This was not the Liberia that John Butler left in his youth, a 13-year-old fleeing with his parents and three siblings. Back then, a coup had turned the west African nation toward turmoil, toward more than two decades of ethnic tension, repression, civil war and dictatorship that had left the country battled-scarred but seeking to recover over the past nine years.
That was the Liberia that he came back to in March, a 44-year-old now from Ellicott City, returning to his homeland for only the second time since leaving.
Butler, an assistant fire chief for Howard County's Department of Fire and Rescue Services, was there to help rebuild the country's fire department.
"Their ability to truly stop a fire and make a save are limited," Butler said recently from his office in Columbia. "Most of the fires in Liberia are large or even fatal. They have only one working fire truck in the entire country, a country the size of Ohio. The capital of Monrovia has a population of 1.5 million.
"I don't have a lot of money," he said. "But I have skill sets, and thought that I could help."
Butler wasn't alone. From March 15-26, he traveled alongside others with the Fire Rescue Alliance, a nonprofit organization founded by Ken Prillaman, fire chief in Brooklyn Park, Minn. The group is dedicated to helping firefighters in Liberia.
By coincidence, both Prillaman and Butler's mother had been standing in an airport in Atlanta in January, waiting for a flight to Liberia. She heard Prillaman talking about fire departments and the country, approached the man and told him about her son. Prillaman called Butler two days later.
"When I heard about this project," Butler said, "it was a perfect fit."
Others agreed. "John is going to be very instrumental, not only from a technical perspective, but also a cultural one," Prillaman said. "Even though he's been away from Liberia for several years, he's able to transcend the cultural differences."
Liberia to Columbia
The Butlers left Liberia in 1980, when a coup led by Samuel Doe brought about the assassination of President William Tolbert and toppled his government. Tolbert was a descendant of Americo-Liberians, a group of African-Americans who had emigrated from the United States and come to the fledgling country. The new regime persecuted Americo-Liberians. It was no longer safe for people like their family.
"We had to pack up and move along," Butler said. "That Liberia was not our Liberia any longer."
They moved to Oakland Mills.
"There were some similarities with the Liberia I had left and Howard County," Butler said. "It was still romantic to be young and growing up here. It still felt safe. I still felt like an equal, and we didn't move to a part of America that was struggling with its own social issues. We moved to a welcoming place in Howard County that accepted us as immigrants."
The family did return to Liberia in 1986 to visit relatives. The country's civil war would break out a few years later. Butler never went back after that. He and his two brothers had gone off to college, dropped out, went into the Marines, fought in the Persian Gulf War and in Panama, and settled down into adulthood, marrying, having children and finding careers. Their other relatives had come to America, anyway.
"Liberia became a place that you were from — period," he said. "There was nothing calling me back."
It had also been 26 years away from Liberia for John Butler's brother George, an Ellicott City resident and a senior trooper with the Maryland State Police's Waterloo barracks who traveled with the group of 15 people.
"I had spent a lot of time in the Marines, and I had seen places that are coming out of war," John Butler said. "I've seen buildings pockmarked with bullet holes. Those things are new and foreign to me in Monrovia, where I was.
"The sounds, the sights, the smells, they were all reminiscent. You'd have thought I just left yesterday. The thickness of the air, the things I heard, the accents of the people talking — everything came back spontaneously."
'A long way to go'
In Liberia, the group assumed an assessment role, looking to learn more about just what condition the country's fire department is in, doing some training with the firefighters, and meeting with the country's leadership to urge them to help.
"The country is resurrecting from 14 years of civil war that ended in 2003. In the last nine years they've come out of all that horror, and they've got a long way to go," John Butler said. "They've also come a long way.
"There are certain things you need for a sustainable society: food, water, security, stability, economic development. And another thing is fire protection."
The Liberian firefighters themselves are a paid crew, very similar in temperament and personalities to firefighters in the United States, Butler said. What they lack, however, is equipment, things American crews take for granted such as helmets, gloves, books and breathing apparatuses.
"These guys are still fighting fire in street clothes," Butler said. The group went along on one fire call, a big blaze being battled with just one hose line. As the firefighters worked, people ran in and out of the building, looting it.
"What they called a working fire engine would have been condemned and in junkyards over here years ago," he said.
There are fire hydrants, but no water coming from them. If the one working fire tanker cannot get to a blaze, then people use buckets or garden hoses or the building simply burns down. Sometimes the fires just burn themselves out, Butler said.
All this in a country with sporadic electricity, where more people use candles and more fires happen because of that.
"I didn't expect it to be that bad," Butler said. "They're very strong with their policies. They have a good organization. The government needs to recognize them and subsidize them. It's not that it's intentionally not giving them anything. There's a laundry list this high of things you need to fix or recreate or reconstruct after a war."
The group has collected donations of used but still usable equipment and gear from departments around the country, filling a 40-foot container that is still sitting in this country, awaiting the money, or perhaps an in-kind donation, that will ship it to Liberia.
"One man's three-year-old pair of boots is another man's brand-new pair of boots," Butler said.
Fire Rescue Alliance has committed to five to eight years of helping to rebuild Liberia's fire department, with different group members traveling to the country two to three times a year. Butler hopes to return later this year with his wife, Rhonda, and their youngest daughter, a trip he had planned before becoming involved with the group's efforts.
Building a school
While John Butler worked on Liberia's fire needs in March, George Butler joined a group helping to build a schoolhouse in a village at least two hours outside of the capital.
"I could tell from the very beginning that we had sparked something in both of them," Prillaman said. "Both of them appeared to be looking for a way to give something back but just weren't sure how to do that. I think, in some ways, we gave them that way."
George recalled the villagers asking the group to join them for lunch, and him watching as many of the children went hungry; the custom there was for guests to eat first, the elders next. They are followed, in order, by the men, the women and, last, the kids.
"It was a very profound moment for me," George said. "It changed my life."
He paid for more rice for six villages and has committed to help pay for college tuition, room and board for one of the new school's teachers, a volunteer who dropped out of high school.
"A 100-pound bag of rice is $20. It makes you reflect on life here in the U.S. and how fortunate you are, but at the same time how much you do waste," George said. "It puts things in perspective.
"I've been very blessed. The United States have taken care of my family and me, but Liberia is always going to be our home."