In Liberia, Yearning for Return of Imprisoned Warlord Charles Taylor

The man who plunged his country and Sierra Leone into war could play a major role in Liberia's political future -- and its hopes for peace -- even as he stands trial at a special UN-backed court

BONG COUNTY, Liberia -- Not long after becoming president of Liberia in 1997, Charles Taylor established an extralegal security squad and placed it under the command of his son Chuckie, a 20-year-old with an interest in SWAT teams and a fondness for action movies. The Anti-Terrorist Unit, composed of some of Taylor's most experienced fighters from the civil war that preceded his rise to power, quickly became notorious for its abuses against suspected rebels, ordinary civilians, and even its own inductees: the torture administered during "training" proved, in many cases, fatal. Residents of Gbatala, in central Liberia's Bong County, learned to avoid the hilltop ATU training facility just outside town. Those who strayed too close were known to disappear.

Taylor's ATU, like the man himself, often operated above the law. In the early 1980s, while serving in the government of former President Samuel Doe, he allegedly embezzled nearly $1 million, sending the money to a U.S. bank account. Arrested in Massachusetts by U.S. deputy marshals, he fought extradition before escaping from a maximum security prison in 1985. He made his way to Libya, where he received revolutionary training from Muammar Qaddafi's government. On Christmas Eve, 1989, he led a group of about 100 rebels into Liberia to overthrow Doe, eventually igniting civil wars that lasted until 2003 and killed more than 250,000 people. Replete with widespread rape, civilian massacres, and the deployment of child soldiers, the conflict transformed Liberia -- once a haven of African stability -- into the very epitome of lawlessness.

But the law has caught up with Taylor. In 2006, newly elected President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf requested that Taylor -- who had sought asylum in Nigeria after stepping down in 2003 -- be sent back to Liberia. She immediately transferred him to the UN, which in turn transferred him to the Special Court for Sierra Leone, a hybrid international tribunal that indicted Taylor for his alleged role in that neighboring country's similarly horrific civil war. Prosecutors have accused him of, among other things, backing Sierra Leone's brutal Revolutionary United Front rebels and sending Liberian forces to fight there.

The trial has helped keep Taylor at the forefront of Liberia's political discourse even from The Hague. In proceedings that spanned three years, judges heard testimony from Mia Farrow and Naomi Campbell on his alleged trafficking in blood diamonds; victims who described how they were raped and maimed; and a former death squad commander who accused Taylor of ordering his troops to engage in cannibalism. Court sources told me a verdict is expected in late October, though no announcement has been made.

Alpha Sesay, who monitored the trial for the Open Society Justice Initiative, said the verdict "could go either way," partly because of the complicated nature of the charges. Because Taylor is on trial for charges related to the conflict in Sierra Leone, not Liberia, it is potentially more difficult to link him to crimes on the ground. Prosecutors say they've done that; the defense says the evidence is insufficient.

The timing could be awkward. Liberia is gearing up for a national election on October 11 that some observers predict will be close, resulting in a presidential runoff in early November. This means the verdict could revive discussion of the war years at the precise time that candidates here -- many of whom have been involved in Liberian politics for decades -- are trying to distance themselves from their wartime records. But Taylor's remaining supporters are holding out hope that, in the event of an acquittal, the former president could eventually come home and turn Liberian politics upside down, rendering the election meaningless.

These days, the Anti-Terrorist Unit facility outside Gbatala sits abandoned, disturbed only by the hammer-wielding boys who crush rocks into gravel along the road leading up to it.  More than a dozen squat brick buildings are largely shrouded in overgrowth. Many have faded to an ashen gray, though a few retain their original paint:  dark green camouflage accented with orange and pink.

In town, not far from a road sign that reads "The war is over," Rachel McCarthy, 28, leans against a wall nursing her baby son. Although Liberia is now at peace, McCarthy said she preferred the Taylor years -- in large part because staple foods, mainly rice, were less expensive. "Yes, there was war, but we had food. Today, although we're free now, and we have peace, it's not easy," she said.

Asked how she would react to an acquittal, McCarthy said, "I will be too happy. I want for Mr. Taylor to come back. He's got more support here. As I speak, I will vote for him. He's a leader who knows leadership. He knows how to make things easy."

Such views are common in Bong County, which has long been a Taylor stronghold (he formed an unofficial government there in 1991). In the county capital, Gbarnga, Thomas Harris, a 47-year-old ex-combatant who fought for Taylor from 1990 to 2003, said Taylor's support would be readily apparent if he returned to Liberia, and even more so if he returned to politics. "People would walk from here, from all over Liberia, to go to Robertsfield to greet him," he said, referring to the airport. "They would walk from all over! Liberia would shake. And if he runs, he will win."

Harris, known as General Smile during the wars ("When I'm talking you think I'm playing, but I'm serious"), continued, "You know why people like Taylor? Because he was fighting a war but he was still feeding people day and night. Day and night. And you remember that election slogan in 1997 -- 'He killed my ma, he killed my pa, I'll vote for him'? Why do you think that was? It was because he was feeding the people."

Taylor's popularity has  long puzzled Liberia watchers. Reporting on the 1997 elections, in which Taylor received 75 percent of the vote, The Washington Post led their story, "Liberia has chosen a strange way to end -- if it is ended -- the seven-year civil war that has shredded their 150-year-old West African country." The general consensus is that Liberians believed Taylor would only stop fighting if he won, and that's why they voted him in.

Liberian journalist Gabriel Williams, in his 2006 book Liberia: The Heart of Darkness, argues that many voters actually saw Taylor as preferable to the political establishment, which has cemented a reputation for corruption and bickering. "Besides electing Taylor as a way of bringing the war to an end, the Liberian people were seen to have voted the way they did simply to show that they were just sick of the low dealings of the politicians," he wrote.

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Robbie Corey-Boulet is a journalist based in Monrovia, Liberia. He has also written for Guernica, The Caravan, and Asia Literary Review.

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