A lot of the scars on Monrovia have healed. Nearly a decade has passed since the end of the war. The city remains dotted by buildings reduced to hollowed-out shells. But smaller cuts such as bullet holes and wartime graffiti are no longer such common sights.
As a journalist new to Liberia, I’m trying get away from painting every event and issue I cover against a backdrop of civil war. I imagine Liberians must be sick of it; seeing every article about their country interrupted about a third of the way down by an editorially-obligatory paragraph explaining that civil wars engulfed the country from 1989 to 2003. But a lot of the literature on Liberia is of course shockingly-violent. And so on the flight over, reading up on the country to which I was moving, my head was filled with a some of the worst accounts of urban warfare I’ve ever come across. Consequently, walking around Monrovia, those stories are sometimes all I see.
Taller buildings are high ground. Bridges are choke points. Just a few blocks from where I’m staying, on Camp Johnson Road, Taylor’s men chased a rival warlord to the U.S. embassy in a massacre that killed dozens. A friend of mine lives on 12th Street; several times, the fighting there tortured residents for months on end. It’s down Randall Street where a bunch of former child soldiers still hang out. And so on. It’s all just part of the city.
On the main road running the length of Monrovia’s central Sinkor district is St Peter’s Lutheran Church. I walk by it every day. Everybody who lives or works in Sinkor does.
From Jonny Steinberg’s Little Liberia: An African Odyssey in New York City:
The church Jacob walked into that morning was chaotic. In the histories of Liberia’s civil wars that have subsequently been written, it is said that more than 2,000 people had taken shelter there by the last week of July 1990, the time Jacob arrived. But that is surely a rough guess; there was no way of counting. Many of those who had taken refuge were Gio or Mano, for Doe’s troops were killing their kin at will. But there were many others besides. Ordinary Monrovians, too afraid to take to the streets, or, indeed, to stay in their homes, aware that open warfare would erupt in the heart of the city the moment the rebels arrived, were using the church as a shelter from which to see out the fighting.
Jacob walked through the church looking for members of his family, and found none. This pleased him. Three months earlier, on the day he and Ignatius had moved into Peter’s quarters at the military compound, the Massaquoi brothers had come to an agreement.
‘We decided that whenever there was a situation of mortal danger,’ Jacob tells me, ‘we would split up and care for ourselves. Because if we were together, the chances of all of us dying were too great. It was a question of family preservation.
‘So, with half an eye, I looked for Peter and Ignatius and other family members. And when I didn’t see them, I thought: good; I will see them when I see them.’
The church was not equipped to house so many people. There was nowhere to defecate, and little to eat. What rudimentary organization that did exist was devoted to the task of separating the genders: men in one large room, women and children in another. People were reasonably respectful of one another but each was on his own. Keeping themselves and their children healthy and nourished took up much of the refugees’ time.
‘A supermarket on Tubman Boulevard not far from the church was looted,’ Jacob recalls. ‘There was stuff strewn all over the street. It was there for the taking. Once or twice, I was among the people who went out to pick up some of the food.’
‘On 29 July Charles Taylor announced on the radio that he was the President of all of Liberia. The AFL soldiers were panicking. They thought that an invasion of Monrovia was imminent. They started pointing fingers at the church and saying that as a place of Gio refuge it was too dangerous. There were rumours. It was said that the army was going to come into the church.’
The Doe government had established a curfew in Monrovia at that time. At six o’clock each evening, Tubman Boulevard emptied. That night, the refugees locked the gates of the church behind them and put extra people on guard duty to sound the alarm should anyone try to enter. By nightfall, all 2,000 or so of them had bedded down.
‘At about nine that night,’ Jacob tells me, ‘there was commotion at the gate. Then I heard guns go off. Ba! Ba! Ba! Everyone scrambled. Everyone was trying to get out of the church. We were like sheep in a pen.’
‘I found my way out. It wasn’t easy to choose where to run to; the gunshots sounded like they were coming from everywhere. I ran onto an embankment with another guy. We had hung around together the last couple of days. We had spoken. We were aiming to scale the top of the embankment and escape. Next thing I knew, blood was splashed all over my body. I did not know whether the blood was his or mine. I fell to the group and lay there. I thought I might be dead. I wasn’t sure. I was trying to figure it out.
What happened that night is now remembered with capital letters. – the St Peter’s Lutheran Church Massacre – and there surely isn’t a Liberian who doesn’t know of it. Just as it can only be guessed how many living souls bedded down behind the church’s locked gates that night, so the question of how many died can only be estimated. The figure that has been settled upon is ‘more than 600’. For several hours that night, the church became a slaughterhouse.
I previously mentioned high ground. The highest in Monrovia is the Ducor Palace Hotel.
Ducor —once a five-star resort— was abandoned just before the war. During the conflict, it would have been crucial to maintaining a hold on downtown Monrovia. After the final ceasefire was signed in 2003, squatters moved in and remained there until forced evictions in 2010. Today, the roof makes for a nice lookout where expats collect for a glass of wine and a sunset.
Monrovia is a surreal place. Bursting with life. But when the noise stops, there’s still pain here. There are spots like Ducor all over the city and throughout the country, hidden in plain sight.
More photos at my Flickr stream.Social tagging: conflict > ducor > liberia > monrovia > reconstruction > St Peter’s Lutheran Church > Steinberg > war