Tuesday, March 28, 2006

 

Border Guard

Last week, on a patrol up to the Guinea border, we walked an hour past town to one of the four river crossings to talk with the customs agent who mans the outpost. The place was in the middle of the wilderness, literally miles from anywhere. The St Paul’s river flowed through, separating Liberia from Guinea, and there on the border, in the midst of the bush was an old man, quietly checking all who passed. Josiah was a wonderful man, proud of his post, and taking his job seriously. He quickly took to his foreign visitors, quick to tell us everything that passes, how much he charged and how often people walked through. For this job, he received no formal salary, and I pressed him on what he does with the customs fees. He tells me that he takes them up to the regional office every few weeks, but confided that the office will usually let him keep seventy-five percent or more as a per diem. Here is a man, who lives in a small mud house, and walks an hour to work every morning. He tells me that his one request is for the customs department to come and build him a small shelter in his post, because when it rains, he is left out standing in the shower. The remittances that the customs office lets him keep amounts to maybe four dollars a week, but even in the bush, that is not enough to survive. Although his family does not live in the area, he relies on his brother and sisters, he tells me, to farm and to help him live.

Not convinced that they had customs agents at all four postings, I asked the names of the other three, which he promptly rattled off. The fourth name on the list, though made me blink. In the middle of the bush, working on the edge of the river, in the far reaches of northern Liberia, stands one John the Baptist. I look around at the wilderness, and can’t think of a more appropriate place. I didn'’t ask Josiah if he eats locusts, but we laugh together at the shared thoughts. Josiah tells me he isn’t sure how John got that name, but that is the only name he is known by. I ask if it is his legal name, and Josiah shrugs. Disappointed by the lateness of the hour, I tell Josiah of my resolution to return soon, and to meet John the Baptist.

When we’re done getting the information that we wanted, I finish with a little pep talk. Informing everyone of the importance of the border, them this is how the weapons and fighters first flowed into the country seventeen years ago, I remind them that they stand on the frontlines of peace in their country. As I give this little speech, I see Josiah stand taller and swell with pride. He stands a little taller and gets that shine in his eye. One man, with no defenses, insufficient salary, food and shelter may not be the best way to safeguard the region, but it sure helps. These small, independent officials have only returned to work out here in the past month or two, and their presence is a sign of progress, however meager.


Friday, March 24, 2006

 

The Crater

Sometimes one image will stick with you, something so simple and concise that you can forget the rest of the details, and know an entire place, just by one image. Over a month ago, we did a patrol down to Bong Mine, a former iron mining town not too far from Monrovia. The abandoned strip mine dominates the town, with a massive terraced scar carved out of the top of the small mountain a mile north of the city center. The old refinery is visible, just below it, with its rusting, steel skeleton looking like it hadn’t been touched in decades. The town itself was odd, and it took a while to sink in that every building in town was made of concrete, without a mud hut in sight. Sure, they still showed the ravages of war, none of them painted, with telltale scorch marks framing the windows and doors, salvaged, ramshackle roofs, if they were even occupied. Most barely stood at all, crumbling, with little more than one or two corners standing above the telltale foundation. This had been a wealthy town, once.

A short railroad ran from the port in Monrovia directly to Deans Town, and dead ended, abruptly, at the foot of the mine. Unlike the main railroad which bisects the country, this one still works, nominally. All the rails were still in place, as were most of the ties. Two flatbed cars stood on the tracks just off the main market, stacked with fruit and produce that were going to get hauled off to market in the capitol. Frankly, even today, with the mine devastated, and years away from being brought back into action, the town was orders of magnitude better off than any other town that I’ve visited. The railroad, although it can’t handle any freight that weighs more than a few hundred pounds, provides an economic lifeline that no other place in the county has. As we drive up to the mine, the remnants scattered through the area reveal a past of a sophisticated operation as good as any of that in the states. The strip mine itself had once been serviced by several large trucks, but all that remains of them is the axles and wheels demonstrating what they once were here. The wheels are six feet in diameter, meaning that just the tires of the things had been maybe nine feet. Dozens of workers are up there, tearing apart scrap metal and loading it onto two additional flatbed train cars. The salvagers work by hand, and carry the pieces down the hill on their backs and sell it to somebody, who ships it off to Monrovia.

