Abandoned Buildings in Post-Conflict West Africa

hotel africaHotel Africa in Virginia, Liberia

The Hotel Africa, built in a beach resort area north of Monrovia, was once a 5-star grand hotel.  It was built to impress  as the location of the 1979  Organisation of African Unity  summit.  (The pool was made in the shape of the African continent.)  Just a few months after the Hotel Africa hosted the OAU, however,  Liberia’s President William R. Tolbert, Jr. was overthrown by  Samuel Doe.  From 1979 to 2003, Liberia was engulfed in violent conflict too complicated to detail here.

Stories about the historic Hotel Africa abound; many of them parallel the violence that was happening in the country at large.  For example, the hotel’s owner  was kidnapped in 1990 by the rebel Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia. They allegedly murdered him by throwing him off the fourth floor balcony.

By the time I visited the Hotel Africa in 2008, it had been bombed, burned, and stripped bare of everything that could possibly have a value.

Abandoned.

burned building Sierra LeoneKono District, Sierra Leone

This is a photo of the remains of a building in the Kono district that was burned by the rebel Revolutionary United Front during the conflict in Sierra Leone. I’ve heard so many personal stories of escape and of loss that I assume this was once the private home of a family with means.  But it could just as easily have been a government building.

The conflict in Sierra Leone left so many destroyed buildings. Not to mention lives.

gas stationMonrovia, Liberia

In Monrovia, buildings destroyed in the conflict loom gloomily as people go about the process of rebuilding their lives in the midst of the rubble. This photo was taken at a gas station.  Like many resourceful Liberians, they were also selling “pure and safe drinking water”.  But the thing I like about this photo is this – if you look closely at the larger building above, you can see laundry hanging out to dry. Life springs up inexorably, like blades of grass in the spring.

In post-conflict West Africa, the abandoned buildings hold more than just memories.

Weekly Photo Challenge:  Abandoned

Weekly Writing Challenge: Threes

Cutting The Head Off The Snake

Charles G. Taylor with NPFL fighters during attack on Monrovia in 1990

(Image Source) 

The Special Court for Sierra Leone  today sentenced former Liberian President Charles G. Taylor to 50 years in prison for his role in the Sierra Leonean conflict in the 1990s.   Mr. Taylor helped fuel bloody conflicts between 1989 and 2003, not only in Liberia and Sierra Leone, but also throughout the sub-region of West Africa.  For thousands – if not millions – of West Africans, May 30 will now mark the anniversary of accountability.

Eight years ago, in May 2004, I was in Sierra Leone to monitor the efforts that were being made to bring justice and reconciliation to that shattered country.  In August of the previous year,  Charles Taylor had resigned as President and exited Liberia for temporary asylum in Nigeria, the result of a deal brokered to end Liberia’s brutal civil war.  His infamous last words as he boarded the plane were, “God willing, I will be back.” Almost everyone I talked to in Sierra Leone expressed fear of a return to chaos and war in the region if Mr. Taylor did not stand trial.  As one person explained,

“We have a saying in West Africa.  If you cut off the head of the snake, it is then only a rope.  That’s why Taylor must go.”

Mr. Taylor was indicted on seventeen counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity by the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL), a United Nations-sponsored “hybrid” war crimes tribunal based on international and Sierra Leonean law that had strong support (including $20 million appropriated by Congress) from the United States.  The charges against Mr. Taylor included aiding and abetting the most serious of human rights abuses:  killings, torture, mutilation, rape and other forms of sexual violence, sexual slavery, conscription of children, abduction and forced labor perpetuated by Sierra Leonean rebel forces that Mr. Taylor actively supported.  Not to mention the part about fueling the conflict by trading arms for diamonds.

