When Home is No Home
By Tom Kamara
Sept 26, 2000
For hundreds of thousands of Liberians driven out of the country by their bloody civil war, the benchmark for the great march home was democratic elections, which they were told, held the keys to peace for picking up the pieces and moving forward. And they believed. All over, the common date among refugees for returning home was, "after the elections." But three years "after the elections", more are fleeing as thousands beg to remain in foreign countries determined to kick them out.
The exodus is coming at a time when the Government has launched an intense "come home campaign" aimed at convincing Liberians to return home and "build your country." Belatedly, although grudgingly, the Government is accepting the wisdom that wining hearts and minds is best done through persuasion than by pulling the trigger.
House Speaker Nyundueh Monorkomana, told Liberians in New York,
"We cannot do it aloneI cannot do it alone" The Director
of the Cabinet, Blamoh Nelson, similarly declared in Washington,
"The problems are too big. We cannot do it alone" An
Opposition member on the campaign declared, "I don't care
how much money you have here in the bank, home is home. Come back
home. Your navel strings are buried in Liberia. Pack your bags
to go home. Home is home".
The appeals are however falling on deaf ears and understandably so. Many Liberians are not only determined to stay away from home, but are fighting to get their families out into a world that is increasingly becoming xenophobic. Reasons tied to the exodus are simply abundant. Fear of home is a prevailing one no matter the verbal assurances.
"Y'all telling us to come home. We left our children back home. But Taylor (is) giving them guns to kill our people. Who are we going to? To the empty ground? You cannot respect the children for tomorrow that will lift up Liberia. Y'all don't care for them. Y'all giving them guns to kill us again. And y'all telling us to come home (those of us) who remain (survived) We must come home so that our children can kill us?" an angry mother responded to pleas to return home from touring government officials leading the come home campaign.
"We don't have to be told or asked to come home. Let them first convince the thousands fighting to leave to remain home before asking us to come home. The best encouragement for people to return is news of what is happening at home. But from what we hear from home, it is no home. Sweet Liberia is now no home, only a killing field. Killing, killing, killing. When will it stop? Harassment of poor people is not ending. There is nothing in the country and the Government is not encouraging any reconstruction. Expensive cars, government officials stealing the little money is all we hear", says a Liberian nurse now in Maryland, adding, "The best encouragement for returning home is what we hear from the people living there, not from those who are keeping us away through intimidation and creating conditions of fear."
Stories of disappearances, summary executions filtering to Liberians outside serve as warnings that home is now too distant. The mysterious death of the vice president, and Taylor's failure to produce his promised autopsy report, still lingers. According to Monrovia sources, the man was ordered buried outside a cemetery, with a 24-hour security at his burial site, presumably out of fears the body could be secretly exhumed for an autopsy by suspected enemies.
First-hand experiences of returnees confirm their fears. Writes Samuel Divine, a Liberian residing in the US:
"At Roberts' Field, (the airport) they (those during the visit he calls Generation X Liberians) see that there is not much to be excited about. There is only one small terminal that is smaller than Spriggs, but they decide not to be discouraged. Within two minutes, they see corruption still exists. Well, this person probably has not been paid for the last three months, so they agree that feeding his family is adequate-if not entirely acceptable-motivation for his corruption. It feels good to be referred to as "Bossman" and "Bosslady" everywhere they turn. It feels even better to breathe smog-less air under the tropical sun. They discover how much they miss this. On they go to Monrovia! They can't use all of Tubman Blvd. When they ask why, they are told by a guard at the checkpoint that a portion is closed for 'security reasons.' They pass a few latest model luxury cars just as they begin to notice that they have seen so many beggars on the street. Apparently, begging has become very common as most people are going hungry due to hyperinflation coupled with a monopoly over the import of rice, the country's long-time staple."
Acknowledging the terrible problems for Liberians at home, Senate leader Kekura Kpoto, one of the come home campaigners, told Liberians in New York, "Our women who left the country (rural Liberia) are packed in Monrovia with no jobsYou can afford to stay hereWhat about your parents who are dying of hunger?"
But there is more. The fighting in the northern part of Lofa County between Taylor's troops and dissidents of the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) has caused serious setbacks for many returnees. Over 13,000 people, facing disease and starvation, have been displaced in the town of Zorzor. Ethnic Mandingoes are again the targets, with The Government admitting recently that they have been placed in "protective custody" away from their traditional homes. The Guineans have closed their borders following incursions from Liberia and Sierra Leone that have over 100 Guineans dead, subjecting over 126,000 Liberians (and 330,000 Sierra Leoneans ) to inhospitable treatment. This means the curtain is drawing in on Liberians who normally ran across the border when home became no home.
