Liberia: Journey Towards Reconstruction

By: George D. Yuoh

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

February 24, 2004

This short piece of story tells of a very interesting conversation between Ballah, a Liberian living in the USA who has just returned home after 13 years, and his younger brother Samolu, a one time frontline commander of the NPFL, and now a deputy minister in the interim government. Although based on real life situation, the story is entirely the imagination and creation of the author. Any resemblance of the names of characters to real people is purely coincidental.

Ballah thought back to how tensed and frightened he was a week ago, as he sat on the aircraft, with his eyes tightly shut and holding firmly on to the seat in front of him with both hands. He prayed silently for the plane to land safely in the darkest night he had ever seen in over 13 years. He had gotten angry with himself for getting on such a late flight from Accra to Monrovia, fully aware of the lack of electricity in Liberia. But just as quickly, a little smile appeared on his face as he remembered the clapping and jubilation that erupted after the pilot safely landed and taxied the aircraft to the landing gate. It was an experience he would never forget.

He brought his mind back to the issues he planned to take up with his younger brother today, as they strolled on 12th Street, heading southward to Tubman Boulevard in Sinkor. Each man was so immersed in his own thoughts that they could have easily passed for total strangers, except for their stunning physical resemblance and their close proximity as they walked.

“Samo, what is your view on what has happened to Liberia in recent time?” Ballah abruptly asked his brother. Today he plans to go straight to the issue, avoiding the usual small talks. He wanted Samolu to fully comprehend the magnitude of the issues they were about to discuss. But if Ballah anticipated his younger brother to be startled by the suddenness of his question, he was mistaken. Samolu walked on briskly never breaking his pace, only briefly lifting up his head to look ahead. He was so poised that you would have thought he expected the question, and therefore prepared himself well in advance.

“What do you mean?” Samolu asked, giving nothing away.

“I am sure you know exactly what I mean, Samo. But I will give you whatever benefit it is you want by your pretense”, Ballah replied quietly. “You fought for 13 years for Charles Taylor, you were one of his frontline commanders, so many of our people have been killed and the country destroyed, and you are now a deputy minister in the transitional government. Put all of that in perspective for me bro”, he added.

“Are you suggesting that I am not qualified for my job? You know, when you guys come here from America with your degrees, you think the rest of us here are insignificant. But Mr. book man, I deserve my position just like everyone else in this government”, Samolu retorted, his voice rising a little. “Since you want to set standards, go and ask George Dweh if he is qualified to be speaker of the parliament. Question Fred Bass if he is competent to advice the Chairman on foreign matters. Go and ask for the credentials of the Commissioner of Maritime”, he continued, not attempting to disguise his anger any longer.

“I think you are intentionally avoiding the major issues here”, Ballah ventured. “You have chosen to dwell on the end (jobs) instead of my other concerns, including the war, the deaths, and the wanton destruction of the country. In fact what is your qualification, since you brought it up? You were in the 9th grade and just 14 years old when the NPFL recruited you. Have you ever seen the classroom since then? Samo, you know you and the rest of your likes are very much not qualified for the jobs”, he added, not taking his eyes of his younger brother.

“I joined the NPFL because I had no choice, and because I did not have the privileges you enjoyed”.

“What privileges? It was a matter of making the right choices. I went to pick you up when I was leaving Cuttington campus, but you refused to come down to Monrovia with me. Instead, you ran away and stayed behind with your friends. All of you had made up your minds to join the rebels before they even got to Gboveh. That was your choice. You had the same privileges as I; otherwise, you wouldn’t have been on Gbarnga Methodist. But let’s forget about that and address the issues”. Ballah was getting impatient now.

Samolu stopped, turned to his brother and said, “For your information, I did not fight for Charles Taylor. I fought for the NPFL and the revolution. And yes, I was a battle front commander, so what? If you want to know if I killed anybody and destroyed any part of the country, I say yes. But it was all part of the struggle. In war, people die and properties get destroyed. Look at what happened in Iraq…”

“Don’t even go there”, Ballah said, cutting Samolu short. “You need to understand why you fought your own war before going to America and Iraq”.

Samolu continued as if he did not hear his brother, “War is war. I was fighting a revolutionary war…”

“Against your own people? Ballah asked. “Against your own mother and father, brothers and sisters?”

“Do not mention the pops and the old-ma”

“I am not talking particularly about them. I am speaking about all the other fathers and mothers that were devastated and or killed by your so-called revolutionary war. What do you have to say to their children? How would you have felt if our parents were ill treated like them? How would you have behaved if Lorpu and Gamai, your two beautiful little daughters, were raped in front of you? Tell me Samo; what do you have to show for the killings that you carried out, a deputy minister job? Is that worth the lives of all those who died from your bullets? Give me one good reason why you should be walking around here and not behind bars, or why you should not be considered a terrorist.”

“A terrorist? You are pushing it too far now bro. You are really pushing it now. And if I must go to prison for my actions, then a lot of people have to go before me, and that include the likes of George Dweh, Alhaji Kromah, Roosevelt Johnson, Cucu Dennis, Benjamin Yeaten, and all other battle front commanders of the various warring factions. I didn’t start this war. I didn’t buy the guns, bullets, and drugs. I didn’t decide where and who to attack. I was a soldier and I only followed orders like a soldier should.”

“A soldier? Were you a soldier? Come on and get a hold of reality here. You were no soldier. You were part of a rebel gang terrorizing their own people. You and all of the other rebel gang leaders must answer to the calls for justice.”

“I think America has really confused you. You are not living in the real world. Go back to America and talk about justice and your bills of rights. Here, we do what we want. There is no justice here. Once you have money and power, you control justice. No one will face justice for anything! This is our world. Welcome to the concrete jungle.”

