Saturday, February 11, 2006


Into the Bush

The nice thing about Liberia is that you never get lost; you’re simply exploring areas that don’t exist on any accurate map. The official, printed maps are horrible, with roads that don’t exist, and town names that are simply incorrect, where anything is there. Instead, our team relies completely on a large hand drawn map in our office, which has been definitive. It isn't to scale, but it does show the roads and towns that are there.

So, this past Wednesday, on patrol, Shahab and I headed north to the Guinea border to check out any smuggling activities going on. Heading about 60 km north, we run in to a platoon of Bangladeshis who are escorting some government officials to remote towns, and talking to the villagers about the importance of securing Liberia’s borders. The country has no armed police force, no border security or army, and only about 100 cops for the entire county. The only enforcement is the local people, and we rely on them to inform us if they see anything suspicious.

After sitting in an open hut in the town of Shamkpalai listening to the conversation, which was taking place mostly in the Kpelle language, we hop back into the car to continue to Darninia. We pass a nice clinic on the outskirts of town heading north. We cross bridges that get ever more sketchy, and I start sending Shahab out to check each one. He’ll walk on a tree trunk, and after it quivers too much, he'll note the more sturdy one laying next to it, and marshal me onto the good ones. The road, which as this point was passable, starts dwindling down; it soon is little more than a footpath. I place one front tire on the path, and let the other meander across the grass, and we soon pull into Lawah. We get out and start asking the locals how to get to Darninia, as we’ve reached the end of the road. They tell us it is a three hour walk, and vehicles can’t go there. We ask about getting to Kolonta, which should be on the way; and they tell us we can drive there, but we missed the junction at Shamkpalai.

We head back to the clinic, and after asking a few nurses, spot the alternate road to Kolonta. It’s not a road really, just another footpath, but the jungle has been cleared, giving a nice wide berth to drive down. Just slightly wider than a car. After marking our spot on the GPS, we launch westward. For the first time, we’ve spotted a gross inaccuracy in the team map, and we’re still not sure where everything is. The trail is actually quite nice for a vehicle. Unlike the mud roads that soon accumulate ravines and potholes in the rainy season; the grass keeps the ground flat. From time to time the jungle closes in on us, and tree branches reach out and lash at the paintjob. We pass one steep clearing, where dozens of trees have been cut down, and a small stack of nicely planed boards lays next to the road. Four miles along the trail, we pull into a town of two dozen houses. For the first times on patrol, I immediately feel a little uneasy. The town is completely full of women, even the children are only girls. One mother is feeding her baby as our white UN mammoth pulls out of the jungle and into the town. The people just kind of stare at us, completely startled by our sudden presence.

We ask a few women the town name, and after much wraggling, confirm that we'’ve reached Kolon’s Town. A couple teenage boys show up, and we ask the way to Darninia. The vehicle can’t go there, they inform us, a one hour walk. Shahab looks at me expectantly, “you ready for a hike?” We grab our bags, unload unnecessary stuff and grab our extra water. Our two guides launch ahead, and we’re off into the bush. For two miles, we roll over hills, wind through the trees and hop over streams. The footpath is quite nice, and fifty minutes later, we roll into yet another village, the fabled Darninia. We round up some villagers (strangely enough, this town is completely men) and sit down to quiz them on the border. The border is along the river, another hour walk. But, when they cross into Guinea, the locals head back a ways to yet another village, three hours away, as there’s no canoe at the closer area. I think both of us are disappointed that it’s getting late and we don’t have the time to go and actually cross ourselves. That'’ll have to wait for another patrol.

The villagers subsist on fairly basic agriculture, bringing palm oil and food to Guinea to trade for clothing and some other small goods. The closest market is across the border in Guinea, so that’s where they bring their goods. We ask about some of the geography and locations of other villages. We quiz them on what all people bring across the border, and if they’ve seen suspicious activity, or large numbers of non-locals. Finished with our reportage, we ask if they have any pineapples or bananas to sell. The answer is negative, and our stomachs grumble in anger.

We set off back to the vehicle, and get to a junction that the boys had informed us was an alternate route back, but hilly. We ask about taking the alternate route back, and our guides just giggle at us. Nervous about our hosts’ reactions to the route, we confer about what to do. Somewhat apprehensively, I ask Shahab, “you want to take the adventurous one, don’'t you?” His confirmation settles that, and we off, back the long way. We wind through a different set of trees and over various other creeks. This route is a little more informative, and we pause to check out some palm trees that have been felled for harvesting, and the palm oil that is being pulled out, some being made into wine. We meet a woman and her two small kids living in an open shelter, nothing more than a thatch roof over some open wooden supports. They have a bunch of dried prawns lying in a pan next to the fire, which they fish from the streams. Soon after, the boys stop to grab some raw cassava root, and promptly start peeling it with some pocket knives. I grab a little for myself. Its texture is somewhere between an uncooked potato and a tree branch. Surprisingly enough, it tastes like a tree branch. As we rumble alone the path, small grains of wooden blandness sit in my mouth; I down a half liter of water to wash it away. Fifty three minutes later, we emerge back into Kolon-ta, every inch of our uniforms soaked with sweat.

During much of the war, the entirity of the local populations fled Liberia, crossing into Guinea, Sierra Leon and elsewhere. The fighting followed many of them. Now, nearly three years after Charles Taylor was forced into exile, the population is just now reestablishing itself. Most of the villages are still waiting for the fruits of their first harvest, and many are still subsisting on the backs of the United Nations WFP. I press many of the town chiefs to get a feel for the number of people still missing. They never want to offer an estimate, as many will never return. Thousands have decided to try Monrovia, different parts of Liberia, received invitations to resettle in the US, or have been killed. My feeling is that 80-90% of Liberians have returned, but many are still flowing back. A recent trip to the Liberian office for Refugees and IDPs showed hundreds still returning to Bong County each month. I spoke with a nice kid, Joseph, today, who returned to Gbarnga only two weeks ago. But Joe spoke of the DR Congo, and of Zimbabwe and of Sudan. Despite the appearance UN peacekeepers there, war still ravages on. He tells me Liberians, on the other hand, are tired of war. Liberia will be fine, now. A sentiment I’ve heard a hundred times since I’ve been here.

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