Special Court for Sierra Leone

Under construction in Freetown, Sierra Leone in May 2004

Yet, even after trials began at the Special Court for Sierra Leone, Mr. Taylor remained in Nigeria, immune from justice.  Even worse, he appeared to continue to meddle with affairs in Liberia.  Impunity for Mr. Taylor was an affront to the thousands of victims and their families.  Fortunately, international pressure finally resulted in Mr. Taylor being taken into custody and brought to the SCSL for trial in 2006.  Due to concerns about security and the potential destabilizing impact of holding the trial in West Africa, Mr. Taylor’s trial was moved to The Netherlands to a chamber borrowed from the International Criminal Court.  (Mr. Taylor complained bitterly about the food he was served.)

I interviewed Sierra Leonean staff members of the SCSL in The Netherlands about the Taylor case in 2008.  Their estimates at the time about the length of the trial proved far too optimistic. The trial, which included testimony from more than 100 witnesses in addition to the defendant (who testified during 81 trial days), took twice as long as planned.

When I traveled to Liberia in February 2008, I asked people about what they thought about the Taylor trial.  Many Liberians did not seem to understand that Mr. Taylor was being tried for crimes committed in Sierra Leone, not Liberia.  When I pointed out the distinction, most seemed not to care.  In general, the Liberians I talked to just seemed relieved that he was behind bars – and that those bars were controlled by the international community.  When I mentioned the analogy to cutting the head off a snake, I was uniformly met with wise nods of agreement.

The verdict of the Special Court for Sierra Leone in late April of this year marked a historic moment in international justice – the first conviction of a serving head of state on 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity.    The sentence today of 50 years (which was consistent with the previous sentences of Sierra Leonean commanders tried by the SCSL) essentially means that Mr. Taylor will spend the rest of his life in prison.

Holding Charles Taylor accountable for the war crimes that he aided and abetted in Sierra Leone is important, but we must never forget the remaining impunity for the war crimes that he is responsible for in Liberia.  Liberian civilians were subjected to massive human rights abuses, exercised with direct command responsibility by Mr. Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) and, after his election in 1997, the Liberian security forces and paramilitary Anti-Terrorist Unit (ATU) .  Of a pre-war Liberian population of 3 million, an estimated 250,000 were killed and 1.5 million displaced, with tens of thousands of refugees forced to flee West Africa for safety in the United States.

I spent three years working with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia, taking statements in the United States, United Kingdom and Buduburam Refugee Settlement in Ghana.  The statement giver’s account of violence below is representative of the scope of the human rights abuses and level of brutality suffered by many Liberians:

At the initial stages of the war, I moved to Ninth Street in Sinkor, Monrovia…  The children were outside cleaning the yard. Suddenly they ran inside and said that they saw armed men coming. Moments later, Taylor’s men busted  in. One of them said, “This is the dog I’m looking for.” He told us to come outside. Myself, my ten children, and my wife obeyed.

The NPFL [commander] knew me…He had run against me in an election… before the war. He said to me, “You cheated me during the election, but now I am in power. I will teach you a lesson you will never forget.” He told his NPFL boys to take my eldest daughter into the house. She was 11
thirteen years old. They dragged her inside and dragged me in after her. [The commander] raped my daughter in front of me. My father (my daughter’s grandfather) was still in the house. He rushed at the NPFL men, trying to stop the rape. One of the men – I don’t know his name – shot and killed my [father] right there.
[The commander] then brought me and my daughter back outside. He said, “I’m going to show you what I came here for.” He beat the children with the butt of his gun. He made two of my sons, who were seventeen and twenty, drink dirty water with the urine of one of the NPFL men in it. When the twenty year old refused, he shot him in the foot. [The commander] stabbed my other son, who was eighteen, in the elbow with his bayonet.

He then began to beat my wife. He told her to lay on her back and stare at the sun. [The commander] said, “You will eat your husband’s heart very soon.” He took the daughter who had been raped. [The commander] held her and said, “I want you to know how you all will die.” He ordered one of his men to cut off my daughter’s head. She was beheaded in front of our eyes.

