MONROVIA, Liberia -- When times were good, a crowd always gathered for the incoming flights at Payne airport, a concrete building with a corrugated metal roof. The economy had long ago collapsed, but you might earn a dollar carrying the bag of someone going to Monrovia, the capital, a city without water or electricity or much hope for lasting peace.
The good times, even as measured by the terribly low standards of West Africa, ended last week. A different crowd came to Payne, named for a freed 19th-century American slave who became one of Liberia's presidents. It was looted and burned. It had replaced another airport, pillaged years ago by another mob.
Liberia, the closest thing the United States ever had to a colony in Africa, has resumed warring with itself.
War here is a temper-driven, destructive brawl rather than a battlefield clash between grand armies. There are warlords, not generals. Instead of orderly battalions, there are gangs. An attempt by five warlords to dismiss a sixth from a makeshift government re-ignited the violence, and the capital seemed ever since to be controlled by young men with loyalty only to mayhem.
The battlegrounds were city streets and the few buildings that have not already been ruined during a 6-year-old civil war that has killed 150,000 people and earned the country a reputation as a locus for African madness.
Liberia has a past tightly linked to the United States and a present that bodes poorly for West Africa's future. The country ,, that was established in the 19th century by freed American slaves is now less a nation than a ruined countryside fought over by militia chiefs without ideology other than personal animosity and greed.
It was for a time an American stepchild. With the idea of "ridding" itself of blacks, Maryland promoted the country's creation. In modern times, Baltimore sent school supplies, then garbage trucks. The trucks were last seen being commandeered by soldiers. New York sent surplus uniforms for Monrovia's police, dressed to this day in a dark New York blue that is stifling in tropical heat.
No country in West Africa received more U.S. aid dollars until the end of the 1980s. For Washington, Liberia was an important electronic listening post, a broadcast point for the Voice of America, and an airstrip for refueling and missions through- out the continent and the Middle East. It was created by Americans and, in ways good and bad, built in America's image.
Now, no country in the region better shows the destructiveness of greed for power and for minerals and rubber. Liberia's main exports have become political instability and warfare.
Its war has been infamous for its child soldiers, strikingly personal violence and unusual savagery.
"These people would kill you because of the way you talked," said Theophilus Sonpon, a former deputy minister of education living in an apartment without water on a rubbish-strewn street. "They thought that if they killed you, then they got your property. Sometimes they would write their names on the walls of the houses of people they had killed.
"That's what is behind all this killing, the greed for power and wealth. People don't want to work hard for things; they want to get things that way, with the gun."
There have been extreme cruelties, including cannibalism. "They would split the bone right here," said Joseph Ghainhea, a hospital worker in the town of Gbarnga. He drew with his hand a line down the center of his chest.
"Then they would take out the heart, boil it and eat it. That happened quite a lot," he said. "Soldiers from all the factions did that."
He tells of a half-dissected body of a woman, parts of it cooked and the rest left on a business street of Gbarnga, a one-time sister city of Baltimore. "They would give away the meat to the people who passed by."
Some of the soldiers are not yet in their teens, recruited because their young minds are easy to control and not yet equipped with a sense of remorse. For them, the warlords become father figures, cult leaders for whom they were prepared to die.
"They were innocent," said Allen Lincoln, who counsels former child soldiers. "They didn't know what it means to kill somebody."
"If they wanted something with a gun, they could get it," he said. "It was exciting for them to see elderly people begging for mercy from a child."
One of those soldiers took as his name "Senegalese," perhaps because soldiers from Senegal are considered among Africa's best. He was 16, he said, and began fighting at the age of 10. He told his story in a slum of Monrovia as matter-of-factly as if his was an account of a passage through the early grades of school.
When he was 10, he visited a sister, he said. Her boyfriend was fighting for one of the factions. At the boyfriend's suggestion, Senegalese also joined. He was shot through the leg in a battle near Gbarnga. While he was recuperating, he was recruited by members of a second faction. He fought for them, too.
He described the tactics of assaulting a position and taking a village with the same sense of competence and pride that one of his contemporaries might use to tell of a successful football play that won a high school game.
"After we had secured the position, then we could start looting," he said. Since the soldiers received no pay, looting was their only reward.
"You can always tell the former child soldiers," said Anthony Hubbard, program director at the Children's Assistance Program, an organization in Liberia trying to deal with the multitude of orphaned, displaced and abandoned children. "If you're sitting here and tell them to do something they don't like, they'll just get up and give you a slap. They are very aggressive."
Husbands were murdered, wives given the choice of being raped or having to watch the murder of their children. "We tell them that it is not their fault that they were raped, that they did not do anything wrong," said Anna Alamadine, a counselor in a refugee camp. "We tell them they are heroes for saving their children's lives."
Abandoned homes, villages
The human wreckage mirrors the enormous physical destruction.
