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A Miry Christmas

A True life Story

It was an unusual Christmas in 1992 in a place called Kingsville or Number Seven approximately ten miles from Kakata, the capital city of Margibi County. I was about thirty miles from home in Barnesrville, suburban Monrovia. How I have found myself in Kingsville is a very painful story which among other things points to the reasons why that Christmas day sticks on my mind so well. Many things about Kingsville have all gone from my memory but December 25 refused to go. This is because this Christmas day was the first and perhaps the only Christmas day that I’ve come to know that was devoid of everything else I have come to experience about Christmas. The year 1992 was the year that rebel leader who later became president of Liberia Charles Taylor, now in custody, unleashed his biggest onslaught on the capital in desperate efforts to overrun the West African peace Keeping force and take power by force. It was this war co-named “Operation Octopus” by the heartless people who launched it, that drove me and my siblings, plus nephews and nieces to Kingsville.

Going to Kingsville was not by choice. No one in our group has ever been there or knew a place by that name. When rebels loyal to Charles Taylor took Barnersville on that Tuesday morning in October, we remained holed up in our home. My eldest sister while working for LIBTRACO and LAMCO in Yekepa, Liberia has put a huge sum of money in the construction of the house which made many of our neighbors think that we were wealthy. It was part of resentment and part envy towards us. May be this was why none of them alerted us to flee after receiving credible information and warnings that Barnersville was falling to rebel control on that Tuesday morning. By the time we woke to the sounds of machine guns and bomb shells, almost all of our neighbors have fled towards central Monrovia and Bushrod Island where the ECOMOG peace keeping solders were based. We had thought that the exchange of gunfire would have ended with the rebels being driven back and a safe passage created for us to flee towards the port area so that in case things went very bad we would manage to hang on a ship or boat to a neighboring country. But if wishes were horses, beggars would truly ride all year long. The rebel soldiers were in firm control of our area. Profanity spewed at interim president Amos Sawyer, the ECOMOG field commander … the sounds from nearby houses being ransacked and looted… the cries of girls forced to become sex slaves to strange men and children spoke clearly that the NPFL rebel faction of Charles Taylor has once again taken control. Peeping through the keyhole, one could see long lines of displaced people with bundles of personal effects on their heads heading deeper into rebel controlled areas called by rebel media outlets as “Greater Liberia.”
Tuesday was the first of five days we spent in the house in Barnersville now under the control of flesh eating and blood drinking rebel soldiers. We have given up all hopes of survival. We were sure of death; it was just the matter of time when our house was to be broken into and the occupants shot, maimed, raped, or forced to fight. To seal our reason for a sure death in the hands of rebels, we have been flying a white piece of cloth above our house to honor Interim President Sawyer’s call to wear or fly something white for peace. The rebels were aware of this announcement so honoring such call meant collaborating with their enemies -ECOMOG, the Interim government and other groups opposed to the NPFL.
For almost a week since they seized Barnersville, they had not entered our hideout. We ate nothing during the five days except water which ran out on the third day. Cooking or getting water from the nearby well would tell rebels that people were in the house. So we remained jammed in one room, praying God and communicating only through signs. What had kept them away for five days is still matter of mystery. They had broken into every little shack but kept passing our house by which they took for a school due to its big size and the black board leaning against a wall in the living room. When they finally burst our doors open, they were shock to meet over twenty persons including children all on their knees and begging for their lives to be spared. They agreed to spare our lives but meted against us every other treatment that the rebels were noted for. That was the beginning of the horrors that led us to Kingsville.
Even if the first group of rebels doesn’t kill you, there was no guarantee that the next group will let you go free. There were several reasons why any rebels meeting us in the house would want to kill us. We were operating an elementary school about a mile away. Its foods and other supplies were kept in our house which made it very attractive to rebels. Besides, we had lot of cash from student tuition which was to be deposited on the day the rebels took us by storm. For these and other reasons, we had to leave our home. Going to “Greater Liberia” was not on the list although that was where rebels were sending everybody. We were no strangers to passing through rebel lines so we vowed not to do that again even if it meant death in Monrovia or in its suburbs. We were sure of dying once we stepped on the road towards the heart of rebel areas. We resolved to leave our house to seek refuge somewhere else. With loads on our heads and hearts in our mouths, we stepped out heading to an Aladura Church compound in nearby Behwen where we learned a lot of displaced people were sheltering. If we should die, we wanted for others to be around to tell our story so we decided to go where a large number of persons gathered. Our group included my brothers, some of my sisters and their significant others, nieces, and nephews. Upon stepping in an open field just midway in our journey to the church yard, the rebels were after us. They came from every side, pulling us this way and that way and shooting between our legs. Such a way of shooting between the legs, they referred to as “digging potatoes” or “digging teto” for short. We were deafened by the sounds of gunfire and covered up in smoke when our “potatoes were dug.” We spotted one of our neighbors amongst them carrying an AK-47 rifle but he signaled that he could not do anything to save us because those leading the raid were his superiors on a special mission. He told us later that his commander who was doing most of the “digging” called Benjamin Glasco aka “Glasco the Rebel” had been on a killing spree all week and there was nothing anyone could do or say to sway or distract him. That was hell on the Old Field and for sure we spent the rest of the day in the devil’s rein. Only our lives were spared; everything else, not just material possessions, was taken away from us.
For the rest of the month in Barnersville, the treatments were the same as we sought refuge in this place or that place or abducted by rebels. Our hope was that maybe, the West African peace keeping force (ECOMOG) and the national army would be reinforced to beat back the rebellion. That did not happen until almost a month of suffering various forms of barbarism ever to be meted against other human beings. Girls being raped and boys being used as human shields or forced to loot or carry loots for rebels were everyday occurences in rebel controlled Barnersville and we were in the middle of it all. Either pushing a dilapidated car filled with loots or carrying boxes on our heads, my brothers and I hung together. Our prayers had changed from asking God to allow us to live to confessing our sins so that when we die in the midst of the ill treatment, He would grant us residence in paradise with Jesus.