They dragged me over to lay beside her body. [The commander] said, “You will be the next one.” Then I heard heavy shooting. ECOMOG was coming. The NPFL scattered.  Before [the commander] left, he made a remark. He said, “Anywhere in
Liberia I meet you or your family, I will kill you.”

Will it make a difference that the international community has now “cut off the head of the snake”? I do, in fact, think it will.  Our international justice system is still in its infancy.  As of yet, it is neither swift nor strong; neither peremptory nor comprehensive.  But with the sentencing of Charles Taylor, not only can West Africans be confident in the knowledge that one individual who wrought destruction will not do so again, but we can all have hope that one day, as a matter of practice, all perpetrators of gross human rights abuses and war crimes will be held accountable.

Children of the Rainbow v. Anders Breivik and Charles Taylor

Folksinger Lillebjørn Nilsen and a crowd of 40,000 sing Barn av regnbuen (Children of the Rainbow) at the trial of Anders Behring Breivik in Oslo (Source: NRK)

I thought I would write about the Charles Taylor verdict today.  The verdict by the Special Court for Sierra Leone marks an historic moment in international justice – the first conviction of a serving head of state for war crimes and crimes against humanity.     I thought today would be a day to write about the importance of holding Charles Taylor accountable for the war crimes that he aided and abetted in Sierra Leone, but also about  the remaining impunity for the war crimes he was responsible for in Liberia.  I’ve been spent time in both Sierra Leone and Liberia, so I’ve seen firsthand the horrific  impact that Charles Taylor and his National Patriotic Liberation Front have had on the people in those countries.  I’ve followed this trial at the Special Court for Sierra Leone – and waited for this verdict – for years.

But I found myself this morning more powerfully impacted by events surrounding another trial, in another country where I have spent time. I speak Norwegian, so have been following the Norwegian media coverage of the trial of Anders Behring Breivik in Norway.   Today, that coverage included an allsang with the well-loved Norwegian folksinger Lillebjørn Nilsen.   In a chilly spring rain in Oslo, a crowd of more than 40,000 people joined Mr. Nilsen in singing Barn av regnbuen.  

This is a song that Mr. Breivik, apparently, detests.  He testified recently that this song, with its concept of living together in a multicultural Norway (“sammen vi skal lever“) was brainwashing children into supporting immigrants. Norwegians throughout the country sang it as a form of protest against his hatred.

This is a song that I learned many years ago.  It is actually a Pete Seeger song called My Rainbow Race, translated into Norwegian by Lillebjørn Nilsen.   My rough translation follows – with apologies for inaccuracies! I use the translated version as there are a lot of aspects that make this song feel particularly Norwegian.  The references to nature, for example, and the disdain for “plastic and synthetic food”.

Written in the 1970s, Lillebjørn Nilsen’s song has an obvious anti-war theme.   The lyrics of the song, however, seem especially fitting today.  “Some steal from the young, who are sent out to fight…” could well apply to Charles Taylor, whose recruitment of child soldiers stole the lives of thousands in West Africa.  “Some steal from the many, who will come after us.” Anders Behring Breivik’s acts of violence stole not only the future of dozens of young people, but the innocence of a peaceful nation.

I won’t write about Charles Taylor today.  Neither will I write about Anders Behring Breivik.   Instead, I will write about the voices raised today throughout our world – in celebration of justice and in a call for peace in the face of hatred.  Because today I remembered that  Lillebjørn Nilsen -and Pete Seeger – were right.  We do need justice for the Charles Taylors and Anders Behring Breiviks of the world, but we also need to share our hope for the rest of us.

Si det til alle barna!
Og si det til hver far og mor.
Ennå har vi en sjanse
til å dele et håp på jord.

Say it to all the children!
And tell every father and mother.
We still have a chance
to share our hope for this world.

