JAMES ZONN had known all along that neither his mother nor his father was coming back home. It had been three days since his mother was abducted by some members of the national army. Until then James had always loved the army and had dreamed of becoming a member in the future. But events since the late Thomas Q tried and failed to remove the government of his friend, Sam Doe, had indicated to him that the army was, to some extent, the most dangerous occupation to sacrifice his life for.
His feelings towards the army had dramatically changed since then. Why, he asked himself, would soldiers, who were supposed to defend and protect the Liberian people, take sides in a war whose reason for being was lost on most Liberians. True, he had heard the self-styled defense spokesman of the rebels, Thomas Woewiyue, declaring over BBC that the only good Doe was a dead Doe.
From his residence in Monrovia, there had been talk of Gios and Manos coming from the bush and joining Charles Taylor’s army. He had heard the name of that man before, but had never seen him. Was he a Gio or Mano? The news, as far as he could gather, indicated that he was not a Gio or Mano. He also learned that he was once a best friend of the President of Liberia.
Well, then, what happened? From the events of November 12, 1985, he was aware that there had been bad blood between Doe and Thomas Q. So what?
Though he was not old enough to understand the current situation, he remembered that when the announcement was made that Sam Doe had been removed, many of his Gio and Mano ethnic groups and other Liberians had trooped to the streets of Monrovia and had even danced to the traditional victory song. Lately, the newspapers, in particularly, the Daily Observer and the Footprints Today, had all been calling on the president to resign.
It came to James Zonn’s attention that the president had failed to live up to the expectation of the Liberian people to maintain peace and order and that his failure and the current presence of “rebels” coming from the bush were an indication that his days were numbered.
With the president declaring that he would fight to the last soldier, Gios and Manos living in and around Monrovia were facing the daily grind of danger to their persons.
Nevertheless, he somehow but reluctantly agreed that the terror against his ethnic people was simply because Thomas Q had attempted to remove Samuel Doe and that the new army in the bush composed mainly of the Gios and Manos, who had suffered enormously since Thomas Q’s unsuccessful attempt to remove Sam Doe from power. He felt there was no justification in the current attacks on his people; the truth was that it was the Gospel truth.
A DAY after his self-examination, there were reports of bodies lying about in the street, near their residence. James Zonn, by all accounts, was a man who could not stand trouble if he saw it. It was a wonder then that when he heard the news about bodies lying in the streets, he decided to investigate.
Whether he wanted to believe it or not, one of the bodies resembled that of his mother. As he stood over the remains of what seemed to be that of his mother, tears flooded his eyes, and he began to breathe in short bursts.
At one point he wanted to vomit. His stomach rumbled on for some time; and his legs wobbled. The bodies, as he inspected them, were in the state of decaying, and flies hovered over them.
And the stench was unbearable; he almost vomited. “So it’s true,” he said, tears streaming down his face.
He would now return home and inform his siblings of the tragedy that had befallen them. It was the ugly hands of death, claiming his mother, while his father had been missing since he was taken away by some soldiers. Now he was living in fear, and considered that if his parents had been destined to pay the price of his tribe’s sin, then it would not be too long before he followed them.
With tears pouring down his face, Zonn gathered his legs, and sauntered away from the bodies. It was clear that Liberia had become a land of the dead. What was plentiful was misery. Another was disappointment. And yet another was sorrow.
“This day,” he said, “I may die.”
Death would relieve him from the horrors of war, and destruction. He wondered if his father was still alive somewhere. He would wait; and if he failed to return, he would decide what the next course of action would be.
DUM, DUM, dum, Zonn’s face gave a sign of disappointment. The dum, dum, dum sounds were those of weapons being discharged all around Monrovia. The fear of the rebels’ presence in the city had deepened and the national army seemed confused. To allay their fears and to introduce some element of confidence, the soldiers had been shooting all over the place.
“But where are the rebels?” someone asked another, down Gurley Street.
“The BBC just reported that the rebels have encircled the city,” the other said. “That has brought fear upon the soldiers, and as you can see they are all fired up.”
“So by shooting all around here,” the other replied, “then it means they are scaring away the rebels?”
“It may seem so.”
“But have you seen the rebels?”
“Never,” the other said, “but are not all the Gio and Mano people rebels?”
“No,” his friend told him, “the BBC said most of the soldiers of the NPFL are Gios and Manos but that does not suggest that every rebel is a Mano or Gio.”
” And who are the rebels say they are coming for?”
“The Krahn people.”
“Are you sure,” the other wondered, worry on his face, “reports from the BBC say the rebels are killing everybody they see over there ooh.”
