Tuesday, January 31, 2006
The driver was injured, but had been treated at the area hospital and released. He was back out at the site, and the locals were attempting to give him some assistance pulling his truck out. They’d been at it for two days. It looks like they’ve made a lot of progress.
According to one of the guys on my team, that bridge had been out for several years, and had just been completed last September. Yes, a five month life span. Something tells me, though, that is longer that the replacement bridge, constructed about twenty feet to the left of the last one, will last. The good news was that on inspection, the foundations of the original bridge appeared undamaged, and repair the bridge will just require a new span of about ten tree trunks, and redoing some of the earthworks leading up to it.
We returned back along the same route. Upon reaching the bridge another truck, the same size as the one now stuck precariously on the old bridge, was stuck on the temporary bridge. The only thing I could think of was how we hadn’t made a map of the alternate, five hour route home. The second truck had made it almost all the way across, but was having trouble making the sharp turn and getting up the steep hill of loose dirt. They had been at it for nearly an hour. I hopped out and marshaled him, and after about three minutes, the truck was on his merry way, much to our relief.
My Favorite Village
Wednesday, January 25, 2006
Gunships Painted White
Liberia remains heavily forested, and especially during the wet season, access to much of the country can become a problem. Access, even in the best of times, is tricky, with several MilOb team sites reachable only by helo or resupply ship twelve months of the year. The UN has a surprisingly strong air force in country, with a total of twenty helicopters and two fixed wing cargo aircraft. Half of the helicopters are contractor-run, and half are operated by the Ukrainian military.
This geography makes patrol of much of the jungle area, as well as the ill-defined borders a real problem. In an attempt to keep a show of force up in these remote areas, UNMIL conducts routine air patrols of the entire country, and our teamsite runs two each week.
So Tuesday, my second day in the team, I spend with my head hanging out of the window of a Ukrainian MilMi-24 helicopter gunship, as we cruise over eastern Liberia at low levels. When we hear the sound of the two Hind gunships overhead, I grab my bags and head out to the airfield. We conduct the patrol with a pair of helos, with a representative from the Bangladeshi peacekeeping battalion on one, and me on the other.
The Mi-24 Hind D is a mid-70s vintage Soviet attack helicopter that was developed after watching the USs creation of the aircrafts role in Vietnam. The Hind can carry up to eight combat troops, as well as a full load of armaments on its stubby wings and in its nose. Im not too sure how you could fit eight troops and an engineer in the tiny little cabin, but thats the stats. It wound up being a little to heavy to be a fast, maneuverable gunship, and too loaded with ordinance to be a high capacity cargo ship.
After meeting the pilots and the interpreter, I loaded up onto the lead gunship and we spin up the engines. After asking, the interpreter dugs out a paper thin set of ear protection headsets, which I put on over my earplugs. Holding up the high safety standards that the Eastern block nations were known for, the interpreters safety briefing consisted of dont smoke, and put away your alcohol. He looked at me funny when I motioned to ask if I should put on my safety belt, so I took the hint and promptly spread myself in a comfortable position on the floor and hung my head out the open side window.
We taxied to a takeoff and lifted into the air. Turning north, we climbed out to about two to three hundred meters. Small villages dotted the landscape as we cruised up twenty minutes to the Guinea border. The area around here, while not mountainous, is very hilly, and pulling north, the ruggedness of the hills slowly increased. The ground was intermittent spots of grassland and small bush marbleized with wide streaks of rubber and coconut trees.
With the bright tan of the foot paths clearly visible against the lush dark green of the vegetation; it was easy to see the occasional Liberian walking into his hut or along a path. We trek to the border and make the turn East. To this point, I almost never see a village of more than two huts, but instead see single homes scattered; each a couple hundreds meters to the next. The few people I saw were certainly discernable, but only occasionally were we low enough to be able to tell, for instance, if they were holding a gun or doing some other suspicious thing. There was very little visible farming, but the occasional small rubber plantation was apparent by the patches of trees planted in perfectly straight rows. The four or five roads we covered stuck out with the set of two parallel footpaths. Other than their occasional reminder, the look of the countryside has probably changed little in the past thousand years. Occasionally, the number of homes would get sparser and the steady flow of trees would reach up into the air to grab us.
