By Noel Quidu

Aug 12 - 30th Oct 2006

Text by Tom Masland / Newsweek

The latest cycle of violence was vicious even by West African standards. By

July 2003, rebels had all but surrounded the Liberian capital, Monrovia. Under

intense diplomatic pressure to avert a bloodbath, President Charles Taylor

said he was ready to leave the country for exile in Nigeria. It seemed that

his catastrophic six-year tenure would end quietly. But Taylor insisted on

staying until Nigerian troops arrived to monitor a ceasefire. Week after

week, delays pushed back the deployment date. Emboldened by a fresh arms

shipment from a rival neighbor, Guine, the rebels made a grab for the

city’s commercial heart, the port. Quickly overrunning government defenses,

they laid siege to the city. Only three bridges separated them from a

derelict capital swollen by refugees to 1.5 million people—more than twice

its normal size. The result was three weeks of horror—a true descent into

the Heart of Darkness—as supplies of food and clean water vanished and the

rebels fired mortar rounds indiscriminately on a helpless population,

killing hundreds.

July 21 2003. may have been the low point. Rebel mortar barrages hit residential

neighbourhoods and two U.S. embassy compounds filled with refugees. Nearly

100 people died. Distraught survivors piled 18 bodies in front of the main

gate of the U.S. Embassy and cried out for a U.S. military intervention to

stop the slaughter. The next morning, Red Cross workers took the bodies away

for unceremonious burial on a nearby beach. Fighting between government

loyalists and rebel forces was especially intense at the so-called Old

Bridge, where fighters engaged across a narrow lagoon with machine guns and

rocket propelled grenades. Fired up on marijuana and cocaine, the young

pro-government militiamen were forced into combat at gunpoint. Photographer

Noel Quidu and I saw one of them executed.

The president was unrepentant. When we met with him a few days later, he

portrayed himself as the victim of conspiracies. In fact, few failed leaders

have been so deeply implicated in the suffering of a people. Taylor came to

power with Libyan backing after a notably brutal insurgency that made heavy

use of drug-addled child soldiers. He bullied his way to election in 1997,

threatening to go back to the bush if he lost. In office, he squeezed his

country and the hinterlands of neighboring Sierra Leone for huge personal

gain, while failing to bring people even the most basic government

services—electrical power and running water. His henchmen were experts in

torture, using everything from electricity to colonies of red ants. They

maintained two torture centers on the grounds of the presidency itself;

other victims died horribly just behind Taylor’s residence outside the city,

called White Flower. Taylor’s obsession with purity—he usually appeared in

spotless white suits—bespoke a tarnished soul. His lies, direct and natural,

came from long experience in dissembling. “We have no torture chambers here”

he insisted in an interview. In fact, he made the whole country a Calvary

for his people. On Aug. 11 2003, he finally gave up the game and flew off to

exile. In 2004, a growing U.N. peacekeeping force will approach 15,000

troops—the largest such deployment in the world. Fresh elections are planned

for 2005. But it’s anybody’s guess when Liberia will fully recover from

a vampire regime.