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The Road to Fendell: August 2, 1990

We have had devotion that night before going to bed. Daily devotions were not out of the ordinary for our household especially since the war has raged on leaving no doubt that the capital Monrovia was going to fall to rebels; it was just the matter of time. At first we were excited for a change but soon found out that this change through a rebel war was going to be bitter, costly and things were not going to go the way many of us have expected or wished. Three or more times, we had ventured into the Paynesville suburb which was now under the rebel control of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) in search of food. From our first encounter with the rebels, it was evident that their activities were nothing closed to what their leader, spokesman, and other loyalists have preached on radio. They were killing innocent people, looting everything, acted under the influence of drugs and had no leadership or direction whatsoever. They did not disguise their intention of killing all Krahns and Mandingos, current and former civil servants, any kind of military personnel, and just any one whom they perceived as unfamiliar and suspicious. As we met them, they screened us for our ethnic affiliation, any security or military training, level of education, relationship with any former or present government official, army personnel, or for any of those things which they were programmed to get rid of.

From experiencing their activities first hand and based on what others told us, we knew of their many atrocities but chose to make our way deep into their controlled areas anyway for fear of being caught in crossfire as they battle for president Doe’s fortified Executive Mansion or dying from starvation. The story that was propelling the movement was that areas far removed from the frontlines were safe and conditions there were normal. Their propaganda machine worked like crazy as many people chose such alternative for food and safety. Besides, they were urging all to flee into their areas. It was a journey of no return as no one ever came back to relay the horrors of crossing rebel checkpoints and the complete anarchy in the areas they held.

Evening and morning devotions became a norm in almost every household. With our hearts united, we sang and danced to the glory of God, defying the tranquility that was imposed by the curfew hours.

My Soul is on Fire

My bones’re set on fire

In my heart, there is a burning desire

I’m going to kick that devil around

I’m going to bring his kingdom down

My soul, my soul is on fire.

We literally kicked the air to demonstrate a brutal and victorious treatment of our adversary-the devil whom we blamed for the chaotic trend events in our country had turned.

With the devil being kicked around and his kingdom wrestled down to the ground, we set foot into what we came to experience as living hell on the morning of August 2, 1990. NPFL rebels were everywhere from the Monrovia Suburbs of Barnersville all the way to where only our minds could imagine. But as we will soon come to find out at the first rebel checkpoint, this devil was not going to be kicked around although his kingdom was right there in our midst on this back road leading to the University of Liberia Fendell Campus. Apparently, it was far better to die in your own home or neighborhood, than walking into the NPFL death chambers. But this was the journey of no return so we moved on with our hearts in our mouths and a 23rd Psalm customized for our purpose in our heads: As I walk through the valleys of the rebels, I am shaken to death but I know the Lord is with me.

There were several reasons why we should not be heading this way deep into rebel controlled areas. We have watched them shoot at point blank range innocent people in Barnersville and at Stephen Tolbert Estate who they believed were members of President Doe’s Krahn ethnic group, Mandingo or former government officials. What was then driving us knowing that we could be next to fall at their bullets for a list of endless crimes including “looking like you have been enjoying?” First, there were not many options: Our food has dried out completely, Monrovia was going to be a bloody battle ground and we had to leave. Going to Sierra Leone was not an option as it required big money maybe the price for two bags of parboiled rice for one person to travel on a mini bus or Peugeot to the Sierra Leonean border. We were twenty one persons including children and so this put a trip to Sierra Leone off the table. Staying put in Monrovia to die from hunger or being caught in the cross fire of the most intensive battle that was eminent was one option. The next option which we took only because we had resolved, under the leading of the Holy Spirit was to enter the belly of the rebel World. The assumption was that the farther we went into rebels controlled territory, the better conditions were as those areas were not affected by the carnage we were experiencing in the Monrovia area.

Barnersville was not a place to be. There was the breakaway NPFL faction headed by Prince Johnson on one side, the NPFL on the other side, and the national army which by this time we have named Doe’s army picking on everyone to still remain relevant. So, on August 2, 1990 we took the ultimate gamble with our lives and joined several others heading to rebel land. In our minds, there was a fifty-fifty chance that we would make it to safety. We said our final prayers and were convinced more than ever before that God was going with us and that we were going to pass through waters and flames unharmed. To close the brief devotion that morning, we sang about God's presence with us,

He is before me

And behind me

All around me, Alle-lu-ia

With God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit wrapped all round us, we turned our backs to our home into NPFL’s Liberia. The youngest person making the travel was my nephew Takah whom had just turned six years old. The oldest, my dad was about sixty something or seventy. Papah had come to spend the Christmas with us and get medical attention when rebels closed the highway leading to back to his home in Southeastern Liberia. Ever since we were kids, there had been ground breaking ceremonies and talks to construct this so-called Ganta-Harper Highway but to no avail so it was an easy thing for rebels to block such alley. Just stop the flow of traffic for a week or two and the bushes would gladly take over and do the rest. Now we were on the road again but this time it was on foot and precious lives were on the line.