The jungle rolled on peaceably underneath us, with the home to the monstrous, incessant thumping barely five feet over my head. We turned north and passed Ganta, a huge metropolis of a couple hundred widely spaced homes, their relative wealth (sic) proclaimed by the number of gleaming metal roofs covering the humble mud abodes. I start to notice some scattered plots of farmland, none more than half an acre. Several are identifiable as rice paddies, most of the others likely cassava root. We continued to along the border, eventually turning southeast and soon looking out over Côte d'Ivoire. The landscape became rougher here, with one or two hills that had tentative claims of being titled a mountain. Here were more hardwood trees, fewer rubber, fewer huts and villages and paths cutting through the forest. Continuing to follow the border for another hour, it is easy to see how little control any government has on the area, not even people control this area. The open, easily penetrable borders and tenuous lines of demarcation are havens of smuggling and control by various rebel factions of all nationalities.
The hills settle down somewhat, and the hardwood trees give a nice relief to the eye as their occasional yellow and brown hues that remind you of an early fall evening. The trees recede a bit, opening up more and more to grasslands. Homes reappear, separated by at times nearly a kilometer, sometimes more, and consolidating into a village of a dozen huts once or twice.
Having traveled south a ways, until we were abreast Tapeta, we make an westward turn, for home. The trees return. The small clearings of grasslands disappear completely. And with them goes any sign of civilization, or people of any type. As recently as six months ago, there were reports of small groups of bandits, training in the remote area several kilometers south of here. UNMIL mounted some operations and dispersed what they could. But up here, at nearly a thousand feet, the tree cover was thick, and signs of people nonexistent. A solid and steady sea of green, combinded with the steady and visceral thumping of the main rotors overhead. Trees continue to wash by. Your interest returns when you see the first village in 20 minutes; in an endless train of green. Occasionally, a thin stream of palm trees flow through the monotony, giving you some texture at least, even if it didnt accord any chromatic relief. No roads and very few footpaths.
The water throughout the country, though plentiful, tends to flow almost exclusively in small streams, if they even deserve that name. Along one road in our AOR, a fifteen kilometer stretch of road yields fourty-seven bridges. So, from the air, few are visible, just two riversone of which I get to see twice. It was a nearly hour long leg over this vast emptiness, and the helo returns to base and touches down gently more than two and a half hours after departing. Slaughtered, I stagger off to the chow hall.
Tuesday, January 24, 2006
I arrived in Gbanga Sunday night, and met most of my team members. We have 12 members on our team right now. Our deputy team leader is a Lieutenant Colonel from Kyrgyzstan, and our current operations officer is from Pakistan. In addition, we have officers from Egypt, Paraguay, El Salvador, Russia, Serbia, Ethiopia, and Senagal. I havent met my team leader yet, who is from Jordan, nor have I met my roommate. Im sharing a room right now with a Major in the Chinese Army, but he is on leave for the rest of the week.
The teamsite isnt too bad, I guess, but it certainly is sparse. We are living in a one story concrete house surrounded by a concrete safety wall. During the war, nobody in Liberia could afford razor wire. As a result, most of the security walls around here are topped with shards of glass that have been mortared in place in an attempt to keep people from climbing the wall. In Monrovia today, most compounds have concertina wire, but I guess those luxuries havent made it this far out, yet.
We are lucky in that our accommodations have running water and 24 hour electricityits kind of pleasant to drift off to sleep to the gently humming sound of generators in the distance. The water isnt hot, nor is it drinkable. Most guys purchase it in Monrovia and bring it here themselves. The house itself doesnt have any windows. Or rather, it doesnt have any glass in the windows, just some bars to keep people out, and a rather coarse mosquito net that I suppose helps a little. Ive set up a cot in the corner and draped it with my own netting, and sleep in my own little anti-malaria bunker. Almost all of us eat at the local Bangladeshi battalion officers mess. The food is good, but most everyone complains that its too spicy, but its not bad.
On my first full day at the teamsite, I headed out on a patrol with two veteran team members, and one other rookie. The days mission was to try and find an illegal gold mine. During the conflicts, both here and in Sierra Leone and the Ivory Coast, rebel warlords would utilize diamond and gold mining to finance weapons for the fighting. As a result, the United Nations has imposed an embargo on these items from this area, in an attempt to slow the fighting.
