By Robert V. Sesay ~ (October 22nd 2005)
"... we were taken into a makeshift jail awaiting execution. It was then that it dawned on me the risky venture that I had led the others into. For the first time, I understood why many of my friends refused to come along. To further compound my already precarious situation, my four companions turned on me in the cell. They blamed me for being weak and for not holding on to my manhood when I had pissed on myself....”
All the recent media coverage—from Iraq and war protests to Hurricane Katrina—has dug up some old and painful memories that beg the question: “What is the cost of freedom?” Like millions of people all over the globe, I too paid the high price of freedom in a part of the world where CNN and FOX rarely report on. Seeing protesters holding signs that read “Freedom isn’t Free!” forces me to remember my experience in my native Liberia and what I went through at the start of the 14-year civil war. This is the story of my trek to freedom.
My feet were seething in the tattered soccer shoes barely hanging on to my feet. It was my third day on foot and even the fibers of the shoe began disintegrating. Soon, the soles of my feet would be lacerated, a painful testament that my Addidas shoes were finally rendered ineffectual. As I looked down on the rugged, jagged path, I noticed the bloodied footprints I left as a sort of macabre souvenir of my journey. My knees wobbled with each laborious step and I couldn't remember when my last meal had been. Like many in my position, hunger is the first thing you learn to ignore. But no matter how hard I tried the physical pain I felt couldn’t be ignored. My back and neck felt like I had been bludgeoned with a sledge hammer and every bone in my scrawny body hurts. Nevertheless, I refused to entertain the thought of giving up, at least for the first three days.
I was only nineteen, but my body foretold what it would feel like in old age. The irony was that I might never get to grow old. In this part of the world, old age is a luxury. You’re either a statistic (one of every five children never reach their fifth birthday because of malnutrition), or you succumb to the plethora of diseases that can snatch away your life before your seventh birthday. Across the Atlantic, where immunizations and medicines are hard to come by, especially in time of war, the monsters that children fear aren’t hidden in their closets; these monsters are real and go by the name of malaria, diarrhea, cholera and typhoid fever. And if you’re lucky to survive these diseases, there is one last manifestation of death that comes to haunt you—WAR. War is something that many developing countries know all too well, created and perpetuated by the greedy men hiding behind the covenant of freedom.
Needless to say, I survived disease and illness, but was left to fight the last threat to my livelihood. My only hope for freedom lied in my decision to make the 250-mile journey back to the capital city of Monrovia, which I’d have to make along a countryside foraged by armed-toting teenagers eager to maim any living thing in their newly acquired fiefdom. I knew that that decision would further reduce my chances of reaching my twentieth birthday. Banditry was so pervasive in this part of the country that armed gangs would slash open a pregnant woman just to see the sex of her unborn child. Yet, for me the excursion became inevitable in the face of the mounting pillaging of lives and resources.
Like most of my countrymen caught up in a genocidal Liberian civil war, I found myself trapped in northwestern Liberia, Lofa County. I was marooned a few miles across from both the Sierra Leonean and Guinean borders during the onset of the civil war. Taking a cue from previous civil imbroglios, I had arrived in my village, Boawohun, with few belongings. Like everyone else, I have hoped to return to Monrovia within weeks, once the dust had settled. I was thrilled to return to Monrovia to start college, as well as to nurture a new job. Just months before the rebels advanced on the Monrovia, I had landed my first job as a typesetter/cub reporter with the Ministry of Information’s New Liberian newspaper. In an economy where unemployment fluctuates between fifty and sixty-five percent, I counted my blessings for the job. In fact, I’d actually received my first check, but could not cash it because of prevailing military situation. My check was the first thing on my escape list as I planned to seek sanctuary outside of the city
I arrived in Boawohun in mid-July, 1990. By the end of the month, the town population had soared from a pre-war 500 people to 2000 and counting. For the few weeks upon our arrival, serenity prevailed. Our town even engaged in series of soccer matches with neighboring towns and life seemed normal. Then on a calm August dusk, our town was ensnared into the turmoil that was ripping apart the rest of our beloved country. Rebel forces of the NPFL (National Patriotic Front of Liberia) seized our town. Despite the fact that the town had not been run by any military forces or rebel factions, they claimed to have seized it from enemy forces, hence all of its inhabitants were now under their command. We were not only captives, but everything we owned became theirs, including hundreds of livestock.
The following morning, under the command of CO (commanding officer - a title all rebel insists on) Gongar, a rough, dreadlocked kid, barely my age, draped in tattered cloth, dark goggles, an army t-shirt and an AK47 riffle slung across his chest, three of his soldiers commandeered all the men in the town courtyard.
