Doe by then was also well on his way to bankrupting the country. It is estimated that in ten years he and his cronies stole about $300 million—an amount roughly equal to half the anemic gross domestic product for their final year at the till. Doe himself amassed a BCCI account in London worth $5.6 million. Liberia's distinctive American panache helped him establish a lucrative money-laundering racket—the U.S. dollar remains legal tender. At a time when Liberia's legitimate economy was contracting almost by half, the number of banks in Monrovia rose from six to fourteen.
Yet even those who predicted all-out civil war scarcely imagined the depths to which Liberia would finally descend in 1990. Charles Taylor's rebellion began with barely 150 insurgents. In less than a year it consumed not just Doe but many thousands of civilians in an orgy of killing and destruction. More than a million Liberians—half the population—abandoned their homes. Much of the country was bombed, burned, and looted into ruins.
Taylor's war had been widely popular when it began. Everyone wanted to get rid of Doe. But Taylor's method was to exploit the genocidal rage of the Gio and the Mano. He began with mostly Gio exiles, including Sam Dokie, now Taylor's Minister of Internal Affairs. Dokie had been in exile for six years, after twice failing to topple Doe. Two of his brothers had been murdered by Doe's Krahn agents; one of them, Lewis Dokie, was flogged to death after the 1985 coup attempt. "We all came back with that revengeful attitude," Sam Dokie told me during my most recent visit, "that what was done to us must be done to them to pay the Krahn people back. So we fought a very bitter war."
Doe, predictably, responded with a counterinsurgency force, mostly Krahn, that went on yet another rampage in Nimba County, killing, looting, raping, maiming, burning villages, driving tens of thousands of Gios and Manos into the bush. The result was exactly what Taylor might have hoped for. Gios and Manos by the thousands rushed to join Taylor's forces. And he welcomed them. "As the NPFL came in," Taylor told me, "we didn't even have to act. People came to us and said, 'Give me a gun. How can I kill the man who killed my mother?" Within months the band of 150 trained insurgents had snowballed into a marauding force of thousands, mostly illiterate, barely trained but heavily armed, seeking liberty, vengeance, and booty.
No one has the slightest idea how many people died in the ensuing bloodbath. Conservative estimates put the number of casualties at 20,000 to 25,000. That would be about one percent of Liberia's population of 2.5 million. But a visitor soon realizes that virtually everyone lost a relative. I took a poll of the staff at the El Meson hotel in Monrovia. Harrison, the laundry man, had a brother killed in crossfire between the army and the NPFL; his father died of sickness and starvation. Saybah, the chambermaid, lost two brothers and her father to the army. Boakai Sambollah, the maintenance man who managed to produce hot running water in my room on my last weekend, lost a first cousin in an NPFL ambush—"They wanted his car and he refused to give it, so they shot him dead," he said—and his brother-in-law died of cholera. Wleh Nypen, a security guard, lost his brother, a rebel fighter, in a clash with ECOMOG, the West African peacekeeping force that guards Monrovia; his mother died of cholera. Rebecca, a receptionist, lost a cousin to starvation. Joseph, her weekend replacement, lost a brother and a sister, the sister's husband, who was Krahn, and their three children—all killed by Taylor's men; the grown-ups were shot, he said, and the children had their throats slit.