Friday, April 28, 2006
A friend of mine clued me to start asking people’s middle names. A Liberian will tell you that their middle name is Little Boy or Smooth, or something even further out there. A kid who is not yet eighteen years old will look you in the eye and insist that “Old Man” is written on his birth certificate. As for first names, it is quite common to find someone named Prince. But the first names around here are more commonly reflective of their deep seated religious beliefs. Seemingly half of the male population will have Old Testament biblical names, Abraham, Issac, Joseph (never Joe, mind you), David or Josiah. We have two guys named Moses who work as security guards at our accommodation. And when I ask a Liberian how they are doing (“How the body?”), it is not uncommon to get an “Ohh, God is good,” or a “Thank the Lord.”
For Liberians, most own nothing, and so to be able to buy anything of substance is a tremendous achievement. Nowhere is this more evident than on their cars. Many of the taxi drivers that I've talked to worked for NGOs for several years to afford the vehicle they are driving. It represents tremendous achievement and an ability to save and work hard for a reward. As a result, you'll pass vehicles with "Successful Prayers" written on the rear bumper of a car or taxi. Although, the one labeled "My Year of Divine Speed" is perhaps the most appropriate. So Liberia follows the common developing world custom of writing slogans or encouragement on their cars: “No food for lazy man”, is the African classic, but I’ve also seen "Don’t envy, pray for me", "Jesus Loves You Mr. Brown", "Tired Man" or "What God Bless is Blessed." Oddly enough, the bad grammar is frequently repeated with infallible consistency.
But the result is that their cars offer an interesting insight into the local's thoughts. Well, taxi and truck driver demographic, at least. Although "Things Will Never Be the Same Again", is seen on multiple vehicles, it is quite rare to find something that acknowledges the war directly. "No Peace, No Love" is much less common than "Jesus Never Fail", or some similar formation. In general, the spirit is not quite optimism, not quite resignation: "To be a man is not easy", "God Judgment, No Appeal" and "Why Dream?" are only occasionally peppered with a taxi proclaiming "Better Day Ahead". The social stature of owning a car is often directly confronted with a reflection of the recent national trauma, best epitomized by one truck's cab asking "Why Envy Me? WHY?" The sayings tend to reflect a feeling of lack of control, and a willingness to put their lives and their future in the hands of the Lord.
While the painted sayings are limited only by the driver's creativity and wry humor, the country is severely lacking in a diversity of stickers to put on their cars. This is surprising considering the universal habit of covering the entire rear window with faded pieces of bizarre social expression. Giant “City Boy” and “Challenger” stickers adorn the back windshields of most taxis. There are about three different Jesus stickers, one of just his bust, one full length in white robes. There’s also the classic with a cute baby in diapers looking up and straight at you with the note “Jesus, please forgive me.” But at first glance, Liberia seems to have a fascination with the early eighties, as nine taxis and minibuses out of ten will be decorated either with two stickers of a young Madonna (the Pop Princess, not the real one), or is a large decal of Sylvester Stallone in the Cobra movie logo.
But the Cobra stickers aren’t just an out of date pop culture reference. The recent war means that almost all these cars were purchased in the past three years, and what stickers to display a recent decision. As the preponderance of 50 Cent T-shirts display, the locals can be moderately up on western culture. These decals and logos mostly have meanings, even if non-obvious. A “City Boy” is a taxi that won’t take you into the bush, but only within and in between large towns. “Challenger” is a means of putting those who read it on notice, that if you work hard and save your money, you too can own a car. In all fairness, I have yet to figure out a deep meaning to Madonna, but others can be more ominous. During the latest phase of the civil war, the rebel group LURD was initially divided into three battalions, the University of Bullet, the Voltage Movement, and from Bopolu County, the Cobra Movement. The Deputy Chief of Staff of the LURD, Seeya Sheriff, was popularly known as General Cobra. Considering that the LURD was heavily known for its widespread atrocities, a taxi driver doesn’t just go and put a picture of Sly Stallone in front of a Cobra logo on the back of his cab lightly. It is there to send a message.
Fourteen years of war, and barely two years on, the entire country is still trying to catch its breath. Forget picking itself up and moving on, it is still at the dazed stage of trying to figure out where everyone is and what to do next. People are just returning home, and picking through the mess that lies around them. None of the farmers are working the large fields they used to, but trying to eek out some a subsistence crop. A patch of a dozen rice paddies, each a half acre square, is mostly overrun with weeds, and one sole paddy hosts a small cluster of corn and rice. Houses were destroyed, or neglected, and public facilities like roads have been torn apart and have disappeared into the bush. There are largely no seeds to be had, not to mention money to buy them, so people wait on a handful of NGOs to pass some out. There is no economy, no regular source of gasoline or rice or batteries.
