt like.
NARRATOR: Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission would take three years to interview thousands of victims, but no one was prosecuted.
GERALD S. ROSE: There are people who have been responsible for atrocities, for murders. Many of those people are not only walking the streets but are actively engaged in government in Liberia today.
NARRATOR: John T. Richardson lives outside Monrovia. He has never been charged with any crimes related to the war.
JOHN T. RICHARDSON: This was a civil uprising. Everybody’s in it. Does it make it right? Does it make it wrong? But as they say, to the spoils go the victor.
NARRATOR: Investigators estimate that during his presidency, Taylor siphoned off anywhere from $280 million to $3 billion. Eventually, he would be arrested and tried at the Hague, but not for crimes committed in Liberia, but for his role in the war in Sierra Leone, though at his trial, he was questioned about Firestone.
COURTENAY GRIFFITHS, Defense Attorney: Now, Harbel is the location for what economic activity?
CHARLES TAYLOR: Harbel is the location of the Firestone rubber plantation.
COURTENAY GRIFFITHS: And what was the significance of capturing that?
CHARLES TAYLOR: Oh, you had immediately a means that would provide the needed financial assistance that we needed for the revolution.
NARRATOR: Taylor said that Firestone gave him economic and political capital at a critical juncture in the war.
CHARLES TAYLOR: So once we captured Harbel, we then made it very clear to the Firestone Plantation Company that they could no longer be permitted to exercise allegiance to the government in Monrovia. So they became at that particular time our most significant principal source of foreign exchange.
NARRATOR: Firestone says it was powerless to prevent Taylor from occupying the plantation and that at no time did the company have a collaborative relationship with him.
JUDGE: The accused has been found responsible for acts of terrorism, murder, rape, sexual slavery, cruel treatment, recruitment of child soldiers, enslavement and pillage—
NARRATOR: Taylor is currently serving a 50-year sentence at Frankland Prison in the north of England.
As for Firestone, they resumed operations at the plantation in 1996. In the years since, the company has invested more than $146 million to improve the conditions on the plantation. The company remains the largest private employer in Liberia.
GERALD S. ROSE: Do I think they have blood on their hands? Yes. I believe they facilitated a warlord in his insurrection and in the atrocities that he created. Sometimes people make decisions they regret. I don’t know if Firestone regrets the decisions they made in Liberia during the insurrection. You may want to ask them that question.
CHRISTIAN MILLER, Reporter: Does Firestone regret any decisions that it made in Liberia during this insurrection?
GERALD PADMORE: Anyone who dealt with Liberia in the period from 1980 to 2003 must have regrets that, what could I have done differently? Might have I prevented something? I think the decisions they made, in my opinion, were completely justifiable. And to be very frank, I believe they were the right decisions. Had they not taken those decisions, I think Liberia would be much the worse for it today.
NARRATOR: Last month, Firestone and its parent company, Bridgestone, sent FRONTLINE and PROPUBLICA a response to our questions, saying, “Firestone’s decision to remain in Liberia was very costly for the company. Firestone was able to preserve an important economic asset for Liberia, and we are proud of that.”