This had once been one of the primary sources of funding for the various besieged governments. The rebel groups, more interested in tearing down the government than building their own capacity, had simply razed the area. Except for the Tucker Bridge in Monrovia, no other places showed the scars of the battles that had raged here, barely three years ago. Buildings were scorched and showed craters from direct hits of RPG fire. Dozens of cars littered the side of the road into town. And in town, the population was loaded with ex-combatants.

Bong Mines is a town of several thousand people. Next to Gbarnga, it is the largest in the county. The local Liberian National Police (LNP) tells us that it is home to nearly two thousand ex-combatants. This is out of a population of maybe ten thousand.

We went up to visit the LNP, who had just relocated their headquarters. They had moved their HQ up to the top of the hill, away from the busy town market because that’s where it had been before the war. This was their rightful place, and a faded, worn cement logo above the main entrance backed up their claim. The five of them were all old, with one of them maybe clocking in in his forties. They were proud, and insisted on respecting formalities as we showed up.

The building was like all others in the town, unpainted, previously burned, and lacking a roof in most sections. Weeds sprouted through the concrete, but the place had been swept of debris, and little offices set up in several rooms, rickety wooden chairs, sometimes behind an equally small and teetering table.

We met with them in that room, and talked with them for about a half hour. Yes, they were getting paid by the government, but that was all they were getting. The officers would purchase pens and paper out of their own paychecks to write their reports on. They had no manpower, no training, no communications, not even a single cell phone, and had no access to transportation. They were formal, giving us each of their full titles, and carefully taking down our names and titles as well, to include in their report. Fights raged on every day in town, as the ex-combatants, making money from their salvage operations, purchased alcohol and got in scuffles. The officers had no way to prevent it, and couldn’t stop anything once it had gotten started, either.

But the whole conversation, one image kept drawing my eye, and I couldn’t help but to stare at it. The police chief was behind his little table desk, sitting erect in his creaky chair. The rest of us, three military observers, and his four inspectors and policemen, were lined up in two parallel rows down the side of the walls, facing each other. But, right there, right at eye level while you were sitting; not four inches directly behind the police chief’s head; the pockmark from a single bullet had been carved in the cement wall, testament to the fate of his predecessors.


Tuesday, March 21, 2006

 

Liberian Roller Coaster

They say that you learn something new every day. Yesterday, I learned, in case any of you are in an emergency situation where you need to drive an old Soviet APC, first gear is to the left and down, not to the left and up. Otherwise it's just like a bus with Standard Transmission.

We had just a short patrol, out to downtown Gbarnga to talk with a couple of Government mining officials. When we got to their office they were in the middle of a meeting, so Liu and I backed off and promised to come back in an hour. On the drive out, I had pointed out Charles Taylor's mansion, which is clearly visible from the highway just outside of town. To kill a little time, we decided to head out there and nose around.

In 1990, when Charles Taylor suddenly appeared with a small army on the border with Ivory Coast, he moved forward, and within a couple of months was able to take control of 90% of the country, everything except Monrovia. From then until 1997, when he was installed as President, Gbarnga served as the capitol of Taylor-land, and shortly after arriving here, Taylor used it as his base, not just for government, but for training and equipping his warlord army, the NPFL. This, along with several houses for him and his family, sits on a huge farm on the edge of Gbarnga. The front of the farm stretches for over 2 km along the road, and whenever I ask someone how far back it goes, the response is, "It never ends."

But today, the entire complex is completely deserted. In a country overflowing with refugees, and people squatting in ramshackle houses and planting small gardens everywhere, the farm is almost completely barren of people. The houses, while crumbling, stand unused for shanty style lean-tos. The expansive stretch of rolling green hills remains almost completely devoid of usable agriculture, except for two or three small, small patches of corn or banana trees. No Liberian wants to get caught on Charles Taylor's farm if he comes back.