So over this lies an unspoken tension. Despite the Taylor business, it wasn’t one man alone who tore this place apart. Bong County, along with Lofa just north of us, was Taylor central. There is a lot of sympathy for the man here. Those that speak out say that they feel sorry for the man. Or, refusing to believe what happened on the other side of the country, they look at the buildings that were only burned by the LURD and ask why Taylor is the only one on trial. But mostly, the old men in the village will lament, “it doesn’t change my troubles” to have him put in jail.
Ex-combatants get favorable status from NGOs and the government in employment. So, of the 5% of the population that does have a job, 90% go out to ex-combatants. The war was one that we in the west aren’t used to. There was no politics involved, just control. So, warlords (from all sides) get elected in the new government. I’ve had a couple people remark that, in retrospect, they wish they had become combatants. Then they’d get training and food and work.
This leaves the interesting current to the Christian faith that I see here. It does not reflect what I’d label optimism, or even hope. Tired old men have seen the worst in life; don't trust their neighbors, but beam with pride at the sight of an American officer. It’s easy to get cynical when people tell you that ex-combatants from both sides have just forgiven each other, and now work and play side by side. Over what petty jealousies have I held a grudge back home? But mostly, they never hated each other to begin with, but just got caught up in this desperate grab for anything more than what they had. We’ve forgiven each other. But does forgiveness necessitate forgetting?
So the colorful names have changed, but the color remains. Black Diamond, Nasty Duke and Dragon Master have receded. General Cobra and General Peanut Butter have been elected to congress. Ex-combatants linger, and people’s faith changes. So you see a man on the side of the road, without a shirt on his back, and covered in sweat, hauling a hundred pound sack of grain for fifty cents profit. Ask him how he is, and he’ll reply, “Thank the Lord.”
Here is some older painting on a house that has survived. Note the graffitti from during the war:
The kids with their new soccer ball:
Sunday, April 16, 2006
UN Corruption, Part II
The worst part of the corruption in the UN isn't that it just wastes money on spectacularly expensive projects. It is that the corruption exists in every department, at every level and in every sector of the UN, at least here in UNMIL. It exists in headquarters, in almost every military unit, and it exists on my team.
Just over one month ago, I was in Monrovia, and walked from UNHQ to our apartment. Less than two blocks from the headquarters, on Tubman Boulevard, the primary road through town, I noticed several Nigerian soldiers on the sidewalk receiving money from a local businessman. The back of the UN truck was filled with a stack of over a hundred loaves of bread from the UN bakery. These soldiers were openly selling the food, and did not even take note as an American officer, in uniform, walked by, gawking.
The sale of United Nations food here is commonplace. Most of the street side stands are, coincidently enough, stocked with the exact same brand names of food as we're served in the mess. The fact that it is sold to the locals is widely rumored, although the bread incident is the only one I have personally observed. To my local contingent, the UN provides weekly shipments of fresh fruit. But in three months, I have been served exactly one apple, and only see grapes when some General is visiting town.
Amazing enough, you can see these fruits on sale at the local markets, despite the fact that they arent grown in Liberia. Many other contingents are worse, with troops seeing very little of the food that is provided by the UN.
I have personally seen local taxis fueling at the UN only gas station, and there is widespread reselling of UN gasoline at roadside stands. In the logistics section, HQ briefly launched an investigation into the amazing amount of lost diesel fuel, only to have the investigation quietly die after a week or so. One of the other American military observers tells me that he has personally seen soldiers at routine checkpoints taking cash from local drivers.
In my own team, one month before I arrived, there was a vehicle accident from drunk driving that was unreported. DUI is common, and in the recent weeks several locals were injured from a serious hit and run incident in Monrovia.
The UN has no real threat of enforcement of its own ranks except repatriation. Even that is no real threat, as most commanders, nervous to protect their own UN paychecks, sweep most incidents under the rug, not wanting to bring attention to themselves or their units. The incidents that to get investigated take months to complete, by which time the offending member has collected thousands of more dollars, and is probably already on his way home. Outside of the human rights abuse cases (which I'll go over in a future post), there are no IG channels to report incidents to except your own commanders. No performance reports from the UN will follow a person home, and very few countries will prosecute crimes that their soldiers and citizens commit while on a mission. There is simply no means for enforcement, and this fact is well known to everyone here.
Saturday, April 15, 2006
UN Corruption, Part I
The daily corruption in the United Nations is wasting tens of thousands of dollars on building a private golf course for the Bangladeshi generals, while thousands of Liberians continue to lack sufficient food to survive.
Liberia is a country with a per capita GNP of around $800 per year. The country has been devastated by fourteen years of civil war, resulting in over two million people being displaced to IDP and refugee camps in the region. The population is still returning home, and is attempting to restart basic, subsistence agriculture.
