The charred hulk of the once-proud Liberian Embassy stood untended for nine years, an eyesore at the stately corner of 16th Street and Colorado Avenue NW and a sad symbol of the long, ruinous civil war in the small western African country.
But now, with Liberia trying to rebuild even as some conflict continues, its government is spending more than $700,000 to rebuild its embassy--and remind Americans and the estimated 100,000 Liberians in the United States about the historical links between the two countries.
"We are ready to take our rightful place in the international community, and we want to assure this community, too, that we are back and proud to be here," Tim Siklo, first secretary and political officer at the embassy, said yesterday at a festive celebration to mark tomorrow's 152nd anniversary of Liberian independence.
With Liberian music booming and fufu and other native delicacies for sale, Liberians gathered at the construction site to celebrate a day that is as important to them as the Fourth of July is to Americans.
Liberia's political origins stem from a charter granted by Congress permitting the establishment of a settlement for freed slaves. The first settlers arrived in 1822 with financial assistance from President James Monroe--for whom the capital, Monrovia, is named. The nation declared itself an independent republic in 1847 under an American-style constitution, though it has long been ruled by military governments.
"We are very proud of the history we share with the United States," said Liberian Ambassador Rachel Diggs, who was surrounded yesterday by three generations of her family, including a sister visiting from Liberia.
In the mid-1950s, when the Liberian government searched Washington for a building to house its embassy, the only area where it was allowed to buy property was in upper Northwest near Carter Barron, according to Siklo and embassy attache Catherine Nmah.
The three-story building was purchased, decorated with Liberian statues and art, and served as the embassy until it burned late one night in 1990. Nobody was inside, but the building's contents were destroyed.
The official report from the D.C. fire department attributed the blaze to electrical problems, but several Liberians yesterday said they believe it was somehow connected to the civil war that broke out the same year in the country of 2.8 million people. The embassy set up officers in another nearby building, but the staff has always wanted to return to the original home.
Much of the light yellow brick structure is back up, and most of the windows have been installed. It is scheduled to officially reopen in late September or early October when Liberian President Charles Taylor will be in the country to attend a United Nations session.
"This building means a lot to us," said Nmah, explaining why it is being restored exactly the way it once stood.
Thembi Redd, 17, who attends Magruder High School in Rockville and who moved to this area two years ago with her family after being evacuated from Sierra Leone, said she was "forced" to come to yesterday's celebration by her mother--who encourages connections to Liberian people and culture. But she enjoyed seeing the soon-to-be embassy.
"It's a symbol of Liberia in the States," she said, as her smiling 12-year-old sister, Katherine, nodded in agreement.