(Cont’d from a few weeks earlier.)
The next day, the NPFL resorted to the odd but not infrequent military tactics of using human-waves. This time it hoped to overpower its enemies not with the arms and ammunition it could bring to bear but with the number of men whose bodies, probably defenseless, could take as many bullets as possible until the Freeport was captured. Because the NPFL seldom had paramedics on the front and neither was it equipped with ambulance nor stretcher-bearers, and the fact that NPFL troops knew little or nothing about first-aid treatment, this tactics soon proved a massacre. One after another NPFL fighters, many of them poorly armed, barefoot, clad in no more than the shirt on their backs, soaked to the skin and shivering in the rain on that crucial day of August 1990, were mowed down by ECOMOG and INPFL fire. When a couple of ECOMOG fighter aircrafts, dispatched from Sierra Leone, appeared over the battlefield, it was clear they would all be slaughtered. But as though driven by an irresistible urge, drugged, unafraid, the NPFL fought on.
By the afternoon more than a hundred NPFL fighters, among them a number of little boys had entered the Freeport of Monrovia. There they would remain for perhaps an hour or so, until they were captured, forced to retreat, or killed. But while they stayed alive, their courage was unbelievable. When their ammunition ran out, something which the NPFL had already encountered from the outset of the fighting, a few fighters, wielding machetes, confronted the INPFL and ECOMOG troops and was able to inflict losses before they were killed. The Freeport of Monrovia, Charles Taylor had reminded them over and over again, was the lifeblood by which his rivals — the INPFL and now ECOMOG force — were able to sustain the conflict against him. But once the port was captured, this war the NPFL had fought from the jungles of northern Liberia to the capital city, Monrovia, would immediately come to an end, resulting in a triumph for the NPFL and ultimately in the turnover of private properties to its fighters. Hence the courage of these young men and child soldiers; many of them poorly trained, uneducated, and all too ready and willing to be used like a huge but depleted ammunition dump thrown into the war in order to ensure victory. And what could have been straight out of a storybook but was as real as the war itself, was the story told of an NPFL fighter, no more than a young man of eighteen years of age, who, impervious to bullets, had killed five ECOMOG troops with a machete and was captured only after a rocket propelled grenade had exploded a few yards in front of him. But although the concussion had knocked him senseless, the young man had sustained only minor injuries.
By the following day the peacekeeping soldiers and INPFL troops had formed a coalition. INPFL units, which had been poorly equipped, were now heavily armed with more machine guns and mortars supplied by the ECOMOG force. Hundreds of INPFL fighters were seen dressed in bullet-proof vests, combat helmets, and brand new military boots and army uniforms. In some cases it was hard to even tell them apart from the peacekeeping troops. ECOMOG had, in fact, relegated its duty to a paramilitary force which, like many of Liberia’s warring faction during the course of the war, had its hands as yet stained with the blood of the Liberian people. A huge number of NPFL rebels, many of them only child soldiers, were slaughtered. By the time the INPFL were joined by more ECOMOG troops with their war tanks and heavy guns, the NPFL was in full retreat while the pair of military aircrafts hovered overhead and the bombs fell one after another.
The day following the NPFL retreat, which came at about six on a Friday evening, hundreds of their wounded, covered with blood and parts of their bodies smashed to pieces, were brought into the Freeport and put into an annex of the ECOMOG clinics. Emeka had, along with a few army doctors, already done a number of serious cases, many of them having to do with wounded ECOMOG soldiers. Now he was working on that side of the clinic in which the rebels had been brought. There were almost a hundred or so, some no more than ten and twelve years of age. Their arms and legs had been blown off, their faces disfigured by splinters, their mouths showing only the teeth while others suffered from shell shock. Some of the wounded were already dead before they were attended by the doctors. Their eyes, which were sometimes left wide open when they died, could barely expressed the profound depth of pain and suffering which only they could have known and felt.
Emeka stood bent over a rebel boy, probing with a scalpel into a wound on the boy’s left arm. The boy was breathing faintly and lay unconscious on the table. Emeka removed from the wound a piece of shrapnel, which was about seven inches long, and put it into a disposable metal container set on the floor next to the table. Then he began to rub ointment on the wound, from which blood flowed freely, until the blood stopped coming altogether. The wound he covered with an adhesive plaster. And then he took some bandages and began to wrap them round the boy’s arm. As he did so, Emeka looked attentively at the boy’s face. He was dark-complexioned, thin and small, with kinky hair and bushy eyebrows, and looked not more than thirteen or fourteen years of age. His lips and fingers were stained black. On his breath Emeka could smell a faint trace of marijuana.
Looking down at the boy, Emeka felt himself struck with sadness, for at such a tender age he would have been at school in Nigeria or possibly playing football in the field near his father’s house. Perhaps also he would have just frolicked around until it was time for his bath, after which he could have either gone to bed or sit with a group of neighbors’ children, listening to an old woman, who lived near his father’s house, tell spider’s and turtle’s stories. But here was this Liberian boy — so young and already a hardened killer. Where are his people, his father and his mother or maybe one of his relations?