“The commander wants to speak,” said one of his soldiers. C.O. Gongar stepped forward, engaged his rifle, and billowed several shots in the morning air. Everyone cowered to their knees.
“Ya’ll stay like that!” he ordered in a deep baritone voice. He gnawed on piece of gum slowly and yowled: “Freedom ain’t free, o!” He gave a weak smile that revealed his stained teeth.
“And let me say this: when I’m talking, no one looks at me...you hear that?” He decreed again as everyone simultaneously bowed to the red earth beneath them.
“I have two questions: one, any Mandingo or Krahn man here? And two, is there, any government worker here?”
My heart leaped. I stole a fleeting glance to the guy on my left. He turned out to be an uncle of mine. He inconspicuously crossed his lips with his index finger for my silence. He and I both knew that I was probably the only one there who would be “guilty” of both charges; One, I was of the Mandingo tribe even though I didn’t speak the dialect, and two, I was an employee of the defunct government.
“Where is the Town chief?” Gongar asked, walking in circles. “I’m asking you only once…where are the Krahns, Mandingoes and government workers?”
The new chief was a frayed man with a mammoth apprehension for guns. But to everyone’s surprise, he stepped forward in support of his town’s welfare.
“If you find a single Mandingo, Krahn and or a government worker in this town, you should kill me and my family,” he said through the aid of an interpreter.
His bravado and C.O. Gongar response gave a clairvoyance portrayer of our new masters – the C.Os. Not only did he sound believable, but he won our respect; especially me and my four siblings who would have most likely been killed because of our ethnicity.
In the days that ensured, life as we knew it was for ever altered. Everything valuable belonged to the COs and his soldiers—the women, the town’s enormous livestock and our labor became theirs. In the midst of all this, we were to refer to them only as “Freedom Fighters.” The word “rebel” was tantamount to treason, punishable by execution.
By December, five months later, the situation had escalated into a chaos, with a call by the rebel movement to form a conscript army of all able men. For many of us, that was the last straw. Within days of the “draft”, several of our friends made their ways across the two borders seeking refugee status.
Those of us who refused to leave sought sanctuary in the forest. We spent many nights in the forest evading the rebels. It was during those lonely nights in the woods that I began to consult with friends about escaping. Our aim was to take the biggest risk of all: make the trip back to Monrovia on foot. With the Amos Sawyer Interim Government of National Unity regime and the presence of the ECOMOG (Economic Community Monitoring Groups) peacekeeping forces, we had hope that Monrovia would be better.
By the end of January, about a dozen of my friends signed up for the trip. We received daily morale boosts on a short wave radio station operated on the ECOMOG base in Monrovia. Whenever we could afford batteries, we gleefully gathered around the transistor radio for news mostly from the BBC and the new ELBC.
Just days before our departure, almost everyone reneged on the trip. They had been advised by their parents not to leave. I was furious and felt betrayed. How could they not see the pain and suffering we were enduring as a justifiable reason for such a venture? I had come a long way in planning the trip and would do it alone if I had to. Fortunately, I was able to win over four others to join me.
On Monday, March 20, 1991, under the cover of darkness, we set off to do what no one had dared to do. Even in time of peace, stories of such endeavors were rare. With one of my siblings present, I hugged my mother farewell and tucked my outdated check in her hand. Bewildered, she asked nervously, “What’s this?” I told her to keep it until we were reunited. Seven years later, when she and I were back together again in Monrovia, it was the first thing she handed to me. The threadbare check evoked the difficult memories of my departure seven years earlier and reduced us both to tears.
Our first day on the road turned out to be a success. We walked for twelve hours on a path road ‘til nightfall. We slept in the hamlet of Mbaloma, a village situated at the top of a mountain. On that day, one memorable event occurred: the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) militias under the tutelage of NPFL rebels launched its incursion into Sierra Leone, making every town including ours in a fifty-mile radius an active combat zone;
Late in the evening of the third day, our luck changed. We walked into an armed gang on the outskirts of Belleh Yallah, home of the legendary maximum security prison. Not only were all four men armed, but they were also puffing marijuana and gulping down local alcoholic beverages. That spelled trouble for us.
We gestured our most timid greetings to them, with two of my companions even bowing as we spoke. Yet, I couldn’t brush off the chill that engulfed me.
“My…my…my…These guys are actually on a reconnaissance mission,” one of them remarked as he billowed smoke into the air. He stood up and stared at me. I avoided eye contact with him—it was one useful thing that C.O. Gongar had taught me.