By the latest outbreak of violence, refugees from the countryside had swelled Monrovia's population to 1 million, up from 400,000 in 1989. They occupy buildings stripped of windows, doors, toilets, lights and wiring. In the countryside, most of the population has abandoned its homes and villages to armed bands and moved to the mud huts of refugee camps.
The hydroelectric dam that was the prime source of electricity might as well have never been built. Workers there years ago fled the fighting. With the dam's gates untended, water flowed ++ over and around the dam, eroding concrete and earth. It has become a long, useless concrete pier, water rushing around it. The power lines are gone, too.
"And even if you get all that fixed," said an aid official, "and everyone hooked back up to the power grid -- which could cost tens, maybe hundreds, of millions of dollars -- you wouldn't have any revenue coming in because the meters on the houses are all broken."
The jungle has reclaimed most of the 1,350 miles of paved roads. The rail line to rich deposits of iron ore no longer has ties -- looted for firewood. A jungle of lushness is overtaking abandoned hamlets. In the acre after acre of rubber trees, most grow untended.
Another checkpoint appears every few miles. The soldiers there have unpredictable loyalties. The drill is always the same: Questions from young men, some armed, some not, none in uniform. Pleas for rides up the road. Requests for money. With no functioning economy, the young men practice the art of extortion. "Stationery" is a persistent request -- paper of any sort, for rolling marijuana cigarettes.
Seeds of self-destruction
The seeds of Liberia's self-destruction might have been planted at its founding in 1822, when 57 freed American slaves landed at what now is Monrovia.
They were sent by the American Colonization Society, a group whose supporters included Francis Scott Key, other prominent Marylanders and President James Monroe (thus the name, "Monrovia"). Indeed, no state was more enthusiastic than Maryland about "exporting" former slaves.
Leaders of the colonization society were motivated by both altruism and cynicism. They hoped that the former slaves would find a better life on the continent from which they were taken, but also that they might lead an exodus that would rid the United States of all blacks.
Over the decades, 16,400 former slaves made the voyage. They called themselves Americo-Liberians, and they showed they had learned from their masters all too well, as they began to regard Liberia as their plantation.
They were certain that they had brought a higher form of civilization than the one they found. They also assumed that the 16 native tribes were there to be exploited.
Their history is on display in the Executive Mansion that was built in Monrovia during the 1960s, when Americo-Liberians invested more in impressive edifices than in roads, electricity and education. Dominating one room of the mansion is a mural depicting 19th-century life.
A brass band in the mural parades down a dirt street. Behind the band is an impressive brick mansion with numerous verandas -- in the style of the American South -- and standing by the house are people in top hats and sashes.
They are the Americo-Liberians, who favored dress and speech of great formality, a virtual caricature of the American style they wanted to emulate.
Along that dirt street in the mural are people in ragged clothes -- the natives. They are shown laughing and dancing to the band's music. They are observing the display of "civilization" offered by the hard-working, serious, Westernized Americo-Liberians.
William Tubman, who was president from 1945 until his death in 1971, began to address the inequalities. He extended education and health services to areas that were then officially called "the hinterlands," home to the people Americo-Liberians called aborigines.
His policies were continued by his successor, William Tolbert. But the Americo-Liberians -- fewer than 50,000 people in a population of 2.5 million -- dominated the economy and politics. The education that the indigenous tribes received helped them understand what a raw deal they were getting.
Majority takes control
Samuel K. Doe, a high school dropout, forcibly ended the era of top hats and sashes. Master Sergeant Doe and a few fellow soldiers killed Tolbert in his bed and fatally shot a dozen of his ministers in a drunken, bloody spectacle on Monrovia's beach.
Most Americo-Liberians fled the country. The majority was finally in control.
But Doe merely replaced one elite with another, packing the government and the military with the members of his minority Krahn tribe. Liberia in modern times had been largely untouched tribal conflict, and Doe was creating problems where there had been none.
At the end of 1989, Charles Taylor, a member of the Gio tribe and a former Cabinet minister under Doe, led a small group of fighters across the border from the Ivory Coast. Within a few months, Mr. Taylor had looted and terrorized much of the countryside and reached the capital. With the government's power broken, other challengers appeared, too.
One of them captured Doe in 1990, and rebel soldiers made a video of his being tortured to death.
Then as now, Liberia was left without a government. Foreshadowing last week's dispatch of ships and planes, U.S. Navy ships carrying 2,500 Marines sailed within sight of the coast. Many Liberians assumed the Marines were about to restore order.
Instead, they evacuated most of the Americans. Then the ships sailed away.
Thus began Liberia's age of chaos, now in its seventh year.
A half-dozen warlords with a few hundred troops each brutally took possession of one or another part of the country, and each claimed political legitimacy. Over the years, Mr. Taylor has battled at least five challengers, alliances always shifting, and religion, tribal loyalties and Liberia's diamonds all becoming factors.