On a previous patrol, villagers had reported that some mining operations were taking place nearby, so we returned to the site today to attempt to get to them. We are pretty lucky in that we have a nice paved highway running the length of our AOR (Area of Responsibility), and this greatly improves our mobility, especially in the rainy season. But, being that Liberia has all of two paved roads, the rest of the going is pretty rough. The most significant limitation, though, is the lack of real bridges on the dirt roads. The town we were heading to today is only about 20 km from where I am, but because of a bridge that is out on the more direct road, it was about 70km and nearly two full hours, one way.
The paved road here isnt too bad, but it is nowhere near as nice as the trip to Tubmanburg. We could frequently get up to 50km/hr, but boulder sized potholes pockmarked the road, as did washouts where mud covered the asphalt for a few dozen yards, and required us to slow every several hundred yards.
After heading through town, we quickly dumped off onto a side dirt road, and the going was fairly smooth for the first five or ten miles. The area around here is not very well documented, and so at the office we have a large map of our AOR up on the wall, but nobody really looks at it. In the next room, we have an equally grand piece of acetate with a hand drawn map of the area, showing the major roads, villages and what clans inhabit which regions. The places of roads can vary dramatically. Some roads are there, some are not, and the formal map is frequently just plain wrong. Most of the villages have different names on the two maps, so we just go by the hand drawn one. If we want to stop by someplace and ask the people there what the name of the village is, the second is the only map worth using.
At every major village of ten or more houses, we would pull over and ask those on the side of the road what the name of the village was. We would then resume bumping along as Id attempt to type in the town name as a waypoint in my GPS. The nature of a rain forest is that it is crossed with minor streams and rivers, requiring us to traverse dozens of bridges. The nicest bridges are little concrete culverts, and dont require us to slow down at all. After that, some small places are bridged with 2x12 or 4x12 lumber, and only span three or four feet. Everyones favorites are those made of two foot diameter tree trunks, cut eight to twelve feet long, and slightly planed on one side. Lay four of those out, and you have a first class bush-bridge. You dont even flinch until you come across small spans linked with branches less than about six inches, then its time to set out and guide the truck across.
After about circumscribing about a 270 degree arc on the map, we made it to the village that we were looking for. After chatting with some of the locals, we doubled back one kilometer, took a different fork and checked a second village. The same old man who had informed us about the presence of the mine appears. We ask him where the mine is and he returns with a town. When we confirm, he says no. We ask again and get a different town. This goes on for five minutes as he says theres a gold mine in the sector, but gives us the name of a village much farther away. Finally, my patrol leaders become confident that all he is doing is telling us about a mine we already knew about, we thank him for his time and begin our trip back.
The Village of Kpolokpalar
Not wanting to make a complete waste of the day, we take a side road to check out a village our team had not visited before. Five kilometers further on, we bump up to a fence blocking the road, and get out and ask the villagers how much further the town is. The open the gate and we proceed, past a small school and a nascent two acre rubber tree farm. It is easy to spot the rubber farms from just the random rubber trees, because on a farm, the trees are planted in nice straight rows. We bounce along the road and into a gathering of villagers about twenty people strong, and ask for the town chief.
One of the more interesting characteristics of the local villages is how young the town chiefs usually are. The chiefs are usually picked freely from the village people, and my team has even run into some female chiefs. My teammate informs me that he thinks they are usually ex-combatants, and is not sure the politics about how the young guys get picked. This town is no exception, and the cheif is no more than about twenty, and quite quiet. (ed note: the town chief is directly behind my head in the photo, and the one who did all the talking is two to his right in the white shirt.) He is proud to say he is chief, but just watches with amusement when we ask questions. We repair back to the village proper, and find a shaded open area with a nice roof and several benches in the center of town. In the process, we pick up about twenty or thirty more people, the vast majority of them kids less than about ten.
We take up position on two benches at the head of the little town meeting area, and the leaders take up a bench opposite us. At one end sits one of the eldest men in the village, I would place him at about forty. At the far end is the mischievous town chief.