“Then we’re in trouble.”
THE TWO companions might have had it right. The soldiers of the National Patriotic Front were coming for their enemies, and if that declaration was something to go by, then it meant that all ethnic Krahns were marked for death. From the BBC reports, the rebels or the NPFL soldiers were masters of the game.
The enemies, as the two buddies concluded with foreboding, included any Liberian who crossed their path. If a Liberian appeared good looking and healthy in body, then it meant he was one of those “eating” the government’s money. There were instances when ethnic Manos and Gios married to Krahns were executed for defending their spouses.
Another ethnic group which was silently being destroyed along with the Krahn were the Sarpos, who had close cultural similarities with the Krahns. In fact, many of the Sarpos apparently understood the other’s language.
Now, it was a situation soccer followers would describe as a 2-2 draw: the Gios and Manos on one side and the Krahns and the unfortunate Sapos on the other side. In between were the Mandingoes, who had, by accident of coincidence, been hauled into the fray.
Just before all hell broke loose, there had been the talk as to whether the Mandingoes were ethnic Liberians. From the King Sao Bosso Street in downtown Monrovia to historical monuments in Lofa County, there was no Liberian alive that would disagree that the Mandingoes were ethnic Liberians.
President Samuel Doe had reinforced this conviction that they were ethnic Liberians, like any other tribe, from Quaduboni District in Lofa County bordering Republic Guinea as point of migration to other towns and communities of Liberia. To show their appreciation for the president’s declaration, many of the Mandingoes trooped to join the national army to fight the government’s enemies.
That singular action marked them out and the rebels added the Mandingoes as enemy number three. So from here, the massacre from the national army was directed at the Gios and Manos, and from the rebels’ side, their inhumane treatment was against the Krahns, Sarpos and Mandingoes.
In between the slaughters, both the national army and the rebels carried out their violence against other tribes.
The Kpelles, whose central city had been converted to the rebel headquarters (Gbanga), were forced to work for the rebels. The Krus, considered forceful and ever ready to fight back, sadly, remained aloof in the war. Even when several of their leaders in New Kru Town, outside Monrovia (Fred Blay, Roosevelt Savice, and Larry Borteh) were arrested, accused and summarily executed, the most war-like people of Liberia did not move to organize themselves for the war.
The Bassas, like their Kru cousins found themselves under siege by the rebels; and Buchanan, one of the most exciting places in the nation, remained under the control of the rebels. But they too did not see it necessary to fight back. Of late, there were rumors of a Bassa Defense Force, but it existed in name only.
The largest county, Lofa, which share border relations with Guinea, decided otherwise after repeated assaults by the NPFL and the newly formed ULIMO, and went ahead to organize the Lofa Defense Force.
Also subjugated were the Vais, the Deis and several other ethnic groups. As the dogs of war pursued each other and rendered Liberia ungovernable, no Liberian was left unaffected. Even the so-called Americo-Liberians and the Congos had their settlements besieged and ransacked.
It was a case of tears over the entire nation.
The enemies of war left no stone unturned in their mad rush to outdo each other in the vicious killings that overshadowed Liberia.
The Daily Observer’s Stanton Peabody, in one of his last editorials before the paper’s offices were set ablaze, mourned: Bleed Poor Nation Bleed. It was a fitting lamentation for a nation set ablaze by its own. Yes, it was tears over my motherland.
JAMES ZONN had now come to accept the reality that these were dangerous days. With his face flushing in bitterness as the sounds of AK-47 and M16 rifles boomed all around him, he remembered what the English writer, Charles Dickens, wrote in his monumental masterpiece, A Tale of Two Cities.
But Zonn could not be certain if Dickens had Liberia on his mind when he wrote what evidently was the portrayal of Liberia’s insanity when the book was written.
“It was the best of times,” Dickens wrote, and yet “it was the worst of times.” Yes, who would deny that events in Liberia since the infamous year of 1980 resembled the very elements that the English writer had written about? James Zonn, as young as he was at the epoch making year of 1980, had learned afterwards of the calamitous events which, however, provided an opportunity for total national reconstruction that was not to be. Though the beginning of the 1980s was the best of times, the political upheavals, with its attendant destruction of thirteen politicians and later some members of the military junta, the People’s Redemption Council, indicated clearly the prophetic meaning of Dickens’ farsightedness, and truly “it was the worst of times” indeed.
At the New Kru Town Junior High School, James Zonn had developed interest in literature, and on many occasions he had taken refuge in it. So, little wonder that at this particular day and age when Liberia had been pulled asunder, and those who had vowed to defend the people had become enemies to some of the people, he could find solace nowhere but on the pages of a writer whose time was far removed from his own.
