Matt The Rebel
Matt is in his early twenties. But he has seen more battles than many veteran soldiers. "I joined the revolution in 1990, in Bong County. Prince Johnson led the first group of rebels that came to our town. They tied up my father who was the town chief and beat him up because they said he was working for the government. They beat him so bad he died. I took my sisters and my little brother and we came to Monrovia. I returned to the village and another group had come and chased the first group that had killed my dad. My cousin and I joined them."
"So, you joined to revenge your father?" I asked him.
"No, I joined because I wanted to protect the rest of my family. These guys were abusing people and there was nothing I could do besides joining them or go to a refugee camp in Ivory Coast or Ghana and I didn’t want to leave my sisters and brothers. I went to Buchanan and some Liberians and Lebanese people trained me. Our Commander was from the Gambia. He was the chief for the whole Bassa county. After my training was completed, they deployed me and a few men and girls to protect the Kakata- Salala highway."
I had met Matt by chance. While in Monrovia, I was staying at the Central Bank’s guesthouse, on Carey Street, near the Central Post Office. In dark Monrovia, it was an island of security and light. The Central Bank happened to be the only government building that had not been looted during the June 2003 war. The war that lasted some 6 weeks is known in Monrovia as World War III. Matt and his group of former combatants were protecting the Telecom building on Ashmun Street when LURD reached the outskirts of Monrovia in June 2003. Another group was in charge of the Central Bank. They linked up and established a security corridor that ran from the new bridge to the Central Bank.
"We established a line from Providence Island to the Central Bank. We knew every one would try to get to the Central Bank like people did in 1990. I manned the checkpoint that led to the bridge, where there is now a police station and a UN checkpoint. The war lasted from June 29 till the US Ambassador walked to us and called for a cease-fire. I lost 17 men and two girls. We couldn’t burry them so we dumped the bodies in the river and the fish ate them."
One evening, around 9, I walked to the security detachment in front of the bank to greet them and give them money for cigarettes. Matt was there. He gave me a chair and he asked me if I was coming to work for the new transitional government. I said no, that I was in town to look around, talk to people and take some pictures. There was a Nigerian soldier; three Liberian guards and every now and then, a UN security pick-up would pass by, to make sure things were going fine. Matt then told me about his long nights of fight on the bridge, trying to stop the LURD rebels from advancing into the city.
The next day, while I was having coffee, he came in and asked if he could come with me when I go out to take pictures. He said he used to own a camera but lost it during the fight. We left together and headed for the Samuel K. Doe Stadium where Chairman C. Gyude Bryant was kicking off a clean-up campaign after the 10,000 displaced people who lived there had left. We arrived there just in time, with Matt carrying one of the cameras. In the taxi, chartered for 200 Liberian dollars an hour [US$5], I showed him how to use the still camera. I was going to use the video camera. There were hundreds of people washing the stands, with music blaring out of two huge loud speakers and the AFL brass band waiting for the Chairman to play the national anthem.
It was mid January and the average temperature in Monrovia was around 90. Chairman Bryant came and the few politicians and government officials present pledged money to support the clean-up campaign. I had hoped that Chairman Bryant would symbolically take a broom and sweep around, for the cameras, but simply pledged $5,000.00. The former son-in -law of Charles Taylor, Edwin Snowe, who is also former president of the Liberian Football Association, appeared on the pledging stage with Samuel K. Doe, Jr., who had just returned home for the first time in 14 years. Snowe said that he had adopted SKD Jr. and they both made the audience laugh with jokes about who was to pledge more. A few months earlier, there were thousands of people living in that stadium. The Ministry of Youth and Sports said that she had decided to launch the clean-up campaign because she had no doubt that the war was over.
Matt and I left and went to Providence Island. We stood under the very cotton tree where American settlers and the natives signed their first peace agreement in the 1820s, after years of battle. He showed me the spot where his men and LURD rebels met, on the merry-go-round of the Gabriel Tucker Bridge, known as the new bridge. The two spots were just a few feet apart.
"When the American ambassador [John Blaney] came, he brought a document with him and said the politicians had signed a cease-fire in Accra. Then he called the LURD rebels from the other side of the bridge. They came and we started to hug. I saw lot of people I knew. My second in command found his brother among LURD soldiers and they hugged and started to cry. We started to drink and smoke together. LURD rebels gave us some gasoline and two bags of rice. We sat with the Ambassador on the bridge and talked… and the war was over, just like that…"
I asked him why he thought they lost the war.
"We lost the war because the front commanders were not fair to the fighters. They took money from the president [Taylor] and spent it on their girlfriends or went to Abidjan or Accra to build their homes while we were suffering here… So whenever LURD attacked, our boys threw away their guns and ran away. That’s how we lost Voinjama, Tubmanburg and all the places… Imagine, Benjamin Yeaten executed 27 people during the fight, because they looted some Lebanese stores."
"Do you think Taylor owes you for the past 14 years you spent fighting for him?" I asked Matt, while we stood on the bridge where he spent many nights exchanging gunshots with LURD.
"No, Mr. Taylor does not owe me anything but he owes an apology to the Liberian people. He needs to get on his knees and asked for forgiveness and pray really hard. He also needs to bring back all the money he stole from the country. He has plenty of it and even last week I heard he sent money to his people. I joined the revolution to protect my family and myself. I fought because I wanted to liberate this country…"
"Liberate it from whom?"
