Tuesday, January 24, 2006


First Patrol

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 haven’t met my team leader yet, who is from Jordan, nor have I met my roommate. I’m 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 isn’t 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 haven’t made it this far out, yet.

We are lucky in that our accommodations have running water and 24 hour electricity—it’s kind of pleasant to drift off to sleep to the gently humming sound of generators in the distance. The water isn’t hot, nor is it drinkable. Most guys purchase it in Monrovia and bring it here themselves. The house itself doesn’t have any windows. Or rather, it doesn’t 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. I’ve 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 officer’s mess. The food is good, but most everyone complains that it’s too spicy, but it’s 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 day’s 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 isn’t 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 I’d 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 don’t 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. Everyone’s 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 don’t even flinch until you come across small spans linked with branches less than about six inches, then it’s 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 there’s 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 doesn’t 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 I’d say the population is a little more like two to five hundred. I’ve 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 government—we 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 didn’t 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, we’ll see how typical of an encounter this is. You’re 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.

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