Hope Builds in Liberia's Ruined Capital
Friday, April 7, 2006
MONROVIA, Liberia -- During the years when he commanded 30 men and killed more enemy soldiers than he can recall, Tyrese Nyekar said he was known as "War Face." But in the newly democratic and largely peaceful Liberia, he has traded his machine gun for a shovel. And for $2 a day, he is working to rebuild this battered capital on a road repair crew.
A goatee still lends a touch of fierceness to the angular, 23-year-old face of this former child soldier, but Nyekar said his days of fighting and robbing civilians at gunpoint were over. With his former leader, warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor, in prison in neighboring Sierra Leone, Nyekar feels a tentative kind of optimism about the future -- for his city, for his country, for himself.
"I think Monrovia is getting lively," he said. A moment later, he added solemnly: "I don't want to take gun no more. No more."
There are still more things wrong than right with Monrovia at this point, 2 1/2 years after Taylor was forced into exile and three months after democratically elected President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf took office. There is virtually no municipal water supply, no electricity, no public transit. Bullet holes still pock walls. Jobs -- even the $2-a-day variety -- are scarce. The five-star Ducor Hotel, which long occupied a spectacular hilltop as the crown jewel of Monrovia, remains a trash-strewn squatters camp for hundreds of displaced Liberians.
But this seaside capital is showing palpable signs of recovery, not least of which is the eagerness of former combatants like Nyekar to support the government that replaced, then helped to jail, Taylor.
Johnson-Sirleaf requested his return from exile in Nigeria on March 5. Then, as he arrived home last week, she had her government's officials stand aside as U.N. military police handcuffed Taylor and transported him to Sierra Leone. He is to face 11 counts of war crimes for his role in backing rebels notorious for their use of child soldiers and their penchant for chopping off the hands of civilians. The charges against Taylor at the U.N.-backed tribunal, which has requested to move its operations to The Hague, include mass rape, murder, mutilation and crimes against humanity.
Taylor reportedly still has supporters in the ragged, rural countryside of both Liberia and Sierra Leone, but since his arrest, it has been hard to find many in Monrovia. Some Liberians expressed unease at seeing their former president in handcuffs, but many agreed that his jailing has allowed the nation to take its next step toward normalcy.
"People are confident now in this country," said Thomas Z. Paye, pastor of St. Peter's Lutheran Church, site of an infamous massacre in 1990 that left more than 500 Liberians dead, including Taylor's father. "We believe we are moving from a period of disgrace to grace."
The church has painted large white stars -- the symbol of this nation settled by freed American slaves -- to mark the graves in which hundreds of the massacred victims are buried. They are just some of the most visible scars from the civil war that raged from 1989, when Taylor launched his insurgency, until August 2003, when he went into exile.
Since Taylor left, 1,300 students at the church school have returned to classes here. A new outdoor kitchen has been built. The church has raised $27,000 to patch up one roof damaged by bullets and is replacing the roof of another building for $75,000.
Such improvements can be seen throughout much of Monrovia. Statues are getting fresh coats of paint. Buildings are under construction. And international aid money is pouring in so quickly that modern hotels -- most of which are fully booked -- have added wireless Internet connections and Western-style restaurants to cater to the tastes of foreign visitors. The Royal Hotel even has a sushi bar that would not look out of place in New York or Washington.
"Maybe we have the right leaders," said Jallah Kollie, 26, as he used a trowel to finish a concrete mural featuring a soldier and the words "In Pursuit Of Liberty" on the wall of an army barracks once notorious for the torture practiced inside.
The leader many Liberians credit with the recovery is Johnson-Sirleaf, 67, a Harvard-trained former World Bank official who won election in November and took office in January, becoming Africa's first elected female president. She so far has brought a no-nonsense management style short on populist rhetoric and popular with Western allies such as the United States.
Matronly and blunt-spoken, Johnson-Sirleaf does not shy from delivering bad news to Liberians.
"The situation, you might say, is mixed," she said in a recent interview in her executive mansion office. Johnson-Sirleaf recited a long list of her nation's problems and the shortcomings of the bloated, underfunded and inefficient government she now runs. She said it could take a year to repair major roads, restore electrical and water service, and revive the private sector after years of instability.
Those without jobs, an estimated 70 percent of Liberians, will have to wait for relief.
"Patience right now is not one of their strong points. They forget that this government has been in power for less than three months," she said. "There's a lag between policy, action and results."
After leaving Taylor's militia, Nyekar got eight months of training as a mason, but could not find work. He struggled to survive until joining a public works program that was paving a section of road in West Point, a squalid neighborhood where he grew up.
The 40-man crew, including both ex-combatants and civilians, in December began resurfacing a 950-foot stretch of road for the Liberia Community Infrastructure Project, a nongovernmental organization funded by the United States, the United Nations and other international donors. The project is just weeks away from completion. And though workers acknowledge some tension between the former soldiers and the civilians, they have found ways to work together, they said.
Perhaps their hardest day came last week, when Taylor briefly escaped from the government compound in Nigeria where he had been in exile. Until he was arrested the following morning on the Cameroon border, many Liberians were terrified.
"I knew when Charles Taylor ran away, he'd come and bring war," said Nyekar, dressed in tattered jeans and a T-shirt.
When Taylor instead went to jail, many Liberians seemed to finally believe that recovery was coming.
"That problem, we've solved it," Nyekar said. "The next problem we need to solve is the poverty rate."
Then he picked up his shovel and went back to work.