The problems in the country are two-fold. One, the basic resources needed for farming have been lost, while two, the transportation infrastructure has been mostly devastated, by the war and the annual torrential rains that wash out roads. Even if farmers can produce basic cash crops, they lack the ability to bring them to market and earn reasonable prices.
The resources needed are largely simple. The land which was last farmed in 2000 has become overgrown, and most farmers will spend months attempting to rehabilitate them, clearing bush, tilling soil, rebuilding irrigation canals and planting crops. All done by hand. Meanwhile, there are no trained blacksmiths in the towns to make the axes and shovels necessary; and no iron to make the tools from, either. Most markets do not have rice seed available, and much of what is sold, are bad seeds to begin with. But the lack of initial investment capability of the population means that the most farmers can't purchase the few seeds that are available.
In the meantime, most locals are relying on basic gathering techniques, on the remnants of the pre-war tree farms to build up the necessary cash to finance their living. In Liberia, they fall back onto two cash crops that are not victim of the annual growing cycle: rubber and palm oil. Palm oil will earn a local less than one dollar (US) for a five gallon jug. These 40 lbs jugs have to be hand carried to market, generally around two to three hours walk from their farm. Rubber is somewhat more lucrative, with a going price of around $300-700 per ton, but this also has to be man-transported to one of the many rubber purchasing stations, relegating families to harvesting only a couple dozen pounds per week.
But because of the transportation station, these prices are dramatically below normal market value. Half of the roads depicted on the maps have simply disappeared. Some have popped up elsewhere, but even those are plagued by disappearing bridges. The ability to bring the basic cash crops out of the towns, and to bring in much needed supplies, such as raw iron, tools or tin sheets for roofs. On one patrol recently, I was humiliated by constant stream of local people, around 50 in all, walking five miles to a village I had just visited, each of them carrying one 4x6 sheet of tin roof. I could have put the entire load on my nearly empty vehicle, but instead, eight year old kids are pressed into hard labor to do the portage.
The UN has the capability to improve on this situation. In country are a dozen military Engineering Companies, attached as a part of each sector's peacekeeping Battalion. These assets can and should be used to recondition roads, build proper water drainage and repair and strengthen bridges in our AOR. We have one Company of Bangladeshi engineering troops about a half click from my house. With rainy season barely one month away, it is important that as much work as possible get done before the beginning of May as possible. But, here in Bong County, the Sector 3 commander, a Bangladeshi one-star General, has reallocated those assets to building himself a golf course. Every day for the past month, on my way to the office, I've driven past two or three bulldozers sitting in the middle of a field, building up a tee box and conditioning a fairway.
This is not just negligence, but outright corruption. Tens of thousands of dollars of assets are being redirected away from the task of rebuilding Liberia, and assisting with the security and humanitarian situation in this country. Never mind the fact that the soil is to clayey, and the large clumps of soil make an inadequate surface for a flat fairway. Mere yards away from where the first hole will be situated, dozens of locals line up to beg for rice that is literally the table scraps from the peacekeeper's meals.
The transportation situation in this country is desperate. Much of the Liberia is inaccessible by road. And, in general, no NGOs or peacekeepers will go where they can't drive. There are thousands of Liberians who will suffer through one more rainy season, miss one year's worth of harvest, and be unable to get access to medical care because one General wants to play golf. This situation needs to stop immediately, with UN assets directed back to the mission of UNMIL, rebuilding Liberia.
Sunday, April 09, 2006
Moses Gets Some New Sunglasses
So, last week, Moses bought himself a new pair of sunglasses. Immensely proud of them, he washes his uniform, and comes to work with his nicely pressed uniform, shirt tucked in, strutting around our front yard with his posture ramrod straight. I get home, and ask him why he's all dressed up today, and he tries to claim "no reason." Noting the key piece of new wardrobe, I start teasing him about wanting to show of his new sunglasses, and he bashfully tries to deflect the answer as a couple of the other guards start rolling on the ground in laughter. He was straight of central casting for CHIPS.
As the area is rebuilding, I'm noticing more and more murals and painting on the houses. Here is a standard example. Note the depiction of the three key phases of Christ's Life, the Birth of Jesus, the Cruxifiction, and the Disco Phase.
Saturday, April 08, 2006
International Women's Day
The Town of Garr
Wednesday, April 05, 2006
Hello all, I'm on my way down to Tubmanburg today and will be spending two days doing some long patrols with my main man Brian down there, and back to Gbarnga on Saturday. I've been okay, but was laid up for a day on Monday because of some bad food, but I'm back in prime shape and ready to roll. Outside of that, our well has been running dry lately, and my teammates are too cheap to spend the $50 bucks to get it dug deeper, so I've been on a minimal shower schedule as well. Now, if only the Bangladeshis would turn our power back on at night, that'd be nice too. I have a few posts in the works that should be up soon, and hopefully sometime before Saturday I should have a whole slew of photos up too.