“I told you people, never close your eyes as a soldier...you never know when your enemy
He uncapped his pistol holster, took out the weapon and spun it around his index finger as if he was a cowboy in a Western movie. I was frightened yet impressed at how he handled the weapon.
“Just tell me the truth…you’re a soldier, right?” he whispered.
“No, Sir. I swear to God, we’re only—”
“Rule number one…you don’t talk for others.”
“Everybody for themselves, God for all…,” said another soldier.
“I’m sorry, sir. We’re just—” I’d realized again that I’d just violated his decree. He rested the pistol nozzle on my collar bone and put his finger on the trigger. Panic swept through me and I wet my pants. I hadn’t even noticed the embarrassing situation until one of the soldiers pointed it out. Thankfully, my humiliation took their attention off the interrogation.
“C.O., you made him piss on himself.” The four of them repeated with the marijuana and alcohol fueling their laughter. I stood there perplexed, but happy to play the buffoon in order to save our lives. When the laughter died down though, a cursory look behind me revealed my four companions being frisked for any weapons or valuables.
They toyed with us for another hour, took us to town for what the Cowboy C.O. promised to be a thorough questioning before our execution.
“We’ll not execute any innocent person…but the manner in which you pissed out there…,” he remarked and winked to me.
We were being led into town shirtless and barefoot when Cowboy pulled me aside and whispered more accusatory questions to me.
“No, Sir. We’re—I mean—I’m going to the next village,” I told him, though my voice betrayed me.
“You’re lying…if you just tell me that you’re on your way to Monrovia, you and your men will leave here now,” he said. I began to take note of his cunning manner of persuasion, and started to believe that Cowboy was not an average C.O.
Inside the town, we were taken into a makeshift jail awaiting execution. It was then that it dawned on me the risky venture that I had led the others into. For the first time, I understood why many of my friends refused to come along. To further compound my already precarious situation, my four companions turned on me in the cell. They blamed me for being weak and for not holding on to my manhood when I had pissed on myself.
We had been arguing for two hours in the cell, when Cowboy returned. He took me out for what he called “thorough questioning.” He took me by my arms and led me to a dimly lit area behind the jail. Cowboy looked across his shoulders cursorily and whispered: “Those guys want you dead. But if you can convince me that you’re heading to Monrovia, I can work something out for you.”
I was aware of the fact that for the NPFL, going to Monrovia was not only considered as an act of betrayer, but such traitor was as good as dead. Nevertheless, my earlier skepticism about Cowboy slowly began to fade.
“Assuming I was heading to Monrovia, why would that interest you?”
“I have family in Monrovia.”
“Why can’t you go see them? You’re the C.O.,” I said.
“Look, man….” He stared across his shoulders nervously again. “I was a student at Cuttington University, but I got caught up in this mess and now I have to play along, or I would end up like everyone else.”
I took a deep breath and asked: “So, what do you want?”
“I have family in Monrovia, in New Kru Town, in fact. I just want you tell my mother that I’m alive and well,” Cowboy said. My heart pounded at the fear of entrapment.
“What if—” Cowboy interrupted me.
“She’s Alice Wreh. Just tell her you saw her son, Teah, Teah Wreh. Promise that you’ll find her,” he said and began to give me a vivid description of his neighborhood in New Kru Town.
“Why can’t you write a letter?” I asked.
“Are you stupid? A letter from here might change hands, and God knows where it might end up.”
I promised Cowboy I would find her. A Few hours later, he smuggled us into the woods and left us with only one warning: “Go as far as you can…because in the morning, they will come for you.”
With that in mind, we ran like hell, slowing down to walk only when we were tired. Our quandary was further exacerbated by the fact that there were few villages between Belleh Yallah and Bong Mines. The result was a gruesome and excruciating thirty-six hours of pain. For the first time in my life, I envied the dead.
By late afternoon on Thursday, we had depleted every ounce of our energy. And yet, whenever I heard Cowboy’s warning echoed in my mind, I denied myself the luxury of remaining inert. None of us wanted to face the consequences of being captured so we kept on running and walking and in some cases for me, even crawling. We refused to stand still.
As we continued hiking, I lagged behind my companions, weary and drained. They sat on the side of the path on the steep hill, waiting for me to catch up when two fighters scurried out of the woods, their guns pointed at me. I sagged in the hedges and waved my hands into the air with an exhaustive sigh.
Mother, I love you with all of my heart. You were right. This journey is inconceivable, I told myself. I began to pray for what I thought was about to be my execution.
But the rebels had something else up their sleeves. They wore graffiti-riddled clothes, tattoos on their arms and had their trademark rifle, the AK47, slung across their chests. One guy was muscular with Cornrow braids and the other was lean with a red headband that cut deep into his afro. Cornrow appeared to be in charge.