So we roll up, and the house is even larger that it looks from the distant road. It is two stories, with a four dozen columns towering over a dramatic sweeping steps, and a pinnacle with "CT" directly overhead. All made of concrete, mind you. The place was unfinished when the last period of the civil war broke out in 2003, and it remains in this state today. We had a chance to wander through it, with nearly a dozen bedrooms, a couple grand staircases inside, and several porches high above the terrain with some grand views of the lush jungle around you. Unlike many of the buildings in this country, it doesn't bear obvious scars from the fighting, but closer examination reveal a few scattered bullet holes, and a dozen casings and discarded ammo boxes litter the floor in a few places.

But as we bumped up to the house, and came up the driveway we noticed a dozen brightly colored flags in the back courtyard, and stumbled up into a group of Bangladeshi soldiers conducting some kind of training. Most of the soldiers were sitting inside in chairs in nicely lined rows, and facing a board with an instructor talking to them. They quickly rubbernecked as we approached, and a couple came out to greet us.

We were quickly introduced to the young Bangladeshi Captain running the training, and he invited us to poke around the house and then to sit down with him at a table set aside in a separate room for some tea and cigarettes. The local BANBAT (Bangladeshi Battalion) was conducting some APC (Armored Personnel Carrier) driver training, and today were working on navigating at low speed through tight turns and with the severely limited visibility that the APC affords.

After having something to drink and some fresh fruit, the Captain invites us down to take a look at his APC. We crawl up the thing and settle up on top while a Corporal guides the monster around the track. The ride is quite smooth, with fifteen tons of mass to cushion the ravines and bumps along the way. After that, we jump down inside the thing and I settle in the driver seat with Liu in the commander's chair to my right. The controls are decidedly familiar, with a large steering wheel, clutch, brake, accelerator and gear shift right where you'd expect them. I get a guided tour to the control panel and the facilities and workings of the thing. Dropping the clutch to the floor, I'm told to press the button marked battery, and then the one marked start, and the thing quickly jumps to life with a nice deep rumble growling away twenty feet behind me.

The clutch is seriously heavy, but I quickly get the thing moving, and launch my way around the track. Visibility is through a small foot window directly in front of me giving a whole fifteen degree field of vision, and then five more little windows, narrow slits an inch high and five across, each with mirrors providing miniature periscope systems for viewing across a slightly wider field of vision, but with serious blind spots in between the windows, not to mention beside and behind you. I guess you usually rely on the commander sitting with his head up out the window and guiding you.

I get around the track, without knocking over a single flag or even stalling the thing. I think people around here are continually impressed with how well Americans can drive. Sure, it's a little bit wider than my old Caviler, but the principle's still the same. Trading spots with Liu, I immediately start messing with the commander's battle sights in the right hand seat. I swivel the things right and left and continually point to random switches, implicitly asking if I can flip them or not. About halfway around the track, Liu gets seriously confused, and is quickly entirely off the path, bulldozing a half dozen flags in the process. At this point, the Bangladeshi troops watching from the house are thoroughly enjoying themselves, as Liu wanders around and then proceeds to drive the entire track backwards.

We get out, and spend a little more time taking photos and just generally poking around. We retire for another few minutes so everyone else can get a cigarette, and we try to excuse ourselves to get back to town for our meeting. The Bangladeshi Captain insists that we let him take us on a roller coaster ride, so we hop back aboard while he settles into the driver's seat.

