The Foreign Service Journal, November 2022

88 NOVEMBER 2022 | THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL My hopes and dreams of living in authentic Africa were replaced with a fear that traditional Africa would not survive. Exit from Liberia was becoming increasingly hazardous. Roberts Inter- national Airport was still open, but few flights operated. The embassy was advising Americans to leave immediately. The Peace Corps had been evacuated weeks before, and most missionaries had withdrawn into Monrovia. Liberia was col- lapsing. My hopes and dreams of living in authentic Africa were replaced with a fear that traditional Africa would not survive. When our own families were evacuated and most embassies closed, Liberians who could afford to leave fled the country. But not all of them. Kevin, a former Peace Corps volunteer in his 50s, married to a Liberian woman and with several young children, lived in a small village outside Tapita, a city that would soon face the rebel advance. The consular section knew of him, but he had “gone native” and did not respond to embassy warnings. I teamed up with Consular Officer John Desrocher to make the dangerous trek into the interior with a last-minute appeal. b We left Monrovia in the early morning, worried more about government troops at the many checkpoints than the threat of rebels. Our white Suburban with tinted windows immediately identified us as an official vehicle, and we weren’t popular among the government forces; the U.S. defense attaché had recently been kicked out of the country. Before turning off Libe- ria’s only paved road into Bong County, I had to pay my respects to a Liberian colonel who was leading Liberian troops upcountry. I needed information about any remaining Americans in the region, but I hoped to get a firsthand look at the government’s defenses. We could tell immediately that we were not welcome in the Liberian army camp. All talk stopped as we approached the colonel, who was sitting with his top advisers in a clearing. The bottle of Scotch I proffered, normally a suitable gift to break the ice with Liberian officers, was not well received. He glared at me. “We don’t drink here,” he stated through bleary and suspicious eyes. It would have been a poor time to engage in a discussion of the conflict. John asked if he knew of any resident Americans in the area, but he dismissed us with a wave. Many of the soldiers were in rags, some were bandaged. Morale was clearly low. The war was close. We made a hasty exit. b While many Liberians had embraced the invading rebels, discipline in the rebel ranks declined as their numbers grew. As cultural norms disintegrated, traditional African secret societies like the Poro, which serve as nongovernmental governing bodies, crumbled. Government authority fled, and schools hadn’t oper- ated in months. Society had broken down, and chaos reigned. Many armed orphans and youth raised in a kleptocracy valued only money. “Now is the time when things are free,” one AK-toting kid told me when I asked where he got his tape recorder. b John and I confirmed the direc- tions to Kevin’s village with a Lebanese shopkeeper in Tapita, which was almost deserted. We hoped Kevin and his family would choose to leave immediately, and we were prepared to take the whole family in the Suburban if needed. But nobody from the embassy had seen Kevin in a couple years. The road to his village was abysmal, like most roads in Liberia, and was probably impassable in the rainy season. The village was very old, as evidenced by the erosion around the thatched roof huts. Few villages upcountry had electricity or running water, but this one looked especially impov- erished. It seemed empty, but villagers feared outsiders and probably had fled into the forest; officials who roared up in trucks typically collected taxes and took away young men to join the army. We found Kevin surrounded by his children in front of his mud wattle hut. He seemed impressed, even amazed to see us, and became a bit self-conscious about his appearance. With long straggly hair and beard, he looked much older than 50, naked except for a pair of ragged shorts. He seemed to live as other villagers without modern conveniences and had no communication with Monrovia. I explained that rebels were advanc- ing toward his village as we spoke. The situation was extremely dangerous, and options to get out were closing fast. John explained that the U.S. government would arrange for his whole immediate family to leave and cover the expense if needed. Kevin nodded but said nothing for a while. “I’ve been here 20 years,” he began. “This is my home, the only place my family has ever known. I’ve been through lots of turmoil, coups, tribal wars. I’m not leaving.” His wife listened silently in the doorway. “It’s different this time,” I anxiously tried to explain. “This isn’t just a replacement of government. It’s civil war of the worst kind. Death has become casual, and a U.S. citizen can be targeted for cash or ransom.