They wanted to know where we came from and where we were headed. It was the lack of cohesion in our stories that brewed more trouble for us. When we could not give the names of any prominent residents in the village we claimed to have come from, our fate was sealed. In an effort to diffuse the mounting tension, we offered to take our new masters’ load, as if that was not obvious. They agreed, but a conundrum quickly ensued when Cornrow said he only needed two men to take their belongings and that he would have to get rid of the remaining three. To add insult to injury, he instructed us to choose the two men that would take their belongings into Bong Mines. In other words, we were to decide who would live and who would die.
After a heated row, we settled on flipping a coin. We quickly realized, however, that we had long been stripped off all of our belongings and didn’t have even a coin to help us make the dreadful decision. Our dilemma continued until Cornrow shot just few inches above our heads. The vibration was not only colossal in the heart of the forest, but the bullet also ricocheted on the rock sending debris into our faces. They found humor in the way we cowered and screamed in panic and laughed hysterically.
“Bong Mines is only couple of days away. We might just be able to get there in two days or less,” Cornrow said with a wide sneer. “I might have use for all of you once we get there.” He added as we scrambled for their belongings, grateful that we had escaped death again.
The new phase of our journey depleted our strength completely and six hours later, my resilience finally crumbled. I tried to salvage the remnants of my Addidas by tip-toeing and walking on the sides of my feet, but that made me even more exhausted. The climax came when it was my turn to carry our masters’ baggage and I slipped and fell on a log in the path. I thought, I have likely suffered a concussion, but thought no more of it when Cornrow kicked me in my groin and threatened to “take you out of my suffering.” I gushed out air and crawled onto my knees, as he began to count to five—five being when he would kill me.
If there is a God in Heaven, He’s no God of mine, I told myself as I staggered onto my feet just as he reached “five.”
“You’re one lucky bastard,” he told me and hissed his teeth.
“Yes, sir. I’m so sorry.” I nodded as my companions stared on with empathy.
From that moment on, I ignored my lacerated feet and pressed on, one laborious step after the other, for dear life and for my quest for freedom. Despite my efforts, I never felt it was good enough for Cornrow. I constantly flinched under the fear that the bullets from his rifle would rip open the chambers of my heart from behind.
We entered Bong Mines midday on Saturday. Bong Mines was named for the Bong Mining Company, one of two iron ore mining companies that drove the pre-war Liberian economy. Bong Mines was bustling with activity, much to my surprise. Except for the presence of gun-toting rebels in the streets, which meant restricted movement, the damage to the town’s infrastructure was limited.
We’d already decided to disappear among the multitude of people once we delivered our masters’ belongings to their homes when Cornrow made a magnanimous gesture. He told us we were free to go wherever we wanted. Spent and hungry, we thanked him graciously and even prayed for him. When we left, I bandaged my feet with couple of rags before we embarked on the next leg of our journey. We needed to get to Kakata, 19 miles from where we were. We milled about in a parking lot hoping to get a free lift with some of the relief trucks when we spotted a distant relative of mine. He was kind enough to buy us food and pay for a relief truck to take us to Kakata.
In Kakata, I spent more than two weeks with a half sibling. Because entering Monrovia even turned out to be harder than the one week journey we have encountered. With just a 45 miles distance to Monrovia the NPFL had placed high premium on fortifying the buffet zone demarcating its controlled territories from that of the IGNU territories.
We departed Kakata on April 15, 1991 for our final destination—Monrovia. But this time, our convoy has been slashed. Two of my companions refused to follow us into Monrovia due to the precarious military situation within the buffet zone and its surroundings After many detours, more starvation, more C.O. ass-kissing, and lots of prayers, we landed in Monrovia on April 17, 1991—28 days after we first left my village and on my twentieth birthday. I was free at last.
I kept my promise to Cowboy, and found his mother. I also kept in contact with her over the years, until one day in 1993 she told me that her son, Teah Wreh AKA Cowboy hadn’t survived the final onslaught on Monrovia known in Liberian civil war jargon as “Octopus.”
In the years since my harrowing journey in search of freedom, I’ve never forgotten the images of such characters as Gongar, Cowboy, and Cornrow and the many others rebels and soldiers in the Liberian civil war for their treatment toward their countrymen. Their stories and mine have seeped into my psyche to define who I am today, and more so, has helped to shape my perspective of what it means to truly be free.
Robert V. Sesay is a former Liberian writer and journalist. His debut novel Stolen Justice is due out soon. He now lives in Levittown, Pa. He can be reached at: Tutiance97@yahoo.com