Liu and I crawl to the top, and on directions, I take a perch on top of the fifty caliber gun turret. We're told to hang on tight, but frankly, there's not that much to hold on up there. I find a small attachment point, and grab it with my right hand and desperately attempt to grip the light with my left. We go roaring off, down the road to explore the farm a little more. He gets the thing up to over sixty kilometers an hour, slamming on the breaks periodically to make over-exaggerated, wide turns. We roll over a dozen hills and wind through the roads flying past Taylor's sister's old house and a few other scattered buildings. After a while, we come up on a small lake and go tearing over some bush in an attempt to turn around. On the way back, I duck a few times to avoid the lashing of trees from the side of the road, but on one instance, get a nice solid whack right on my knee from a tree branch two inches thick. We slow down and wheel around the last turn. My hands are sweaty from trying to hang on, and I loosen my right hand to adjust it a bit. The driver pegs the gas, and I go tumbling backwards, rolling over the fan of grenade launchers just behind me. The Bangladeshi Corporal helps catch me as I get back a hold with my left hand in place of my right. I pull myself back into place as the APC pulls back into the back courtyard, all in one piece.


Saturday, March 18, 2006

 

As If There Aren't Enough Checkpoints Already

With fifteen thousand troops in the mission, the peacekeeping presence here is actually quite significant; the largest in the UN. But their deployment is quite concentrated, usually in company strength or larger, and only along the major roads. So although this may violate the first rule of counterinsurgency warfare, i.e. that the counterinsurgent should live in direct contact with the population; it does mean that there are plenty of troops to man the checkpoints. Along the main highway, more than a half dozen checkpoints stretch across the road in the three hour drive from Monrovia to here, with another half dozen past our complex on the way to Guinea. All these look the same, with two men at each end in sandbagged posts, and a serpentine limiting the road to one lane. These are a severe annoyance to the Liberians, but tend to provide enjoyment to the members of the UN, as they see how fast they can do the giant slalom in the giant white SUVs as you get waived straight through.

Well two weeks ago, a couple locals decided to engage in a age old money-making scheme, and set up shop on one of the primary side roads about a half hour drive from here. Stopping passing cars, they demanded a couple dollars toll to let them pass. Needless to say, word of this quickly reached the UN security forces, and they launched a raid at 0400 in the morning a day following and swept up the entrepreneurs.

So then earlier this week, two others decided to set up a similar scheme, but with a twist. They picked the main highway, about 5 km from here. Now, to overcome the problem of getting cars to stop, on the high speed paved road, they just let the peacekeepers do it for them, setting up shop directly in the middle of a UN checkpoint, mere feet from armed peacekeepers. Now, you would think that this situation would be easy to solve. But the head of security shows up, after nearly an hour of operation, to find that the troops hadn’t even moved the bandits. A crowd, consisting of the entire adjacent village, had gathered, and were arguing about who owed who just how much money, as the peacekeepers looked on, somewhat bewildered. It only took security about two minutes to grab two drunk guys and throw them into the back of a UN Civilian Police (CIVPOL) vehicle, but it makes you wonder why the guys with guns couldn’t have don’e that a little bit sooner.


Thursday, March 16, 2006

 

How You Can Tell a Real MILOB

So, on our way down here to Buchanan, we decided to take the back way, so that we’ll see more of our AOR (Area Of Responsibility). And, if things went smoothly, we would be able to shave off nearly one hour from the long route that sticks to the paved roads. We knew the roads through Bong County quite well, and knew that once we crossed the border, the road is really nice, and actually maintained. Things always sound better in theory.

We set off Wednesday after breakfast, and make record time through our AOR and reach the bridge over the river separating our teams in a record three hours. We pause to take some pictures of us on the old train bridge, and to admire the jungle reflecting off the mirror smooth water. Some locals pass us on their way to see some friends on the other side, and we chat for a short while. They inform us that the next bridge is out, but they don’t seem too concerned, so we jump back into the car and press. A few clicks later, we reach the site of the construction. About twenty Liberians are working on a good sized span over a small creek, while a small patrol of Bangladeshi troops look on. Although the bridge itself is in good shape, the dirt approaches to the four foot diameter tree trunks that span the creed aren’t finished, so we won’t be able to go over the conventional way. Undaunted, the locals wave us to a track through the trees just to our right, and dozens of tire tracks mark the detour.

