Liberia, a country caught between heaven and hell
By Jessica McDiarmid
A young man wearing camouflage shorts lowers his sunglasses down over his eyes from their perch atop unkempt braids, eyeing me up and down as I stand in a throng of young men on the outskirts of Monrovia.
"Welcome to hell," he says.
Then he melts back into the crowd of mainly ex-combatants eager to tell a white journalist about what life is like in Liberia.
Seven years have passed in this small West African nation since the guns finally fell silent after a gruesome 14-year civil war that claimed the lives of an estimated 250,000 people.
The pieces are slowly, fitfully, being put back together. Looking out across the lush hillsides teeming with tropical forest and down the long, serene beaches, it's not hard to believe this place will one day be a paradise.
Turn the other way and you are faced with stark reminders of the long, brutal war that was fought here, and lives on in the memories of the people who have come home.
Those memories are omnipresent, in the stories people tell you, in the scars on the landscape, in the haunted faces you find yourself looking into, wondering, what have your eyes seen?
Outside the airport where crowds wait for arrivals holding up signs emblazoned with NGO logos, UN jeeps idling nearby, a young man sells cellphone credit, referred to as "scratch."
He says he returned from Ghana's Buduburam refugee camp four months ago. All he wants now, he tells me, as we stand on the asphalt in sweltering heat, is to get out of Liberia.
But there are no jobs, he says, and no opportunities.
"It's hard here, man, hard. Look at me. I'm selling scratch," he says. "Can you take me back to Ghana?"
The hour-long drive into Monrovia from the airfield betrays little of Liberia's troubled past. A flawless highway rolls over hills dotted with palm and mango trees, past thatched bus stops and villages of fresh-painted cottages. It's a beautiful country, far more developed than I expected, in total defiance of my preconceptions of what a "post-conflict" country would look like.
Upon entering Monrovia, on a dirt soccer pitch alongside the road, young men are playing soccer. Some are on crutches, missing limbs, or pushing themselves in wheelchairs. Many are former child soldiers, falling into a strange category of being both victims of the war, and perpetrators of it.
I spent my first evening in Monrovia at a restaurant on the beach, sitting beneath pristine palm trees while nearby, a couple of people swam as the sun set in a brilliant riot of colour. Joggers huffed by through the clean, white sand and the smartly dressed waiters offered flawless service. It was like heaven on earth.
Then someone asked how close we were to the site of the execution of Liberia's president and 27 other government officials, who were tied to poles and shot on a beach in 1980.
Strolling through downtown, impressive new buildings stand proudly beside blown out walls pocked with bullet holes. Atop a hill overlooking Monrovia, a palace is being restored to former glory, complete with a swimming pool, domed ceilings and gazebos. Just outside the security fence erected around the renovations, a group of youth are hard at work in the piles of discarded concrete. They're chipping off the cement with a hammer to get the metal rods out, which they'll be able to sell for a pittance.
I ask them why they're busting stone when they should be in school. They holler and laugh, exchanging quick words in "Liberian English" that I can't understand. Then the smallest boy says, "No parents no more. We gotta eat, lady."
On Broad Street, one of downtown's main drags, stands a monument to the 50th anniversary of the Geneva Convention, a globe with the words, "Even wars have limits," written in red, block letters underneath.
On a nearby bench facing the monument, a young Liberian man sits chain-smoking, telling his story, of how his father was taken from the house and killed, the body left on the street, of how his mother fled with five young children in tow, of the almost unspeakable brutality they saw on the month-long walk from Monrovia to a refugee camp in over the border in Cote d'Ivoire.
We sit looking for a time at the words and he smiles wryly.
"Ah," he says, leaning back and stretching. "Liberia, man."
It's not heaven, it's not hell, but somewhere in between.