We ask a standard battery of questions, are they happy with the elections, are they happy with the government. They tell us want we want to hear. Who did they vote for? Dazed for a minute, one guy in the back spits out Ellen. The others pick up on the meme, Ellen, of course. When we ask them if they are saying that just because its want we want to hear, they decline to answer.
The man who is responsible for the census arrives with his book, and we ask about the population. One thousand, five hundred, he answers. And 83 houses. It doesnt take a math genius to figure out that the former figure is a little inflated. The number of people has swollen to around 50 or 60, and Id say the population is a little more like two to five hundred. Ive been told that the towns will usually exaggerate their size, in a feeble attempt to get more attention from NGOs, but that the number of structures is usually correct.
Asking about refugees, they claim that during the fighting, about 50 people flee to Guinea, and about one thousand head off to another Liberian town up by the border. The older man, who has done all the talking, then informs us during this time, 47 people had been massacred in one day in the village by a group from the coastal town of Buchanan called LPC, which we had never heard of. The old man informs us that he was there for it. When we ask how he survived, he goes into a long description of where the fighters were, where they lined people up, where people were killed, pointing out the exact houses the whole time. When asked if they fought back, he quickly denied it.
They declared that they had four former combatants, in the only question that the town leader was interested enough in to answer. The town declared that the ex-Coms were not causing problems, and that they had no weapons. They claimed that they fought for the governmentwe showed we were skeptical, but they stuck to that story. The young chief continued, with his mischievous eyes, to watch a situation quietly. There was a look in there, as if this conversation was out of his control, but progressing in a manner that didnt alarm him. He was curious, but staying out of it, and letting his elder answer our questions.
The town was in okay shape, as they claimed they built the school, and were paying the two teachers by themselves. There was no UN marking on the sign for the school to dispute this. They said they farmed cassava root for food, and were starting to try growing rubber. The only need that they claimed to have was for clean drinking water, but a Liberian boy with a UN badge was present, and confirmed that he was been hired to dig wells, and that the town was in the process of getting one well, and one latrine, which should only take about a week.
Satisfied, we packed up and left the little town behind. This being my first experience out here, well see how typical of an encounter this is. Youre never quite sure how much of their stories to believe. Despite the obvious atrocities (and I believe the story about a massacre there), the entire population who survived has returned home, and they are resuming life, as meager as it is. It is promising if they have built the school themselves and have been supporting it, without any help from outsiders, either government or foreign. With a prospect for some cash crops, I hope that they can move on.
It seems that the UN has blocked access to blogs on their networks, so I have limited ability to update posts here. I do have the ability to submit posts via e-mail, but I have no way of uploading photos. Whenever I get to Monrovia, I will try and get some pics up, but for now, you are stuck with my literary skills. And, as a picture is worth a thousand words, get ready for a few thousand words. Also, because I can't double check what got posted, for now you will have to live with the numerous typos and bad grammar that may appear.
Saturday, January 21, 2006
On my way out
The city of Monrovia is a tangle of crumbling concrete buildings, ranging from two to 10 stories tall. Only one of them has glass in its windows, and many are missing the façade and outer wall, with everything exposed but the frame, and pockmarked by bullet holes and years of neglect. Many of the business and most of the schools and government buildings are surrounded by a concrete wall, creating a protective compound to shield it from war. We are convinced that a week and a half ago the country received a shipment of paint, the first in years. Even post-inauguration, the city continues to be painted for the first time in over a decade.
Between the buildings and compounds and the water are crammed a mess of shacks and shelters in which the population of the city live. Most are comprised of a skeleton of wooden poles, roofed with random pieces of corrugated metal, and with walls made of whatever scraps of wood, metal or cloth that could be scavenged. The lucky shop owners have been able to squat in an empty metal freight container, which can be effectively locked to protect whatever worn tires or produce they have in inventory.
So jetting north today in our Nissan Patrol gave me my first wonderful sense of space I’ve had since getting here. After crossing the St Paul River, the next ten miles are an open marsh, with wide pools of water surrounded lush green vegetation. There was a definite sense of people living out there, with dozens of kids swimming in various ponds and streams along the side of the road, but we did not pass too many villages or homes.