“But you will have to face the truth one day. You can’t go on hiding and denying.”

“What have I denied? For your level of education (two master degrees), you disappoint me with your unimpressive listening and comprehension abilities. I admitted to participating in the war that lead to deaths, and the destruction of our country. So what have I denied here?”

“You have not lost your smartness. But you still have to publicly confess and accept responsibility for your actions.”

“Confess to whom? Must I stand on top of Ducor and scream that I killed people during the war? Let me repeat myself once again. I was following orders. If you want to prosecute anyone, look for those who bought the weapons and gave the orders.”

“What orders and who gave those orders?”

Samolu chuckled, a little wry smile appearing on his face, “Your answers are in Nigeria. Why are you harassing me?”

“With whom in Nigeria? And why are you being so defensive and evasive?”

By now they reached the Tubman Boulevard intersection, and crossed the street in silence. They continued walking along the boulevard eastward, turning right on 13th Street. The silence was disturbingly heavy, particularly for Ballah who had promised himself not to allow his emotions to get in the way of this discussion. But how could he not get angry?

Samolu spotted a dead tree trunk just behind the old Sinkor Shopping Center building and sat down. He gazed in the moonlit night sky, apparently, searching for answers to his brother’s harangue. He was perturbed; especially since it was one of the rare occasions he had ever seen Ballah get so agitated. His brother appeared ready to jump on his neck, and his heart had suddenly started to beat so fast he had had to find somewhere to sit. Thank God he spotted the old stump in time.

Ballah sat beside his brother and put his left arm around his shoulders. “Samolu, the truth has to be told one of these days. It may not be now, but people will have to come forward and at least show some compunction by admitting to their crimes. Otherwise, the aggrieved parties, including the souls of all those innocent Liberians and foreigners murdered in cold blood will not rest in peace.”

Samolu turned to face his brother, his cheeks soaked with tears, and in between sobbing and crying he said, “Ballah, do you strongly believe that I have no conscience? You know how we were brought up, and so for me to have committed such atrocities as I did, is unbearable. Do you know what have made me to keep my sanity so far? My two little daughters! Many nights I twist and turn in my bed, sometimes thinking aloud, how I got to this point. How did I get to be this monster that I am?”

“I know it is not all your fault...” Ballah interjected, fighting to hold back his own tears.

“No, you were right all along. I made the choice to join the NPFL, but believe me; I did so as a naïve teenager looking for adventure. I had no idea what I was getting into. Ballah, we were drugged and thought to hate. It was the revolution or nothing. We were told that everything owned by government officials were stolen from our parents. We were not trained to distinguish civilians from combatants. Never! My nights are tortuous, and many days I wished for death.”

Samolu could not control himself any longer and was crying bitterly in his older brother’s arms. In fact, both men were now weeping uncontrollably. Ballah was not prepared for this level of contrite and apologetic breakdown from his brother. Given the out comes of the many telephone conversations they had, he had nearly come to accept that his brother was unbending and unbreakable in his beliefs as far as his part in the atrocious war was concerned. To see him break down the way he did was enough for him personally, at least for now.

Samolu disengaged himself from his brother’s arms and asked, “What must I do? I have gone to church and confess to the priest. I am so sorry I had to drag the family’s name into all of this. I cannot forgive myself that I did not make peace with our parents before they passed away. It is eating me up Ballah. I am lost. I am a lost soul”, he went on crying.

“What you need to do is make peace with you and God. You were brought up in a Christian home. You know what to do. Also, you must take advantage of the UN disarmament program, since you are still technically an ex-combatant. You will be de-traumatized and then trained in a technical area of your choice, for which you have the aptitude. This will then give you the skills needed for you to positively contribute to the rebuilding of our country, and at the same time, enable you to make an honest living to provide for you and your family. But most importantly, you need to embrace the concepts of reconciliation and justice, and be prepared to admit to your part in this whole fiasco. You must be prepared to tell your entire story to a truth and reconciliation commission, or give testimonies to a war crimes tribunal whenever one is set up. Prepare yourself to accept the consequences of your actions.”

“Will there ever be a war crimes tribunal or a truth commission?”

“Let’s hope so, because it is needed to put things right in our country. If not, we may go back to this same kind of violence some day soon.”

“I really hope it happens in my time, because I have a lot to tell. So much wrong was done, and people are passing around here behaving as if they are irreproachable. Besides, these so-called leaders who start wars for their own selfish reasons and use the children of Liberia to do their killings have to be stopped.”

“You have said it all my brother. They must be stopped. What you have done today is very important to you and to me. I have forgiven you and will now be at peace with you and myself, knowing that you regret your role in the worst years of our nation’s history”

“Thank you Ballah. I will forever remain in your debt. If the worse happens, I will pay my due peacefully, knowing that my little girls will be brought up properly and successfully. Our country needs to be safe for our children. You must continue to speak out for a violence free and peaceful Liberia. I will do as you say and submit to disarmament, encampment, demobilization, reintegration, and be retrain for tomorrow. Meanwhile, I will leave your two beautiful nieces with you. I trust that you will raise them as you would your own, and give them what I threw away.” Samolu began to cry again and he wrapped his arms around his brother so tightly, as if his life depended on the embrace. He was glad he had found his soul again.

The two brothers got up, and holding hands, they walked back towards the boulevard, and headed northbound on 12th Street. Samolu walked with his shoulders high, relieved that he no longer felt that tremendous weight on his shoulders. It felt good to be a part of the good people again, and he promised himself to never trade that for any promise from criminal war merchants.