"From Samuel Doe and Prince Johnson… I didn’t
join for money."
"How did you make your living since you were not getting paid?" I asked.
"We lived on the highway. The pappy [Taylor] sent us rice and the girls cooked for us. We produced palm oil and got salt from Ivory Coast and we also did some farming. I learned to do lots of things. Now I am a radio operator and I have even trained a few people. People talk about Taylor, he started good but he is the most problematic human being to have ever come to this country."
"How did you feel yesterday, when the brother of Samuel K. Doe made everyone observe a minute of silence for him, at the stadium."
"I didn’t pay attention. I was talking to one of my men who is now in the SSS [Special Security Service] at the Executive Mansion, with Chairman Bryant. He wants me to go work there, but I am not interested, I want to go back to school… As for Doe, I guess any dead person deserves a minute of silence."
Matt followed me everywhere in Monrovia for the three weeks I was there. I often asked him if there was anybody in Monrovia who didn’t know him. When we went to the headquarters of the NPP, former president Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Party, many former fighters rushed to greet him and all but kissed his feet. When we traveled to Totota, in Bong County, he pointed to villages as we crossed them, relating events in his 14-year involvement with the Charles Taylor war.
"I have been in this war for half of my life. I started as a child now I have a wife and two children. I saw many people join the fight, I trained lot of people and we all know each other. But our village has disappeared. Everyone ran away to Monrovia and most old people died… I will never go back home."
Before I left for Monrovia, friends had cautioned against venturing in certain areas. Some said that with the things I wrote about Taylor and his gang, I needed to take extra precaution. Matt happened to be that caution. He happened to be the most powerful bodyguard one could have in Monrovia. He volunteered to tell me his life story. On the University of Liberia campus where students were protesting and seeking the removal of their president Dr. Ben Roberts – and they succeeded -, on the roof of the Ducor Hotel, the five star-hotel turned into a habitat for rats and displaced former combatants and in Brewerville while Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was being gowned by the Gola Women, he told me bits of his life story on video. When I asked him if could use his real name, he said:
"Of course, I am not scared of nobody and I want you to use my name. If Taylor himself were here today, I would tell him that his own mistakes and the people around him kicked him out of power. My name is Matthew P… from Bong County and I am member of the St. Thomas Episcopal Church on Camp Johnson road," he said, without a trace of hesitation.
"Did you take part in the Camp Johnson Road raid against Roosevelt Johnson?" I asked him. Taylor sent his son Chucky on Camp Johnson Road on September 19, 1998 to capture Roosevelt Johnson. The capture turned into a massacre. Chucky and his army of drugged and drunken fighters gunned down some 300 Krahn people but failed to capture Roosevelt Johnson who escaped through the US embassy, along with Joe Wylie.
"Roosevelt Johnson is lucky and I wished he had been captured. All these people died because of him and now he is bringing his sorry-self and wants a job from this government. This is what is wrong with our country. These people go out to America, get guns and come back and when it gets too hot, they run away, leaving the women and children to suffer."
"Who do you blame for the death of your father?"
"I blame Charles Taylor but this was a revolution… so my father was a victim like many other people. I don’t think his life was better than that of the other people who died for nothing.’
"Did you kill anybody who was not a fighter?"
"You see, war is war. You can never tell who is an enemy and who is not. I killed a lot of people in the last 14 years. I am not sure who was who. I was always in a combat mood."
I asked Matt if he would fight again if Taylor were to return and try to seize power.
"Never. I would never fight again and I would tell Taylor to go into rehabilitation and get de-traumatized, he and all the other people who gave guns and drugs to the children of this country… All of them, all the warlords… and they should never get near power and not even allowed in the Mansion… Anyone who gives guns and drugs to other people’s children should never be allowed to be in power.."
"So you regret fighting for Taylor?"
‘No, I am glad we got rid of Doe and the country has changed but I will never fight again, except to defend my family… Too bad we don’t have light and water and people don’t have jobs, but things have to be bad before becoming good again."
Matt is now the radio commander for the night shift at the bank. All the while I was there, he left work at 6, slept two hours everyday and then joined me for our day of trekking in the streets of Monrovia. We walked miles and miles and at times, stopped for a meal or a cold drink. We had many hours of conversation. Sometimes, when he remembered things, he would ask me if I was ready to tape him and we would find a suitable backdrop. As he spoke, people would come and listen. A few times, he got agitated but never lost his cool. I asked him if he would go to an UN camp for rehabilitation.
"No, I am fine. I used to have nightmares but now I am fine. I don’t think about the past. My father-in-law made some country medicine for me and I am fine… except for this piece of metal from a grenade that I have been carrying in my head since 1992 war [Octopus war launched by Taylor to take Monrovia in October 1992]. Some times I have bad headaches. All I want is go back to school..."
When we got to the airport on the day of my departure, he summoned one of the security guards and told him to watch over me until I got on the plane…
"This is my big brother, he is traveling today. If anybody bothers him before he gets on his flight, I will deal with you." The security man clicked his heels and said "Yes Sir, Chief, I will look after your VIP." He picked up my bags and checked me into the VIP room. Matt waved to me and got back in the taxi to ride back to Monrovia, to his job at commander of night shift at the Central Bank of Liberia. Fourteen years ago, as a teenager, he joined a revolution. Throughout the three weeks we spent together, he never referred to the war by any other name but "revolution."