But he knew that Dickens was no prophet, despite the clarity of the message that seemed to represent the madness of the time in Liberia he was living in; he could not but admire the Englishman who further observed, among others that “… it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness.” Darkness, yes, and as it was becoming clear the newspapers had reported it, “Dark Clouds Hung Over Liberia.” The clouds were overwhelming a nation that was originally established to become the champion for the freedom of all Africa, a realization that James Zonn admitted, as tears rained down his face.
For the truth was clear as daylight to James Zonn, a son of Nimba County, that barring a miracle, would any of his people remain alive? This was because the last few days had been hectic, and there had been reports of several Manos and Gios having disappeared from their homes, when they were picked up by men in military uniforms, only to be discovered with their heads missing. Reports from the various towns, and the county itself were too distressing. One of his relatives, who arrived three days before the disappearance of his father from Sanniquellie, reported that even children had not been spared the deepening agony of madness by their elders, and many had been buried by the soldiers in unknown graves. It was then that he remembered the Biblical paraphrase that “Rachel is mourning her children because she could not be comforted.” For all around him Gio and Mano women were washing their disappointment with tears in torrents. Painfully, he could not even understand why Liberians who were married to Gio and Mano women and men had been reported to have disappeared from their homes.
JAMES ZONN brooded over the calamity facing his people and country in the empty house that had once been their own. His sisters, he did not find them at home when he returned a few minutes ago, after the violent beatings and rapes the night before. This, he reasoned, was a deliberate attempt to wipe his people out of Liberia.
‘Call that genocide,’ if you please, was his thought. Yes, he was convinced that he would either survive the injustice facing his people, or perish by starvation. He must do something, and it must be done with all precision.
What hope was there for him and his people? And remembering the poignant description of our time by Dickens, he returned to his memory bank, and sought solace from there, at least to understand the dangers Liberia had sunk into so far, and how and what could be done to save it.
“It was the spring of hope,” Dickens wrote, “it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us.” James Zonn had always believed that there was much good in the quality of the character of Liberians to cherish. History had taught him how the Pioneers came, seeking for freedom and human decency. And the same history told him how those who sought freedom did not allow his people to enjoy the decency of life they had sought for themselves. So to his mind, the Krahn, the Gio, Mano, Kru, Mandingo, Vai and all the ethnic groups of Liberia were victims of man’s inhumanity to man. But in the wake of that reality, what was happening now? It was clearly a wedge of misunderstanding between and among the ethnic groups, as the tribes could no longer hold together as one. What was supposed to happen? Here we must beg Nigerian author Chinua Achebe for assistance and declare that “Things began to fall apart.” For the powers that be identified his people as the worst on earth, and began a systematic revenge killing, the likes of which had never been seen in the annals of Liberia.
This, Zonn admitted, was not only wrong, but downright insane.
“We were all going direct to Heaven,” that was what Dickens wrote, adding, “ we were all going direct the other way–in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on it being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” The surreal nature of Dickens’ review of the dark days of his time, as far as his tale was concerned could….
“Anybody in there must come out here,” Zonn came out of his reverie, when he heard voices outside of the house, demanding anyone in there to get out. “Put your hands over your head so that we can see you.” He heard the crunching of gravel in the yard, and he realized that there were soldiers out there seeking for him.
“What have I done now?” His thoughts refused to accept the reality, this time, that all was coming home. He had said previously that the time had come for him to either die or live. Now they had come, and had come for him. As the boots outside his room demanded his presence, he heard someone shouting behind the house, “They are setting fire to the house.”
In such a situation, death was more preferable to life. He could understand that, and he could wish for that. Adjusting his worn out trousers about his lanky frame, James Zonn reacted with defiance, a characteristic of his Nimba people: tall, proud and willing to meet any danger. “I’m coming out.” And he meant it.
What could they do to him? His father, mother, and sisters were all gone, and he was alone. He believed that and now he might be going out of this unfriendly world. With his hands over his head, his face demonstrating his faith in God, the young man pushed the door open, and what he saw, with the day light streaming on his face, were men in military regalia. No, this was no dream, and neither was he in the cinema watching a ‘Rambo’ movie. He stared in amazement as two soldiers moved towards the house, and setting it ablaze.
Across from the house, someone asked, “Who they come for again?” And the tallest of the ten soldiers, remarked, “Shut up and move from here before I make you a dead body.” It silenced the intruder, and those who could not help it stood at a distance watching the end of a Liberian family. In a distance, gunshots screamed for attention, as the soldiers tied Zonn’s hands behind his back and took him away.