Barn av regnbuen

En himmel full av stjerner.
Blått hav så langt du ser.
En jord der blomster gror.
Kan du ønske mer ?
Sammen skal vi leve
hver søster og hver bror.
Små barn av regnbuen
og en frodig jord.

Noen tror det ikke nytter.
Andre kaster tiden bort med prat.
Noen tror at vi kan leve av
plast og syntetisk mat.
Og noen stjeler fra de unge
som blir sendt ut for å sloss
Noen stjeler fra de mange
som kommer etter oss.

Refreng:
Si det til alle barna!
Og si det til hver far og mor.
Ennå har vi en sjanse
til å del e et håp på jord.

Refreng:
Si det til alle barna!
Og si det til hver far og mor.
Ennå har vi en sjanse
til å dele et håp på jord.

Children of the Rainbow

A sky full of stars.
Blue sea as far as you can see.
A land where flowers grow.
Could you want more?
Together we will live
every sister and every brother.
Small children of the rainbow
and a flourishing world.

Some believe there is no point.
Others waste their time with talk.
Some believe that we can live on
plastic and synthetic foods.
And some steal from the young,
who are sent out to fight.
Some steal from the many
who will come after us.

Refrain:
Say it to all the children!
And tell every father and mother.
We still have a chance
to share our hope for this world.

Refrain:
Say it to all the children!
And tell every father and mother.
We still have a chance
to share our hope for this world.

With thanks also to Pete Seeger for his song My Rainbow Race.  Words and music by Pete Seeger (1967) © 1970 by Sanga Music Inc.

CHORUS:

One blue sky above us,

One ocean lapping all our shores,

One Earth so green and round,

Who could ask for more?

And because I love you,

I’ll give it one more try.

To show my Rainbow Race

It’s too soon to die.

Some folks want to be like an ostrich,

Bury their heads in the sand.

Some hope that plastic dreams

Can unclench all those greedy hands.

Some hope to take the easy way,

Poisons, bombs, they think we need ‘em.

Don’t you know you can’t kill all the unbelievers?

There’s no shortcut to freedom.

CHORUS

Go tell, go tell all—– the little children.

Tell all their mothers and fathers, too —

Now’s our last chance to learn to share

What’s been given to me and you.

CHORUS

For a related post on what I learned from the way Norwegians have dealt with the tragic events of July 22, see https://humanrightswarrior.com/2012/07/19/the-lessons-of-22-july/

My Suffragist Grandmother

Suffrage procession in Minneapolis on May 2, 1914
From the collections of the Minnesota Historical Society
Source: thomaslowrysghost.tumblr.com


Election Day is coming up Tuesday and you can be damn sure that I am going to cast my vote.  

I’m doing it for my Grandma Lillian and all the inspirational people that I’ve met over the years who have risked everything to secure their right to participate in government.

My Grandma Lillian was raised by her grandmother, Thorina Melquist.  Thorina was an immigrant from Norway whose oldest daughter (my great-grandmother) died of typhoid fever just weeks after she gave birth to my grandmother. Thorina’s youngest child was only nine months older than my grandmother.  She weaned him in order to nurse my newborn grandmother, who had also contracted typhoid but somehow – miraculously – survived. (And, yes, “Thorina” is the female version of the name of the Norse god of thunder.)

In addition to farmwork and child-rearing, Thorina was a dedicated suffragist.  She believed strongly in equal voting rights for women and she often participated in demonstrations advocating for the right to vote for women. Women received full suffrage rights in Norway in 1913, so Norwegian immigrant women (along with their Finnish, Swedish and Danish counterparts) played a notable role in the suffrage movement at the local level in Minnesota and other states with large Scandinavian immigrant populations.  The photo at left shows women from several Scandinavian countries in traditional dress marching against inequality and for universal women’s suffrage on Hennepin Avenue in downtown Minneapolis.
My Grandma Lillian grew up as a suffragist.  She was still pretty young in 1919 when the Nineteenth Amendment was passed by Congress and ratified by Minnesota.  Women’s suffrage became national law on August 18, 1920 when Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the Constitutional amendment.In some ways, it is surprising to think that less than 100 years ago, women in America could not vote.  I was a toddler in Louisiana when that state ratified the 19th Amendment in 1970 – 50 years after initially rejecting it.   And Mississippi didn’t ratify the 19th Amendment until 1984!