Things moved from worse to ridiculous. ECOMOG and perhaps other forces were hitting the rebels and shelling the areas in which we resided. There was no way the bullets and bombs from ECOMOG would distinguish rebels from abducted civilians especially males. The jet bomber brought in was flying low over Barnersville and “pooping” indiscriminately. “Duduboy”, was the way we called the fighter plane which was causing untold havoc not just for the rebels but civilians as well. Rebel fighters were beginning to retreat and urging civilians to leave as well and go to “Greater Liberia.” Sending civilians behind rebel lines was their way of swelling up the population in rebel controlled territory to make the case that Mr. Taylor who controlled a vast part of the country also had the biggest population and therefore should be given the presidency. The rebels were not only telling people to leave and go to Greater Liberia, they were enforcing it by shooting at people who refused or as they put it “were waiting for our enemies”. Those people, according to the rebels who “were waiting for the enemies” were enemies themselves and therefore needed to be killed like any other enemy combatant. Life is so precious so since it was still in us, we resolved not to just stand in the way of bullets. We decided to gamble with precious life by heading to rebel territories, maybe we would save it.

So by the end of November, we set forth for Grater Liberia. We were eight in number; some members of our group have taken alternative routes though not by choice. The eight of us (three brothers, two sisters, two nephews and a niece) who ran in one direction stayed together towards Greater Liberia. Oh my God, it was hell! People ventured different approaches to stay alive. Many boys joined the rebellion to escape the rebels’ onslaught. Some girls and even older women stayed with the first rebel fighter who abused them so as to protect them from other rebels or find them something to eat. It was full scale inhumanity at its zenith. What has gotten into Liberians to be so cruel against their own people was not a question to ponder over on the way to Greater Liberia. As we say in Liberia, “when a man gets burn, you don’t expect his beard to be spared. It will also burn along.” Rebel territory was what it is, controlled by rebels. So whatever calamity came one’s way was in its totality.

We started our journey to Greater Liberia at night for fear of duduboy, the jet bomber firing at us. We were traveling along with some rebels who hailed from the same little district like us and spoke the same local language. Although “soldier talk for himself”, they assured us that they were going to take us through rebel lines with ease and no one was going to lay a finger on us. With Major Jarwee leading the way, we trudged along. It is really better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in men not to mention rebels. They left us at a time we needed their help most. When we came to a place near the University of Liberia Fendell campus called “D-Ground”, a group of rebels stopped us for interrogation. “D” as they told us later stood for death. Jarwee and his group pleaded with them to let us go but they refused. Jarwee and his band of rebels said they did not want to travel under daylight for fear of the fighter plane so they left. The rebels at “Death Ground” told us that the departure of our chaperons told them that we were the enemies they thought us to be and that was why those guys knowing what “D Ground” is, decided to leave us there. We spent the rest of the night in their death chamber. It smelled with human blood and rotten flesh. At dawn, they began interrogating us at their check point along the paved street. The interrogation lasted until past noon, letting everyone else who came by to pass through. It was like since they have gotten eight persons to kill, they have probably met their daily quota and so the rest could just pass on.

