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.

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