Saye, a boy whom was a friend of my nephews in Yekepa was also making the trip with us. He lived in the Jallah Town area and attended the University of Liberia prior to the rebel war. When things got tense in Monrovia and reprisals were been taken against members of the Gio and Mano tribes, he sought refuge with us in Barnersville. He had known my sister in Yekepa for ever so long and a good friend of her sons. We had shielded him from the National army hunting young men from Nimba County and this was his time to return the favor and walk us through rebel lines.

The night before, we have devised a special language to use in rebel territory. First we had to speak our native tongue at a 100% level so that no one understood what we were saying. This was a very hard thing to do as normally we spoke a mix and match version especially with nouns but this was a life and death situation so we had to comply or be quiet. Our uncle also making the trip with us with us kept us in check. Any time we found ourselves conversing in English, he would caution “let’s go to Doodwicken,” meaning we should converse as if we were in our hometown. The names of the main actors were translated. Charles Taylor was translated literally as the one who sews; Prince Johnson was called “the king’s son.” Rebels did not like to be called as such so we had to disguise that too. The name rebel was translated as “those who operate in the jungles” or “heartmen operating from the bush,” and so on.

We hardly left Barnersville when we came upon the first rebel check point. Already, they might have gotten their first catch for the day. A man about 30 or 40 years old was stripped to his under pants and tied up like a goat being readied for slaughter. Hands tied behind his back with one elbow touching the other, he wailed in pains asking whoever he could recognize in the queue to plea for him. He stood in a pool formed by his blood and begged to be spared. His cries and plea of innocence were like music in the ears of the rebels. They walked along the long winded queue we have formed believing that they had some magical power that enabled them to identify Krahns, Mandingos, former government soldiers, government employees… to be killed. As they sniffed us for a prey, they took away our personal belongings and even things we had on. One of them just about my size unbuckled my belt and pulled it off my waist as if I was only a custodian of his property. You could tell that he had not had a bath for days if not weeks. He smelled like a fish that has been dead for days and left unnoticed along the roadside. Saye, the Mano boy who was leading us lifted up his eyes to me with a smile to assure me that it was only a belt and I had no cause to fear for my life. This was just a prelude to the way our rights would dissipate for the years ahead in the hands of rebels who have been programmed to kill, rob, and destroy.

From there onwards, each checkpoint presented new difficulties, risks, humiliation, and more sufferings. And there were so many of them. Saye was up to the task. Speaking his vernacular to his fellow tribesmen and women and pleading on our behalf. They had all the reasons in the World to kill us but Saye was unrelenting. At some checkpoints, he wept profusely begging that our lives be spare. My uncle who was traveling along with us was another major target of those flesh eating rebels. He had been working in the Liberian government since he graduated from high school some thirty years back. They were suspecting him as a former military officer for which they ruled that he had to die. That meant all of us needed to go along as killing one member of a family was not enough for rebels. Other family members that were left would possibly take revenge so killing Uncle Cheah meant killing all of us. Besides, harboring or not pointing out someone whom the rebel movement thinks had to be killed was as grievous as being a member of the rebel condemned tribes or groups.

Checkpoint after check point, the situation grew worse. Somewhere we were judged as Krahns, elsewhere as new army recruits on AWOL, or family members of those who had been “enjoying.” All these meant death and he rebels were eager to execute. When they said their gun has not eaten, they wanted to kill civilians so they made up every lie imaginable to feed their weapons.

It took us all day to see the oil palm plantation that borders the University of Liberia Fendell Campus where we first heard food distribution was going on and that once we got there, all our troubles were over. We could stay there as long as we wanted to allow the NPFL time to kill the president and finish the war. As soon as their leader took power, normalcy would return and we would return home walking on clouds. Well, if a rebel told you that the sun was up and the weather was fine, you needed an umbrella to protect yourself from the rain. Lie is a rebel’s middle name. Even their leaders use lies and deceit to keep them fighting and their support coming.

By the time we got to the Fendell Campus, we were exhausted, hungry and above all, we hated the rebels with all our senses. Those rebels and the people behind the killing spree we have come to know as the National Patriotic Front of Liberia were all bunches of heartless criminals driven by revenge and a thirst for power and wealth. But this was just the road to Fendell, day one in Liberian uncivil war 101.

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