Probably they had all been made homeless and, like many others, would be hunted and killed for no other reason than because they were innocent. Now this child, robbed of his childhood, would doubtless remain dispossessed forever, thought Emeka.
Shaking his head, Emeka finished bandaging the boy’s arm then moved on to a table opposite, on which another NPFL fighter, one side of his buttocks sliced off by shrapnel, had lost consciousness and was being attended by a Ghanaian and another Nigerian army doctor.
For days following the NPFL’s failed attempt to capture the Freeport of Monrovia, a wave of anger swept through the ECOMOG force. The Ghanaians blamed the killing of some of their troops by the rebels on the Nigerians, who in turn blamed the killing of their men on the Ghanaians. The Nigerians made scathing allusions to how EMOMOG force commander Lieutenant-General Quainoo days before the NPFL attack, had been seen in covert conversations with INPFL commander Prince Johnson, whom the Nigerians claimed couldn’t be trusted. The Guineans, the Sierra Leoneans and the Gambians, seen as the lesser of the two peacekeeping forces, pointed accusing fingers at both and said that the Nigerians and Ghanaians had colluded with the INPFL and NPFL and given them arms and ammunition. There was talk of relieving of his post General Arnold Quainoo and that all important positions in the peacekeeping force were henceforward not to be held by Ghanaians and Nigerians. A few blows were exchanged, shots were fired into the air, and more than once there was talk of abandoning the peacekeeping operation altogether. All the ECOMOG contingents kept to their own headquarters. A few guard posts were abandoned. Even when they went to stand sentry at the main gates to the Freeport, men who once had been comrades would not exchange so much as a word among themselves and had taken to regarding each other with suspicion. The Guineans, the Sierra Leoneans and the Gambians, however, were drawn much closer together, feeling that they had been marginalized and used as scapegoats. Such was the complaints, anger and frustration among the troops that soon their chagrin was heard at ECOWAS headquarters in Abuja. A hasty meeting was called and a resolution to improve all aspect of communication and logistic among the troops was drafted. At the end, it was concluded that the peacekeeping operation to Liberia, though dogged by a number of obstacles and a recent insurgency attack, was worth the salt and could therefore not be abandoned.
During this time Prince Johnson would pay frequent visits to the ECOMOG headquarters at the Freeport of Monrovia. Often he came five or six times a day. Pointing out to the peacekeeping troops their weaknesses and lack of restraint, Prince Yormie Johnson — musician, maverick rebel leader who found
God in Nigeria and subsequently became a pastor, kingmaker of Liberia’s 2011 presidential and legislative elections, an alleged war criminal now Nimba County Senator — would warn that if they were not careful they would all be slaughtered. Nearly routed by the NPFL, as it were, and knowing quite honestly that they would have fared worse had they not formed a quick pact with the INPFL, the ECOMOG peacekeeping troops couldn’t but regard Johnson with a breath of gratitude. It was such that the man became in their eyes something of a demigod. Whenever he visited they would open the gates wide. Johnson would march in with his boys and their weapons loaded and the rebels would have their cars crammed full of looted items.
The peacekeeping troops were, of course, doing the looting as well. Indeed there no longer seemed any pride among them.
One night, having stood sentry at one of the main entrances to the Freeport, Emeka was returning to his quarters. Suddenly he heard the angry voices of men in the darkness. One of the voices was that of a Nigerian soldier, the other, a Gambian, the third, a Sierra Leonean, and the fourth and fifth, a Ghanaian and a Guinean soldier. Just behind a shipping container, they could be heard violently arguing over something or other, the Guinean soldier in French and the others in Pidgin. The voices grew louder and louder. It seemed almost as though the ECOMOG soldiers, alone with themselves in the darkness, would fall to blows.
Inching his way towards the voices and as quietly as possible, Emeka rounded the container then put on his torchlight. There, a few yards in front of him, stood the peacekeeping troops, holding between them a large and brand new refrigerator atop which were four or five cardboard boxes containing television sets and cooking utensils. When the beam of light shone in their faces, they froze. For a moment, nobody spoke; Emeka said nothing. Then the ECOMOG soldiers dropped the refrigerator and the boxes and took to their boots, with the helmets of two soldiers falling from their heads, and disappeared into the darkness. For a long time afterwards Emeka would remember how astonished they had been, like Mary and Magdalene on finding Christ’s tomb empty. The incident would become a famous joke told at ECOMOG headquarters.
To be cont’d.
Copyright © Saah Millimono 2016
About the author: Saah Millimono is the author of Broken Dreams, which was awarded the Short Fiction Prize of the Sea Breeze Journal of Contemporary Liberian Writings. His first novel Boy Interrupted was awarded 2nd Place for the Kwani Manuscript Project, a one-off writing prize for African writers across the continent and in the Diaspora. He is currently at work on his second novel, which explores the root causes, some of which were not only the direct result of misrule but also the social disparities and perhaps even prejudices that existed both between the indigenous and Americo-Liberians, which triggered the Liberian Civil War. It is also the overlapping stories of three very different characters caught in the conflict and forced into situations that are as sweeping and heartrending as the war itself. He has written for the Daily Observer and the Guardian (UK).