(An extract from the novel “August 1990”)
Not long after Samuel Doe was captured and tortured to death, seven people, among them the American Hladini Devi Davasi, were shot on the bank of the Stockton Creek, outside Monrovia.
The seven were devotees of Hare Krishna, including Hladini herself. Early one morning, they were taken from a Hindu shrine in Monrovia. Like most American nationals living in Liberia when the civil war broke out, Hladini had had an opportunity to leave the country. The United States government had not only sent airplanes and helicopters to rescue its citizens but had also dispatched about 2,000 US marines in ships just off the coast of Monrovia. But Hladini had chosen to stay, even as the security situation deteriorated. In a letter she wrote to one of her friends, she said:
‘Now I’m stranded in Liberia in the middle of a war to overthrow the government. The airport has been seized and they asked all Americans and foreigners to leave the country immediately. American marines sent 6 battleships and 2000 marines to evacuate the citizens. I’m just going to assist the devotees through the hard times. There’s scarcity of food as all the roads are blocked and no supplies can come in. 150,000 people fled the country in the last few weeks. Every day at least 10 people get beheaded and the rebels are still 35 miles from the city…’
It was thought that before she was killed, Hladini and the six others had been friends with Prince Johnson. Sometimes along with a group of rebel fighters, Johnson would visit the Hindu shrine to speak with Hladini, inquiring about her welfare and if she and the others needed his help. In conversations she had with the rebel leader, Hladini would speak about her concerns, especially the plight of the displaced people. She said she was making arrangements with a number of humanitarian organizations that could send food aid to Liberia. Unfortunately, she did not know that mutuality with Johnson could not be trusted. Some say that in fact the relief came and that a program to distribute food to displaced people was in fact under way when Hladini and the others were killed.
It is believed that Hladini had written a letter to Prince Johnson, urging him to stop killing people. But Prince Johnson was then not a man to accept rebuke. At least not from a group whose faith he could hardly understand. He might also have felt that Hladini should have shown him respect and gratitude for the occasional visits he paid and that her letter had done just the opposite.
A day or so following the letter, a number of rebel fighters, Prince Johnson among them, came early that morning to the Hindu shrine. It was believed that a well-wisher had passed a message to the devotees that Johnson was likely to get rid of them. But it was too late to leave the Hindu temple and take shelter elsewhere. Many of the buildings in the area had been either destroyed or seized by Johnson’s troops. But two of the Hindu devotees were able to escape, hiding in a tree. Hladini and the others were herded out of the building.
Outside, they were forced into a military jeep and driven away to the Stockton Creek, which was only at a short distance away. Some say that Prince Johnson had no intention of killing Hladini and had given her his word that they had come to kill the others only. But it is believed that the moment the rebels aimed their weapons at the people kneeling along the bank of the creek, blindfolded with their arms tied behind their backs, Hladini, unable to bear the agony of seeing her Hindu friends shot, cried out, “How dare you kill the devotees of Krishna. Better you kill me than kill them.” And she sprang at one of the fighters, who fired immediately, killing the American. After that, the others were all killed. In the morning locals who had heard the gunshots or witnessed the massacred would find floating on the water the sari that Hladini had worn that fateful morning.
Early the next morning the new recruits, this time with shaven heads, were seen marching across the yard of the INPFL Caldwell base. Many were armed with wooden rifles and machetes. Some carried axes and kitchen knives, along with hammers, crowbars, and depleted single-barrel guns. As soon as they saw the men and boys, the civilian women who lived on the base began to click their tongues and exclaim to one another. Some fled into their homes, shutting the doors behind them.
Lorpu had also seen the new recruits that morning and couldn’t help feeling afraid. She had seen them once before except that they had been NPFL fighters. Now as she watched the newly recruited men of the INPFL marched across the yard, carrying their crude weapons and staring grimly in front of them, memories came flooding back to her.
It had begun from the start of the war when her brother Flomo, then only eighteen years of age, was conscripted into the AFL. Her parents had always been poor and when the war started their condition got only worse. Usually Flomo would come home with canned food and a few cups of parboiled rice. They would all happily gather around him, praising him for his efforts. In those days food was scarce and there was hardly any rice to be found in the market.
Then one day not long before the civil war broke out the army began recruiting young men to fight the rebels. In those days there was a lot of government misinformation. Rebels reported to have been captured by government soldiers made frequent headlines and there was news of the AFL making gains against the rebels. For a while it looked as if the government was gaining the upper hand. But these media reports, many of which lack consistency and which for the benefit of the Samuel Doe government gave only a one-sided account of the war would become the vortex by which many an unfortunate young man would be drawn into fighting for the regime.
One day Flomo did not come home. Two days later, there was still no word of him. Worried about his absence, Lorpu and her parents began to go in search of him at places he used to visit friends, especially those palm wine and cane juice shops; and then at the opium dens, which they heard were in the Red Light slums. But neither was Flomo there nor at any of the other places. And even though they had already heard in their neighborhood that he had left, along with several other young men, to join the AFL, they had still not believed it until he had one evening come home in army uniform, his shaven head shinning like a mirror, with a gun slung over his shoulder.
To be cont’d.