Ostriches and Automatic Weapons

My surreal afternoon with Charles Taylor. 


The news that former Liberian President Charles Taylor was convicted by a tribunal at The Hague on Thursday, April 26, on 11 counts of planning, aiding, and abetting war crimes in Sierra Leone is undoubtedly a victory for international law and hopefully some solace for his victims in two long-suffering African countries. But I also find myself thinking back to an afternoon 10 years ago, a memory featuring a crumbling mansion, a lawn filled with ostriches, and some of the most anxious men I’ve ever encountered.

In July 2002, I was working for the International Crisis Group (ICG), researching the ongoing conflict in Liberia. A colleague and I were aware we had been under close scrutiny from Taylor’s government as we conducted our research over the course of two weeks in the country; there was little that went on in the capital, Monrovia, without Taylor’s knowledge. Tensions were high as a rebel group, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), was gaining steam in the countryside and pushing toward the capital. Staying in the only lodging that served expats throughout the war, the Mamba Point Hotel, we were frankly relieved that our research was nearly completed, and we were ready to depart for neighboring Sierra Leone.

It was then that we got word that we were to be granted our request to have an audience with Taylor, one of the most feared leaders in Africa — a man rumored to have threatened to burn down his high school after losing a student council election and whose brutality had only grown as he made a bloody climb to the presidency. Taylor ran his army as a virtual cult of personality and had directed the killings of too many people to count.

Our meeting was to take place at the executive mansion, a gloomy concrete monstrosity built in the 1960s. It had not aged well. A broad reflecting pool and fountain in front of the building were stagnant with moss and weeds. Mildew stained the exterior walls. I assumed the meeting would be little more than a courtesy call.

After a cursory security check, an aide escorted us out to the back lawn of the mansion. Walking down the broad concrete steps that looked out to the Atlantic, I tried to act nonchalant, but given my surroundings, it was a struggle. Muscular young men in T-shirts toting automatic weapons patrolled the grounds. A workman lazily pushed a lawn mower in the far corner of the yard. Several ostriches, remarkably large birds when viewed up close, grazed on the patchy grass between the bodyguards.

We were escorted to a large gazebo where Taylor was holding court. The president had assembled much of his senior cabinet for the meeting, including his national security advisor, foreign minister, and chief of staff. Several local reporters clicked photos of us being greeted by the president, to use later as propaganda. Taylor quickly dismissed them with a wave of his hand.

Taylor was dressed in a cream-colored sports jacket. His gold watch and ring were conspicuously large. He yelled at an assistant, who in turn yelled at the worker in the yard, and the lawn-mowing ceased.

As we sat down, Taylor admonished us to take out our notebooks "so you do not make any mistakes about what I say." He began with a long, scolding lecture about the ICG’s reports on Liberia, which had been uniformly critical of his ruinous leadership. His assembled ministers provided periodic punctuation by nodding their agreement or solemnly intoning, "Yes, Mr. President."

Taylor seized on the issue of the war-crimes tribunal that had recently been set up to prosecute atrocities conducted during the 1991-2002 war in Sierra Leone. Taylor had directly supported the militia faction that had committed the worst abuses in the neighboring country, while profiting wildly from an illegal diamond trade that flourished in the midst of the war. There were growing calls for Taylor to be indicted by the tribunal, and his vehemence convinced me he was deeply nervous about it — justifiably so, as it turned out.

Taylor also went on at great length about the LURD rebels. With the 9/11 attacks still a fresh memory, he mimicked the language of U.S. President George W. Bush’s administration, calling the rebels "terrorists" and "Islamic fundamentalists," though there were no grounds for such charges. Indeed, only a portion of the group’s followers were Muslim, and they had no links to any international terrorist group. Turning history on its head, Taylor claimed that the notorious Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels in Sierra Leone — the militia group he had directly supported — was some kind of Islamic conspiracy. Taylor denied that his government supported the RUF, even though it was a poorly kept secret that it did. The RUF had become notorious for hacking arms off opponents, real and imagined, and even small children.

"The way the RUF has been cutting off people’s arms," suggested Taylor, "maybe this is a sharia practice. I do not know." He insisted that his own forces had been very well behaved as they fought the LURD rebels in Liberia’s countryside. "We were so careful. War is not child’s play," he said. It was an unintentionally ironic statement given the number of Taylor’s child soldiers we had seen manning checkpoints during the previous days.

Taylor claimed that all his actions, including smuggling in weapons from Eastern Europe to circumvent a U.N. arms embargo and cracking down on opposition groups, were in keeping with the United Nations Charter and the rights of a sovereign government. He blamed Washington and London for conspiring against him. I noticed the foreign minister craning to read my notes as I jotted all this down.

After taking us to task at length, Taylor tried a more personable approach. He insisted we should not impose our worldview on Africa, saying, "You see, my brother, political feuds border on hatred in Liberia. You cannot expect First World standards. Things are just different; everyone wants power. It is not like the politics you know."

Smiling, he continued: "I live well and have no regrets. I am a good Christian. I lived and studied in Boston. All these men sitting around you have advanced degrees, most of them from good universities in the United States. But a politician from America could not survive in Africa no more than I could survive in Alaska."

I politely interjected, "President Taylor, I am convinced that if you moved to Alaska, you would be governor within eight months." He laughed, and a number of the cabinet ministers grinned at the thought.

Looking around at that moment, I came to a powerful realization. These men, the most powerful and feared in all of Liberia, lived in constant fear. Fear of falling out of favor, fear of being betrayed, fear of being held accountable for what they had done. They were afraid of Taylor and afraid of each other. As the ostriches and armed thugs wandered across the lawn, I realized that no matter how terrifying Taylor might be, he was still just a man — and a vulnerable one at that. The guns, smuggled diamonds, and expensive Thai mistresses were all just a house of cards, always near collapse.

Our meeting took the better part of two hours. Taylor concluded the discussion with a smile and a threat: "If your next report contains the same inaccuracies, we will think it was not done in good faith."

As we were being escorted off the lawn, I turned to the aide who was seeing us out. I had to ask. "What’s the story with the ostriches?"

"The president likes animals," he replied. "There are three ostriches. There used to be four. One ostrich swallowed a cell phone, and when it rang, the bird went berserk. The bird was so badly injured that he died. The president was very upset." He told the story as if it were the most normal thing in the world.

This week, Charles Taylor was held accountable for his crimes, the first head of state to be convicted by an international court since the Nuremberg trials that followed World War II. International justice may be slow and imperfect, but somewhere out there right now is another group of warlords sitting around a table, uneasily eying each other, realizing after Thursday’s ruling that their abuses may land them in The Hague next. That’s a victory for justice.

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