A few miles on, we were out into the rain forest that covers much of the country. Villages dotted the countryside, each one a walkable distance from the last. In the most hopeful sign for the country was a very real sense of repopulation of the countryside. At every village we flew by on our way north there were a number of small huts in various stages of construction. There are about three or four primary types of architecture that you see up here. Along the road were a number of mud brick factories, but we only saw a few scattered buildings made from them. Inside Tubmanburg, a town of a couple thousand, the architecture was mostly unchanged. Surprisingly, the town was not very built up, and contained only about a dozen concrete structures, mostly Churches or government buildings, and none more than one story tall.
By far the most prevalent kind of structure is of a mixed, wooden-mud brick construction. Long, narrow tree branches of about a three inch diameter are used to frame the main load bearing points of the house. Then, a grid of thinner poles is used to form the walls, placed in a grid of with about six to nine inch spacing. This is done for all the exterior walls with slightly thicker poles in the vertical and narrower ones lashed horizontally. A thick layer of dried weeds is used for the roof. The frame of the building is plastered with about six inches of mud and allowed to dry.
In a few of the villages about half of the structures were of a simple A-frame construction, with the same reed roof. But, judging by the number of latticed huts being worked on, a significant repopulation of the countryside is underway. A Pakistani Major at the teamsite claimed about 80% have returned to their villages in the area. During the civil war, many different rebel groups would sprout and quickly take large sections of the countryside. It was easy to see how this could be done. Of the dozens of villages scattered through the forest, none held more than one or two dozen families. Exposed and vulnerable, a group of five teenagers with weapons would instantly dominate a village. Give them a means of regularly acquiring gasoline, and they could control an entire region. As a result, the war saw half of the rural population flee to the defensible squalor of Monrovia.
With the UN has come a reestablishment of security for these villages. People have started to filter back, to basic homes, but with space, clean water supply, and the ability to start some basic agriculture. Slash and burn farming was evident in several acre-sized regions of ashes. The agriculture, though, was sparse, little more than small gardens, none more than a quarter acre, interspersed among the huts and rubber trees.
After checking out Brian’s teamsite and Bomi Lake, we turned around and returned to Monrovia by two in the afternoon. I’m sure I’ll be posting a few more pictures of the countryside, but it was nice to return to the relative modernity of our apartment with electricity and air conditioning. With the lush vegetation that covers much of this country; it is unbelievable that it has been destroyed to the point where it has to import most of its food. This country will not be able to go anywhere until it has repopulated the countryside and is able to make the move from its complete dependence on foreign aid, past the point of subsistence farming, to having the infrastructure for a real agricultural economy.
Friday, January 20, 2006
Several experts have observed that UNMIL, with it's current contingent of about 15,000 soldiers, is being pulled in two conflicting directions. It is the largest current UN operation, and is under tremendous budgetary pressure to draw down now that the permanent government of Liberia is seated. Simultaneously, others are seeing it as the basis of a broader, multi-national West African mission. With the closing of the mission in Sierra Leone last year, UNMIL has helped to steady the nascent government on Liberia's borders by stationing some rapid reaction forces in Freetown.
In a radio address by President Johnson-Sirleaf today, she listed her priorities for the new government. Before electricity and sewer, and before the implementation of anti-corruption transparency programs, the president claimed that establishing sovereignty of the borders is at the highest of priorities. There have been recent claims of recruitment in Liberia by combatants in Côte d'Ivoire. When they're paid, members of the Liberian Military Police (LMP) live on a salary of $18 USD a month. In a country with 80% unemployment, an offer of a steady $85 per month to fight elsewhere is very attractive.
Word of this comes as the situation in Côte d'Ivoire is deteriorating. The French government, with UN backing, had established a transitional government in 2003. The terms of this agreement have expired, with the country still divided between government and rebel forces. The UN authorities recently committed a faux pas when it recommended, last November, that President Laurent Gbagbo remain in office for an additional 12 months, but this week did not extend the same recommendation to the Parliament. This has led to four days of violent protests and counter-protests in Bouake, Guiglo and the capital of Abidjan, most of them directed at the UN. The United Nations is stuck in a difficult place, with the Dioula angry at the UN for disbanding the parliament, and Gbagbo's supports angry with the UN for not allowing them to clamp down on the demonstrations. The crisis came to a head earlier this week when UN soldeirs were forced from a number of camps and then Gbagbo requested that the UN withdraw. Add to this the continuing possibility of collapse in Guinea. This leaves a historically volatile region in a tenuous position, with the Ivory Coast continuing to churn just as Sierra Leone and Liberia are beginning to show progress.