During the fighting, the only internationally recognized authorities were the troops called ECOMOG, for the six nations of Economic Community of West Africa. ECOMOG soldiers landed on the beach in 1990, took Monrovia and eventually extended their territory about 30 miles inland and 100 miles east along the coast, creating a haven that is packed with refugees.
In August 1995, the West African force brokered a peace accord; endured until last week, and is the agreement that negotiators are frantically trying to restore. It gave the warlords political power over what was left of the state in return for a promise of peace, disarmament and an election.
Mr. Taylor, who began the war, has shared power with five fellow warlords in a Council of State. All of them occupy offices in the old Executive Mansion, scarred by gunfire and looters. Though their fighters battled each other for years, the warlords occupy offices a few doors apart.
There was reason to wonder if they were motivated to want a true peace. For now, all six live in fine houses and drive through the capital in impressive convoys. All six are treated with respect by the diplomatic community. After an election, only the winner will have those privileges.
The fighting last week began after the Council of State challenged one of its members, Gen. Roosevelt Johnson. His former partners charged him with murder and demanded his surrender. His militia went on a rampage instead.
Mr. Taylor remains the country's most powerful figure and is determined to run for president. However unlikely they seem, elections are still scheduled for August. Some diplomats doubt Mr. Taylor has enough support to win a truly free vote, but most agree that elections are unlikely to take place without his OK.
One of his two major advantages is the fear among Liberians that if he lost, he would begin another round of violence. His second advantage is money, since for years his soldiers looted most of the country and provided him with unmistakable wealth.
Until the latest violence, he was beginning to act more like a politician than a militia chief. He purchased a few buses for a hospital and a few thousand bags of rice for a refugee camp. His 48th birthday party in January was a major social and political event. Monrovia's newspapers were filled for days with advertisements offering birthday wishes from institutions and individuals.
In an interview with The Sun at the Executive Mansion, Mr. Taylor made no apologies for having started the war in 1989.
"I think that people like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, Paul Revere and John Hancock, when they started the American Revolution, did not think that much about the destruction of the country," he said.
"The final analysis is if the end result improves the quality of life of the people," he said. "I think we have established a framework that will be able to produce that better quality of life."
Mr. Taylor is of medium height and build, and wears a close-cropped beard. His office was a nearly bare rectangular room, his small desk in front of the flags of Liberia and the $H presidency. To one side was a satellite telephone with wires leading to a dish on the balcony.
You can see his financial power in the clothes. Most Monrovians wear secondhand T-shirts and pants that are castoffs from the United States and Europe, shipped in bales and sold at street markets. But around Mr. Taylor, people dress in stylish suits and dresses, the women exquisitely made-up and manicured.
He has resisted disarming his troops, though the ECOMOG force is supposed to take control of the countryside before elections. "At no time in history has any country disarmed totally," he said, calling himself a student of history but offering a novel version of it.
"After World War II, the Allied forces did not disarm the German soldiers or the Japanese people after Japan's surrender.
"This is a myth to think that this country needs to be totally disarmed to have an election. It's ludicrous."
Whatever the ambitions of the warlords, a weariness with war had become stronger even before the latest pillaging and violence. Even some soldiers were tired. Dula James, a Liberian who is head of the Catholic Relief Services mission, told of fighters in an area where few aid workers have visited.
When Catholic Relief workers arrived, the soldiers tried to surrender their weapons.
"They said, 'Here's my gun, give me a job,' she said. "Our staff isn't equipped to handle disarmament, so we could only tell them to wait.
"But it shows that people are ready to quit fighting if we can just give them something else to do."
An American stepchild in Africa
Key Dates in Liberia's Civil War
April 1980: Samuel K. Doe overthrows Americo-Liberians, the descendants of freed American slaves who in 1847 made Liberia the first independent African state.
Dec. 1989: Charles Taylor's rebels invade from Ivory Coast.
Aug. 1990: U.S. Marines rescue 59 Americans from U.S. Embassy in Monrovia. West African peace-keeping force arrives.
Sept. 1990: Doe killed by a rebel faction. Refugees flood neighboring states.
Aug. 1993: First of many cease-fires takes effects and quickly fails.
Aug. 1995: Warring factions agree to share power, removing the main obstacle to peace.
Sept. 1995: Charles Taylor and other principal militia leaders become members of an interim Council of State. Elections promised for summer 1996.
Jan. 1996: Rebels murder than 50 civilians at refugee camp. Cease-fire begins to crumble.
April 1996: Taylor and Council of State charge militia leader General Roosevelt Johnson in connection with January murders. Johnson resists arrest, igniting widescale fightint in Monrovia. U.S. helicopters begin evacuating Americans and other foreigners.
Pub Date: 4/15/96