At this point, I’m driving, so we veer right, around a grove of trees. The well driven path then dives into a span of water maybe fifteen feet across, but of unknown depth. The deep mud tracks leading into this are a mess of two foot ruts. Several of the workers and run over, and are waiving us off of that approach and back right. About this point, two guys come popping out of the bush and pulling vines away, trying to indicate our new plan of attack. Nervously, I pull over to the area and nose the car into the bush. After a thick row of trees, the stream continues, and a few more gesturing Liberians indicate that we drive into the bush, crank a hard left and drive up the creek, here about six inches deep, and back onto the road. I send Maksat out of the car to investigate and to marshal the car around the sundry tree trunks.

Now, normally in situations like this, the best advice is to trust the locals. They have plenty of experience, and know the area far more intimately than we can. Plus, they will usually waive you onto the path that everyone else takes. I'm quickly learning that although they frequently have good insight, this isn't always the best policy. As we look at the vanguard of bush, it’s quickly apparent we’re the first to attempt this innovative route. I back the truck up, move over a few feet and reenter the bush from a different angle to avoid the sundry trees and get a straight shot to the creek.

With the encouragement of the locals, I take the truck into the bush, and commit to the plan. After grinding through the first few feet of vines, the front wheels drop out from in front of me and my tires start spinning. A half dozen Liberians jump behind the truck, and with their encouragement, I get the chassis over the ledge; and dive down into the little valley. The rear tires start to grip again and push us farther forward, eventually dropping the entire truck into the muck that is the riverbed. All four tires start spinning helplessly and the vehicle takes on a severe list. Now we’re really stuck.

The rest of the work crew comes over, as do the Bangladeshis, and we spend the next forty five minutes attempting to dig out the mud under the truck. We put boards under the tires, and attempt to dig out under certain tires to get the vehicle more level. But very quickly we spin the tires enough to kick the dirt out from under all of them until the entire of the chassis is sitting on the mud.

The Bangladeshi Major informs us of a logging truck working just down the road, and dispatches a vehicle to go get it. Ten minutes later, the growling of a diesel engine presages the entrance of one of the meanest looking tractors around. Six foot tall tires are mounted on a short squat truck, with a blade on the front and giant winch on the rear. Meant for quickly bulldozing the bush to pull down hardwood trees, this thing is all business.

It first sets up on the far side of the bridge, and they drag it’s cable and attach it to the front of the car. This doesn’t look at all good to me, because the cable is at a ninety degree angle to the direction of the car, and will be attempting to pull it sideways. I try and inform a couple people of my concerns, but they apparently don’t share them. The tractor operator starts pulling on the winch, and quickly my fears prove correct. The front tire wants to go sideways, and so only succeeds in stacking up a pile of mud that is soon reaching over the hood. The vehicle doesn’t want to roll forward, as anyone who has done basic vector geometry could tell you. My shouts eventually get the attention of the operator, who can’t see the truck himself through the foliage, and he shuts it down. The consensus quickly falls on pulling it out from behind, and then dragging it forward through the original opening next to the bridge.

The tractor drives over the bridge, and comes around behind. The first aborted attempt has angled the car differently, and you now can’t pull it straight back. At this point, the Liberians lack of ecological sensitivity shines through, and the tractor proceeds to tear open a new hole behind the truck, bulldozing a dozen small trees and countless vines, opening a nice, new, wide berth through which to pull the truck straight back. Spinning around, we hook up the winch to the back of the truck and proceed to pull it through twenty feet of thick clay mud and back up the steep but short embankment. The mud doesn’t want to let go, the front bumper of the car is pulled a good six inches outward, but we survive, with no mechanical damage.

Back out of the mess, we still have to cross the bridge. So, we hook up the winch to the font of the truck, and let him pull us merrily through the first alternate path. We were delayed only ah hour and a half, and are quickly back on the road down to sunny beaches of Buchanan. We’ve spent the past two days with MILOBs from the rest of the sector, and take pride at pointing out our mud caked, obviously damaged car; informing them that you can tell which MILOBs actually do some work around here.