Wednesday, January 18, 2006
Small Signs of Progress
Monday, January 16, 2006
President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf
We made it to the gates of the Capital and were able to listen to the cremony from less than 200 yards away, but our view was blocked of the actual stage. When the seven foreign heads of state were being introduced, the loudest cheer for the president of Nigeria, who had initially come in in 2003 to stabalize the place. But after moving on to other DVs, the applause for Laura Bush was much louder; but nothing approached the reception for Condoleezza Rice.
Ellen's speech was good, talking at length about the desperate poverty in the country and the need of regular jobs for the heads of most households. But, she riled the crowd up the most when she spoke, at length, on the need to eliminate corruption in the government. After claiming that her words were not just the feeble promises of another politician, she announced a new policy that every single member of her administration must declare all their financial assets publicly, and this was the biggest applause line of the day. Then, to ensure that certain people got the message, she said that she expects that the Speaker of the House and the President Pro Tempe do the same. Here's to hoping that she can carry through on this.
Representative Edwin Snowe, former son-in-law of notorious ex-president Charles Taylor was elected as Speaker of the 64-member House of Representatives. The speaker is the third in rank in the government hierarchy after the president and vice president. Senator Isaac Nyanebo, a former advisor and Secretary General of the rebel group, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), which battled the government from 1999 to 2003, was elected Senate President Pro Tempore. ... Snowe is one of four newly elected parliamentarians who are on a UN Security Council Travel Ban and Asset Freeze List for "on-going ties with Charles Taylor."As a result, the new legislature being run by two former (and opposing) warlords, one of whom is an internationally recognized war criminal. This only shows that the regional tensions remain strong, as reflected by local voting patterns; and some very violent men remain in positions of great power.
Sunday, January 15, 2006
The majority of the city is large, concrete buildings that have been entirely reduced to their structural skeletons. People have squatted living establishments where ever possible, reinforcing the structure of five story buildings with wooden sticks. In between the previously built up town center and the water, surrounding us on all sides, shacks made of every imaginable material, scrap wood, metal and cloth have been errected and crammed in amongst each other. Two bridges connect Monrovia with Bushrod island, the Gabriel Tucker bridge and a second one which is the center of the city's open market, and is impassable today in a vehicle through the choke of shops and merchant carts.
During the civil wars, both in 1996, and again in 2003, the rebel groups had been able to take control of most of the country, driving down from the countryside and taking control Bushrod Island, but unable to cross the moat that effectivly protects the capital. With the secondary bridge destroyed, this led the the Gabriel Tucker bridge becoming the center of the most intensive fighting. The first photo is taken from the bridge today, looking at two prominent buildings in Monrovia from which government snipers were able to control the bridge and prevent the captial itself from being overrun. Note the bullet holes which riddle all the lampposts and pocket every visible wall.
The most notable thing about the country is how young it is. According to the CIA World Factbook, the median age is 18 and the life expectancy for a Liberian is not even 39. The people on the street look it. It is rare to find a Liberian who looks much over 35, and the average taxi driver looks 14. People swamp the street everywhere, and it is not uncommon to see 14 year old kids with missing limbs, begging on the street. The endemic poverty and unemployment is everywhere, but the area here is surprisingly robust. The CIA lists about 2000 cell phones in country, but that number is dated 2001, and I can tell you is is definately out of date. Prepaid cell phones are everywhere, even in the bush, and the little scratch off cards for $5 of service are practicly the national flower, they are laying everywhere.
Cleaning up for the Inaguration
These photos are from earlier in the week, and you can see the beginning of this happening. The streets are still clogged with cars, UN vehicles, stalled taxis and thousands of pedestrians. Previously, and still today in outskirts of the town, the sides of the streets would be piled, literally three feet high with garbage, much of it pathetically on fire.