MONROVIA, Liberia — The civil war in Liberia may be over, but the lives of its people remain in shambles. An estimated 250,000 people died during the conflict that dragged on for years, while thousands more fled the country. The Liberian citizens that remain today are living in squalor, without a sewage system or electricity, governed by corrupt warlords.
Founded in 1847, the country of Liberia was created as a homeland for a “movement back to Africa,” a place for free-born and formerly enslaved blacks in America to return to their continent. In fact, the Liberian constitution was drafted in Washington, and the capital city Monrovia was named after President Monroe.
The West African nation was relatively calm until the 1980s, when President William Tolbert was overthrown in a coup d’etat following riots over food prices. The leader of the revolution, sergeant Samuel Doe was elected president in 1985, but he did not retain power for long.
Arbitrary rule and economic collapse served as a catalyst for civil war. Charles Taylor led the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) to a victorious takeover, seizing the capital in 1990. Doe was executed shortly after.
A peace agreement was signed in 1995 and Charles Taylor was elected president. However, anti-government fighting broke out not long after inciting yet another civil war that lasted until 2003. The country’s current political system remains fragile and weak as areas are run predominately by tribal warlords rather than by local government.
Canadian journalist Shane Smith and his crew traveled to Liberia to interview warlords and ex-military generals, witnessing the devastation of the country firsthand. In Liberian slums, AIDS, malaria and diseases run rampant. The majority of towns do not have a sewage system—without a toilet, people relieve themselves on the beach, contributing to the spread of bacteria and disease.
Not only are the conditions horrific, but the desperate economy, with 80% unemployment, has forced people into taking desperate measures to survive. A large percent of the population have eaten human flesh. Women often have to sell themselves in brothels in order to feed their families. A shocking 70% of women in Liberia have been raped.
Smith and his crew met with several warlords, but spent the most time with General Butt Naked—infamous for fighting completely naked in the war apart from shoes and a gun. This was a ritual that was required of every member of his army and was implemented as the general believed once stripped down, no bullet could affect his body or his men’s bodies.
Liberian generals go by names that are meant to incite fear in enemies. Others include General Mosquito (because mosquitoes bring malaria), General Rambo, and General Bin Laden.
General Butt Naked was enthusiastic about speaking with Smith, emphasizing that he wanted to spread the word about the conditions in his country. He wanted to the world to know about the suffering of the people, accusing the United Nations of not doing enough to help.
On the other hand, General Butt Naked, who now prefers to be called by his given name, Joshua Milton Blahyl, spoke openly about his atrocious war crimes. He noted casually that before battle, his army would sacrifice an innocent child and then proceed to drink the blood to prepare for the gruesome fight ahead.
Blahyl slaughtered countless people in the war, and yet his war crime charges were recently dropped. Blahyl claims that this occurred because he is a reformed man. Taking Smith to his church, where he is a preacher, Blahyl gave a sermon on forgiveness and mercy despite the horrors of one’s past. He also helps rehabilitate children who are ex-child soldiers, many of which served under him. While some Liberians worship Blahyl for his complete transformation, others are not convinced. While talking to Smith, Blahyl explained how someone had attempted to assassinate him just the day before.
Smith summed up his experience in Liberia, describing the country as a “post-apocalyptic Armageddon with child soldiers on heroin, cross-dressing cannibals, and systematic rape—total hell on earth.”
Liberia has recently been in the news, because Charles Taylor is currently on trial for war crimes at The Hague. The UN maintains approximately 15,000 soldiers in Liberia today. The country is one of the organization’s most expensive peacekeeping operations.
The most troubling part of Liberia’s situation is that the UN is scheduled to leave next year. While all the footage of Smith’s documentary is terrifying—perhaps the most disturbing part of all was when Blahyl looked Smith in the eye and stated that with all of the guns in Liberia, it would take a rebel group no longer than 2-3 hours to completely take over the country.
The majority of the population is already living in deplorable conditions; it is almost impossible to imagine it could get worse. But the reality is that it just might–without the UN’s presence, the country could easily relapse into complete chaos. The conditions in Liberia just may go from atrocious to unspeakable if something is not done.
– Caroline Logan