Wednesday, March 15, 2006

 

Hey everyone, sorry that I haven’t gotten a post up in a week. I have two posts in the works, but haven’t finished them up yet. Meanwhile, I’ve been in Gbarnga for the past week, but haven’t been on too many patrols. Under my protests, my Deputy Team Leader has told me to not go on a couple patrols because he thinks that I was too busy doing some office work. But, I’m heading on down to Buchanan tomorrow for a sector operations meeting, and will be back this weekend. Buchanan is down on the beach, so it can’t be too bad. I’ll get some more up when I can.


Wednesday, March 08, 2006

 

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

 

Elmina Castle, Gold Coast, Ghana

Elmina was another fortress, just 7 km from Cape Coast. It is just barely visible in the third photo in the post on Cape Coast Castle, at the end of the peninsula sticking out from the beach. It was built by the Portugese, but later captured by the Dutch, after they landed up the beach, and put some cannons on top of a hill dominating the fortress. After taking control of the area, the Dutch protected their flank but building a second fortress on top of the hill. The castle itself is surrounded on three sides by water, and has two moats on the fourth side that was home to several crocadiles. The palm trees in the photos below are growing in the currently dry moat. There is a fresh water river flowing out that seperates the castle itself from the beautiful little fishing village of Elmina. Much like Cape Coast castle, Elmina was clearly built around serving the slave trade. It had about a dozen dungeons that once held nearly one thousand people at once. There were two additional cells just off the main courtyard. The one on the right was for soldiers, and was ventilated, lit, and had a place for food. The door on the left was for troublesome slaves, who would be thrown into a room with no ventilation and allowed to die of thirst or suffocation before the bodies were thrown into the ocean. The Door of No Return:

 

Kakum National Park

Heading north of Cape Coast about 20 km, was Kakum National Park. It's primary claim to fame is a series of suspension bridges, about 30 meters above the jungle floor, bringing you through, and above the jungle canopy. The view from up there was absolutely gorgeous, and the canopy was so thick that even looking straight down, you could not see the forest floor. I spent several days traveling with two American medical students, and when we were on the hike back from the canopy walkway, we were accomponied by two Swedish med students. Halfway back, we heard a short gasp from Sylvia, the Swede, followed by "a snake!" She was walking directly behind me, about ten feet back. Her exclaimation, of course, caused us to rush back to check it out. A green mamba, over six feet long, had been sitting on a branch, adjacent to the trail. It was a yellowish green, and fit in quite well with the jungle foliage. Scott, Trey, and I had walked right past it, with it maybe eighteen inches from our left elbows. We had evidently scared it, causing Sylvia to see it as it slithered back up the tree. We crowded around, about five, ten feet away as it slowly crawled up an adjacent tree. We got a second look at it, but unfortunately, we were all too slow to get any good photos.

 
It was fun to watch the local fishermen head on out and haul in the catch. They would launch a large boat, usually with about five crew. The would struggle against the surf for the first several yards, aggressively paddling in time with each other while the sound of thier songs and chants would drift over the crashing waves. When leaving shore, they would let out their nets behind them, and would eventually run from the beach out several hundred yards.

 

Cape Coast, Ghana

I spent several days in western Ghana, crawling around some of the old slave castles built by the Europeans. Fort Amsterdam was built by the Dutch in 1595 and later rebuilt by the English.

Cape Coast Castle was also built by the Dutch, this time in 1637, but passed through Swede hands before being captured by the English. Unlike the more standard castle construction of Fort Amsterdam, Cape Coast castle was clearly built around slave trading. While Fort Amsterdam, and some of the very early castles had a more symmetrical construction, the later forts had most of their firepower oriented outward, protecting against attack from other European navies, but not as concerned with pacification of local tribes. But it was also clear in the size and location of the slave dungeons. The holding cells are much larger, and located very close to the exit directly to the beach through the Door of No Return.

The surrounding city of Cape Coast, hometown of Kofi Annan.


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