Now the right to participate in government is one that we Americans take for granted – so much so that less than half of the population votes unless it is a Presidential election year.  In 2008, the voter turnout was 63%, a high water mark that is low in comparison with most countries.  In U.S. local elections, the voter turnout is even lower.  Many of the mayors of major U.S. cities are elected with single-digit turnout. That’s just shameful.

I love to vote.  In fact, I vote every chance that I can – legally at least. I always try to bring my kids with me when I vote, so they can see that having a voice in the democratic process is something both important and valuable.

But when I’m standing in the voting booth, I feel like there are others there in the voting booth with me.  They are some of the inspirational people that I’ve met over the years who have risked everything to secure their right to participate in government.

Standing with me is the young Haitian asylum seeker who was beaten by police at a polling place in order to discourage him from voting for Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1990.  He held his own, though, and stood there bleeding and bandaged for several hours before he finally had the opportunity to put his check next to Aristide’s rooster symbol on the ballot.  It was the first time he had ever voted – and it was a remarkable act of courage and endurance.  In telling me about it, he summed it up by saying,

“I voted!  It was a very good day.”

In the voting booth with me are also many of the amputees in Sierra Leone in 2004.  It was common practice during the conflict there for members of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) to hack off the hands or arms of people with machetes.  Some of them had been targeted during elections so that they couldn’t vote by leaving their fingerprint mark on the paper ballot.  I also heard that the RUF brutally amputated hands during one election because the government’s slogan was that,”The power is in the hands of the people.”

I visited Sierra Leone in 2004, after the conflict had ended and just prior to the first post-conflict elections.  As I traveled through the countryside, I saw people coming together for meetings to discuss the upcoming elections.  In spite of the horrors that they had endured, they were coming together in villages big and small, to exercise their right to participate in their government.  Here is a photo I took of a gathering in a village far out in the bush in the Kono district, an area that endured particularly brutal human rights abuses.  Yet now, as the country was slowly emerging from the conflict, the villagers were coming together to discuss the upcoming local election process.

My Suffragette Grandmother

Although my grandmother gained the right to vote, she was never able to go to college.   She was certainly smart enough, but her family couldn’t see the point in wasting good money on educating a girl.  Grandma Lillian never expressed bitterness about this to me. But one afternoon when I was in high school, I stopped by to say hello and to get her thoughts on my top college picks.  I remember sitting in my grandparents’ darkened living room.  A mantel clock ticked and the air conditioner hummed.  It now seems impossibly calm and quiet, so different from my current raucous and messy living room. My Grandma Lillian told me that the most important thing was to follow my dreams.

 “You can do whatever you want to with your life. Be what you want to be.  
But never forget those of us who weren’t able to follow our dreams.                
Follow your dreams for us.”

 

Upcountry girls in Sierra Leone.  Photo by my colleague Rosalyn Park.
Upcountry girls in Sierra Leone. Photo by my colleague Rosalyn Park.

So that’s why I never miss the chance to vote.  I’m doing it for my Grandma Lillian.  And for everyone else who can’t follow their dreams.

Every election day is an opportunity.  An opportunity to have a say in the decisions, big and small, that impact the lives of you and everyone around you.  Don’t make excuses, don’t be discouraged.  This is a right that is too valuable to waste.  On Tuesday, please get out there and VOTE!  If you need help finding your polling place, go here:

 

The photo at the top is of the Scandinavian Women’s Suffrage Association marching in a parade in Minneapolis in 1914.

I keep it in my office in honor of my Grandma Lillian.