Expectations for a mass return home, were high amongst those unfamiliar with the history of the war, and the character of the elected leaders. But cautious about unwarranted optimism, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, immediately after the elections, noted that confidence in Taylor's presidency would be determined by how many refugees "voted with their feet" back home. But so far, the their vote is the opposite of the landslide the former warlord received in July 1997 when supporters sang, "You killed my ma, you killed my pa, I will vote for you" Now, they are voting with their bundles to flee home.
One of the first signals from the Government discouraging a mass return was when it rejected the restructuring of the security forces as demanded by West African states that brokered the peace agreement that ended hostilities. Appeals from US President Clinton, the European Union, and others to let ECOMOG troops remain as guarantors of security were rebuffed with slogans of sovereignty and the powers of the presidency to determine the nature of the country's armed forces and security in accordance with his "constitutional rights." ECOMOG officers who questioned the president's rejection were threatened with immediate expulsion. Talk of retraining the security forces, so vital for peace and giving possible investors confidence that their investment would be protected, became anathema. Multiple and overlapping security structures emerged, with frequent reports of gunfights among them that sent terror in Monrovia. Feared rebels who instituted mayhem on the population during the war became ministers, security chiefs, etc. Their menacing presence in the streets and around the country, noted by many foreign journalists and observers, meant that a police state built on fear was being entrenched. Rural dwellers became common prey of the multiplying "security forces." Unpaid and undisciplined, these "security forces" became law unto themselves, feeding on the already impoverished and frightened population. Faced with the difficulties of meeting the needs of peasants in the midst of insecurity, the UNHCR proposed establishing its own Police to protect the population along the border with Sierra Leone where refugees and the displaced of the two countries are concentrated. Taylor, who had made sovereignty an issue in foreign training of his rag-tag and drugged security forces, consented.
At the close of elections, several international human rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch, presented detailed proposals for confidence building in the political system as a necessary step for stability. They proposed the establishment of transparent judicial systems, training of the security, a truth commission to establish the basis for reconciliation and thus encourage people to return home having confidence in the political system for their protection. These organizations insisted that human rights, ignored by agreements pushed down the throats of Liberians by ECOWAS, should become the cornerstone of the Government. Although Taylor, in his euphoria of victory, promised protection of human rights, the contrary became the case. A state human rights commissioner was arrested, flogged, and driven into exile. Others such as the Catholic Justice and Peace Director, Kofi Woods, eluded state security to escape from the country. The President of the Senate fled for disagreeing with the President. The search for enemies real or imagined escalated. The home that Liberians expected after elections became no home, only a living hell.
The next turning point for those dreaming of returning home was the execution, mutilation and burning of Opposition politician Samuel Dokie, his wife, and two others. Those implicated in the crime, all presidential bodyguards, were later prosecuted and acquitted, making it clear that "jungle justice", which Taylor promised during a press conference prior to the elections, was in place. Numerous other executions and disappearances followed. Key warlords and their loyalists who believed the elections provided them protection fled into exile to prepare for a comeback with an AK-47 as a companion. According to the US State Department, about 300 Krahns were killed in September 1998 as 18000 others, fearing similar fate after witch-hunt launched by the Government, fled into refugee camps. The message was again clear. Returning home "after the elections" was at one's own risk, and not many were prepared to take such risks no matter the economic hardships they endured outside the country and in refugee camps. Instead of voting with their feet back, they began storming out of the country.
The number of Liberian refugees in West Africa was surging. In Ghana, where the UN has shutdown the only clinic catering to about 15,000 refugees at Budumbura camp outside Accra, the Government has asked to regularize their papers and become Ghanaian citizens. This in itself is a dramatic turn because the Budumbura camp, before 1996, was virtually empty. Many Liberians returned home based on the then prevailing atmosphere of security in the country guaranteed by a plurality of authority in a 5-man council of state instead of a president. There was no single warlord or person determining the fate of others. The West Africa peacekeeping force ECOMOG, despite its many imperfections, still provided hope.
Then came April 1996 when Taylor and new partner Alhaji Kromah, with the overt backing of ECOMOG, decided to arrest enemy and fellow warlord Roosevelt Johnson on murder charges. For men who butchered hundreds of thousands of people to have seen reason in arresting someone for "murder" surprised many. But in the shape of emerging alliances shaping events, the peacekeeping force allowed "justice" to prevail. The result was over 3000 person killed and millions of dollars in property stolen or destroyed in a failed attempt to arrest one man. Whatever facilities that were in Monrovia before Taylor and Kromah "justice" withered, reducing the already derelict city to shambles. Thousands of Liberians returned to refugee camps. Camps like Budumbura were filled to capacity.
So here we are. The country is left without qualified teachers, doctors, nurses, etc. Many were killed by the very people now wanting education because they worked for the Government of Samuel Doe or because they looked prosperous. Others remain in the squalors of refugee camps. The lucky ones have melted in the US and other countries. Convincing them to return and relive their experiences, with the same forces of torment as overlords, is a tough job. The best persuasion for returning home is creating a different home, not the current. Home is yet no home