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Healing War-Torn Liberia Takes More Than Elections


Eight opposition parties in Liberia say they're pulling out of presidential elections held this week, claiming the vote count has been manipulated. None of the candidates captured the majority needed to win, including the frontrunner and current, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. She was elected in 2005, following a 14-year-long civil war. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize this month, one of three women honored for what the Nobel committee called the non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women's rights to full participation in peace-building. But awards notwithstanding, Liberia remains a place with many challenges and afflictions, with much of the country too poor even to have electric power or clean running water. Tim Butcher covered the conflict in Liberia as a correspondent for the London Telegraph, returned a few years ago, and has written the book, "Chasing the Devil." He joins us now from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

TIM BUTCHER: I'm delighted to be here. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: You say in the book you went back to take this journey, which essentially kind of retraces the footsteps of Graham Greene's famous journey, because you felt like a stone in your shoe.

BUTCHER: Indeed. It was a sense of, you know, as a reporter you're there reporting a very cataclysmic event, but it doesn't really understand the setting and the context. And some of these cataclysmic events were so violent, so disturbing in Liberia - I saw these images of child soldiers, of mutilation of civilians, of children with their arms cut off in Sierra Leone next door and then spilling into Liberia. I was so defeated by it and just niggled that I didn't understand. So, the exercise in going back was to try and rid myself of that niggling sense of not really understanding the place. And I did it in a long, slow way by going on a long, slow walk for 350 miles through Liberia.

SIMON: We'll note a very different kind of journey than what Graham Greene and his cousin undertook in 1935 in "Journey without Maps." Now, you discovered, for example, that Graham Greene took, is it 26 porters, three servants, a chef and a tin bathtub.

BUTCHER: Indeed. Well, you know, they were traveling allez POC - it was in 1935, of course, and he was an upper-class Englishman, sort of born in that colonial atmosphere where he went along and you maintained your standards. So you had, you know, fresh bread that was baked for you by your chef every morning and a glass of whiskey every evening. So they had cases and cases of Scotch that were carried by these bearer party.

I was going in the 21st century and I didn't think it was very appropriate to set up a bearer party like that, and it's not my style. I just wanted to go to the places they had been to.

SIMON: These distinct histories of these two countries, both settled by former slaves; Sierra Leone, a British colony, some of its early inhabitants slaves from colonies who fought with the British in the American Revolution. And of course, Liberia settled by ex-American slaves. As you see it now, what did this early history set in motion for the future those nations?

BUTCHER: I'm afraid they sent a sense of friction between those outsiders who came in. Freed slaves, as you mentioned from Britain in Sierra Leone, and freed slaves from America that went to Liberia. Friction between them and the locals and, of course, it erupts in 1980 in Liberia where for the first time an indigenous group takes power. And they take power against this elite group who have been lording it over them 100-odd years.

They started themselves actually slaving. It's intriguing that it was in Africa, that at first very important milestone for international law was done with the League of Nations had an inquiry; had a commission of investigation in the late '20s and early '30s, and found the Liberian government, a government of freed slaves guilty of setting up conditions paramount to slaving. It was absolutely amazing.

SIMON: Let me ask you a contemporary question about the election in Liberia. One of the candidates is Prince Johnson. I think we can fairly call him a warlord.

BUTCHER: I think we can.

SIMON: He finished third. This was a rebel leader who videotaped himself drinking Budweiser as his men cut off the ears of the nation's former president.

BUTCHER: Indeed, he drank his Budweiser whilst they cut the ears off having shot in the legs a man called Samuel Doe. He was then tortured and mutilated and died in the next 12 hours. And this video was shot and it's available widely. It was widely promulgated. He was known as then Prince Yormie Johnson, was the warlord's name.

SIMON: And he is considered to be, if you please, the potential kingmaker in this election.

BUTCHER: Indeed, he is a senator. He's a very, very important person. It's intriguing; you put a finger on an important point, which is that at the end of the war in Liberia there has not been the closure for things that happened then - the atrocities.

The decision was taken: We're not going to have justice. We're not going to find people and hold them to account. That'll be too painful. That'll open to any wounds. It'll open a Pandora's Box. For the sake of stability, we're not going to pursue people who committed atrocities.

And interestingly, Charles Taylor, of course, people think about him. He is being pursued but is not being pursued for what he did in Liberia. He is currently in The Hague for what he allegedly did it in neighboring Sierra Leone. It's a big difference. There hasn't been an international court inquiry, as it were, or indictments for Liberia.

My point of view is that until you do get justice in Liberia, you're going to have a festering wound. You're going to have people who feel grievance.

SIMON: Did you at this time find a country that seemed to be some kind of tinderbox?

BUTCHER: I wouldn't say a tinderbox. I found a country which had reverted back to the proven methodology for survival in Africa, and it's proven over a millennia. I found a place - I was walking in the rural areas. I was walking away from where the cameras tend to be. The cameras, when you go to Liberia, the attention is in the city - Monrovia.

And I was way off in the hinterland, where I felt as if I got a real sense of the pulse of the community, the pulse of the place, the rhythms of life. And those rhythms were one of the dedicated to the sheer, simple equation of survival. It was inspiring to see the spirit shown by men, women, children, in ingenuity, in surviving in a bush community.

How do get food? How do you get clean water? How do you get sanctuary for the day?

SIMON: Tim Butcher, thank you so much.

BUTCHER: It's my great pleasure to talk about the (unintelligible). Thank you.

SIMON: Tim Butcher, his new book "Chasing the Devil," a journey through Sub-Saharan Africa in the footsteps of Graham Greene.


SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.