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.

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