Atlas, some one whom I believe was an angel came by. His name was Kortee, a rebel fighter. We met once in Barnersville a month prior but he swore to his fellow rebels that we were his family people and that he had lived with my sister for a long time. Kortee put on a show and finally he succeeded. They took everything from us including our foot wares. They did not care that we walk barefooted for the rest of our trek. We were set free to continue our journey to what suppose to be safety. And Kortee remained with us onwards. Check point after check point, his story did not change. Even when others rebels asked him why he was putting his life on the line for us, he swore that we were good people who did not deserve to suffer or die.

At the most dreaded Fifteen Gate check points, Kortee was not succeeding. My two brothers and I were locked away in a tank at the first checkpoint at Fifteen Gate. The tank was kept in their jail house and reserved for prisoners who were to die in any minute. The oil tank was big enough to house my brothers and me and even others if there were other condemned prisoners like us. The only light in the tank came through gun shot holes at the bottom of the tank inclined on the window of the cell. My eldest brother was forced in first. He beckoned us to come inside as we attempted to resist or plea against being forced inside for fear of suffocation. With batons and gun butts, slaps and whips they forced us inside a place that represented the room of no return. My eldest brother looked very comfortable. He smiled from the corner of his mouth to restore hope in his little brothers. We have looked up to him for direction and nurturing and so he was not giving up that role not even in an empty gas tank. He raised a worship song that we all joined in as if controlled by some magic spare. It was like some spirit swept over us that reminded us about the story of Paul and Silas chained and imprisoned in Phillipi during a missionary journey. Long before this day, people who admired the relationship among the three of us nicknamed us the three Hebrew boys. This was a moment that the story of the three Hebrew Boys in the fiery furnace of King Nebuchadnezzar hit home with us. We hardly completed the first stanza of the worship song we began when we heard a loud noise cracking open the lid of the tank. A fierce rebel came with a sharp bayonet and ordered us to move forward to get our ears chopped off. The chopping off of body parts was a normal way rebels treated condemned prisoners. Without the slightest hesitation, we moved with uniformed steps and bowed our heads before the purposeful rebel for the surgical operation.
“As you were”, he meant to say, but what came out was “ashu-el.” He stepped back and locked up that tank where we have been praising God almost half-naked. The next time we heard a sound at our cell, it was the voice of one rebel ordering us to be set free. He gave us our clothes and ordered us to go. Surprisingly, Kortee was still there with the rest of our family members rejoicing that we were set free.

Stepping down the hill in Fifteen Gate was another check point where the manners were told that some fighters from a rivaling warring faction (ULIMO) who should have been killed were set free. This time they said we were not getting through. They locked us up again without asking us any questions. This time, our cell was a toilet. There was no running water in the toilet but that did not stop the rebels and others from using it. There were feces everywhere except the spots in which we chose to stand. We remained in the stinking cell for about an hour before being released. So when we narrowly escaped death again, we decided that we were not going further into Greater Liberia. The next town almost three miles from 15 Gate was Kingsville. We spent the night there and swore not to walk closer and closer into death any longer. Ahead on the road leading to Kakata was a checkpoint commanded by a drugged and heartless rebel nicknamed the four f’s: I Find you, I Fool you, I F--- you, I Forget about you. We fear any of us especially our sisters falling prey to any of the f’s so we did not go further. On the morning of the next day, we saw others from Barnersville displaced in Kingsville. They encouraged us also to stay in Kingsville and wait for ECOMOG to clear the rebels so we can return home. And that is how we found ourselves spending Christmas in Kingsville.

December 25, 1992 in Kingsville was unlike any other Christmas I have ever seen. We had nothing to be happy about. Besides being surrounded by gun totting rebels who halted and questioned us every now and then we had nothing to eat or any big event to look up to. There was no going to church, the major event I have come to cherish about Christmas. Although there were about three churches in Kingsville, the tattered clothes loosely hanging on our bodies put some level of restriction on our desires to congregate. Besides, there were more rebel fighters who hang around the churches to pick out those suspected of conniving with “enemies” whom they referred to as “connapers.” People from Monrovia especially boys of my age were their major suspects. On most mornings, we slipped into the bush not just to fetch something to eat or sell but also to escape from the daily harassments or possible conscriptions by rebels retreating from the war front.

