The Foreign Service Journal, November 2022
THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL | NOVEMBER 2022 87 Charles Gurney joined the Department of State in 1984 and served primarily in Africa during a 32-year Foreign Service career. He currently lives in Knoxville, Tennessee. W ar came to Liberia on Christmas Eve, 1989. The new decade swept in like a hurricane—uprooting people, cities, entire cultures. It was unleashed by Charles “Gankey” Taylor, a former minister of finance, under President Samuel Doe, who had fled to the United States in 1986 after his corrup- tion was exposed. Taylor was arrested in Massachusetts but escaped out a window by tying bedsheets together. When he returned to Liberia through the jungle in remote Nimba County, he was accom- panied by Libyan-trained fighters and pursued a personal vendetta against Doe. The safety of American citizens was U.S. Embassy Monrovia’s first concern. More than 5,000 resided in every corner of Liberia, including Peace Corps volunteers, missionaries, and USAID contractors. The missionaries’ radio network was indispensable in spreading word of the incursion and beginning successive waves of evacuations. Sometimes, a personal appeal was needed. Embassy calls for Americans to leave became more urgent as the incursion swelled into a regional rebellion. Doe’s army swarmed into villages along the border and indiscriminately slaugh- tered members of the Gio ethnic group suspected of aiding Taylor, who claimed Fear Descends on Liberia BY CHARL ES GURNEY dubious ties to the tribe. Gio men flocked into Taylor’s camp, driven by revenge and ancient ethnic hatreds. In Monrovia, an eerie calm prevailed. It would take months for the city to dismiss the government propaganda that the incursion posed no threat, and realize the country was being destroyed. b As the political/military officer at the embassy, I was responsible for compiling the daily situation report to Washington. Contacts were often impossible to reach, and my military contacts were wary of the U.S. government’s refusal to fully support Doe’s bloody response to the incursion. I ran into an influential Liberian general I regarded as a friend on the street in Monrovia. “When is the U.S. coming to help us?” he implored. “General, we can’t help when the army is committing atrocities in Nimba County,” I responded. “But they are rebels, armed by Libya!” “They became a threat because their families were killed. Why does the army have to kill all of the women and children?” “You don’t understand,” he said quickly and frankly. “They are all enemies. The women have children, who grow up to be fighters. The old people take care of the children and teach them to hate. They are all enemies.” There were no good guys in this fight, and the State Department advocated a regional response. But embassy personnel would get used to the plea—no, the expec- tation—that the “American father” step in and stop the tragedy. The belief in U.S. omnipotence encouraged complacency among some long-term residents who had lived through the coup in 1980, when Sergeant Doe took power and executed the former ministers on the beach via fir- ing squad. b As stories from the front filtered back to Monrovia, fear finally descended on the city. Relatives told of whole villages wiped out. Children were being recruit- ed, many recently orphaned, and they expressed slavish devotion to Gankey Taylor. Fleeing villagers described drug- ged rebel soldiers fighting fearlessly because they were immune to bullets. The famous “Commander Buck Naked” augmented these powers by charging into battle sans clothing. These tales continued, largely owing to the inept marksmanship of the Liberian army, and helped build fear and support for Taylor’s forces, who were also guilty of ethnic atrocities against the ruling Krahn tribe. REFLECTIONS It would take months for the city to dismiss the government propaganda that the incursion posed no threat, and realize the country was being destroyed.
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