The Christmas I had come to know over the years was a one full of feasting, merriment and a lot of church activities. Back in my home town of Doodwicken, every one would leave the farms and villages and converge in the big town. All the bushes would be cleared, grasses trimmed and houses decorated with red earth, charcoal and chalk from the creeks. The church yard would be filled with young people practicing for Christmas plays, recitations or Christmas corals. We kids struggled to remain awake until midnight just before the morning of Christmas to hear the bell from Heaven which announced the birth of the Messiah. Although I never heard the bell because I was never awake at midnight, it was always something to look forward to. I always fell asleep before the bell only to be awakened on Christmas morning by the singing of the church choir moving from door to door spreading the good tidings of Christ’s birth. In Monrovia where I stayed both as an adolescent and a teenager, everywhere the air would be filled with Christmas music and the streets crammed with people who had been saving all year for the big day.

Kingsville was a sharp contrast. Few days prior to the big day, we had been going through all the bushes to find anything edible but to no avail. We went fishing, setting traps or looking for palm nuts but had absolutely no luck. During one of those trips on the eve of Christmas, my brothers and I were arrested and taken to the rebel G-2 office based on a complaint by a rebel sympathizer who called herself “God Made Mistake.” The lady who is so-called because of her masculine looks told some rebels that because we frequented the bushes, we were either stealing other people’s stuffs on their farms or we had “DI.” DI or different intentions in rebel controlled territory was a serious crime. So there we were stirring death in the face on the eve of Christmas. We were later released upon the intervention of Jimmy, an old time friend from our hometown who commanded the Cobra Unit based on the outskirt of Kingsville.

Jimmy who was now a Captain in the rebel army refused any credit for securing our release. He said that such was his obligation to show kindness to his brothers. He once sat with me in fourth grade back in Doodwicken where we both began our childhood education. Behind the GMG ammunitions crisscrossed on his chest, I could still see the always smiling and handsome young lad whose creativity at telling jokes was spoken about across the entire land of Jeadepo. He played drums for the local church choir in Doodwicken almost a decade prior to meeting him in Kingsville. Now he carried a general machine gun across his shoulders and a camouflage new testament Bible in his back pocket. He told us that as God commanded the children of Israel to fight wars, he was in the Taylor war to drive enemies from the land and free his people. We needed Jimmy’s help to save us from a DI allegation so we would rather respond with an “amen” than try to discuss or argue theology at a rebel check point.

To continue his goodwill towards us, Jimmy invited us to spend some time with him on Christmas day. He promised us that we would eat, drink, and celebrate Christmas the Doodwicken style. Such an invitation was hard to resist although visiting Jimmy meant being in the midst of a lot of other rebels, something we always tried to avoid. With bellies flat like empty bags and no hope of getting any meal on Christmas day, we resolved to honor our friend’s call. When we arrived at Jimmy’s abode, there was no food left. The rebels ate it all. Even the portion Jimmy told “his woman” to save for us was all gone.
We were embarrassed and disappointed beyond what we could stomach.

“Airplane can’t blow horn,” the rebels told us, meaning that they could not wait for us. Our faces were covered with shame as if smeared with mud. Jimmy was angry that his friends had nothing to eat. He loaded his rifle and said that he was going to kill those who ate our food. For a while, we watched some other rebels restraining and pleading with Jimmy against carrying out his plans. When his anger subsided, he gave us just a little bit of what was left on his plate. He made a gesture with his right index finger directing us out of the room in which he handed me the plate.

“Take it and move up survilianly!” There was really nothing on the plate to even half fill up a child let alone three starving bellies. There was nothing much to move with either militarily or "civilianly." I took the almost empty plate to move away to where we could eat. In the process, I slipped and fell and there went the little food all over the place. I fell terribly bad as not just the food but my dignity wasted on the dusty floor. The rebels responded with jeers and laughter. Jimmy was laughing too. Everyone including the middle age woman Jimmy called “my woman” was making fun of me.
“What a miry Christmas!” I heard me whispering to myself.
We returned home feeling hungrier and worse than when we left and ashamed to tell the story. And so we slept on Christmas day with nothing that Christmas has always being. It was not the merry Christmas I have come to know and celebrate.

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