Refugees Magazine Issue 104 (UNHCR's World) - Liberia: Madness in Monrovia

Refugees Magazine, 1 June 1996

In the midst of murderous anarchy, UNHCR Deputy Representative Musa Abiriga leads a mission to rescue 75 children.

By Musa Abiriga
UNHCR Deputy Representative Monrovia, Liberia

I was awakened at 5:45 a.m. by the sound of bombs exploding. These early morning attacks by NPFL/ULIMO (K), alias "Government forces," against Krahn positions at Monrovia's Barclay Training Centre (BTC) and Camp Schiefflin had been going on for over two weeks. I was worried about it this particular day because we UN staff were planning to go to U.N. Mamba Point during the morning to try to salvage whatever remained in our looted offices.

After a quick breakfast of tea and bread, I proceeded to the 9 a.m. meeting only to find it was cancelled. At about 9:15, while having an informal discussion on the bad security situation in Monrovia, I heard gunfire coming from the direction of the bridge over the nearby St. Paul River. This was followed by continuous firing from our U.N. compound at Riverview towards the river. I was convinced that the long-awaited attack by the fighters and looters was on. A fellow from UNDP and myself rushed to the U.N. communications centre to seek cover. I could see three of the staff hiding under tables while two others were rushing to the nearest bathroom.

The shooting lasted about 15 minutes. It turned out it was the result of a boat slowly floating along the St. Paul River, very close to the Riverview compound. On seeing the boat, the ECOMOG soldiers guarding Riverview thought that it was ferrying fighters and opened fire. When the ECOMOG soldiers stationed at the Tweh Farm compound on the other side of the river heard the shooting, they assumed that Riverview had been overrun by fighters of the ULIMO (J), and that the fighters were providing cover fire for men trying to attack Tweh Farm.

As I was preparing to depart along with other U.N. colleagues to go see what was left of our looted offices in Mamba Point, I received an unexpected visit from the coordinator of the Vahun shelter, where 75 unaccompanied minors were accommodated. The shelter is run by a local agency, Children's Assistance Programme. The coordinator told me that the children had been sent out of the compound after the fighters had looted all their food and other belongings. The children had walked the previous day to Paynesville, a logging town near the Free port, and were currently resting at a school there. I immediately arranged to take the only remaining UNHCR truck all the others were stolen together with ECOMOG escorts, to Paynesville to collect the children. I drove our four-wheel-drive vehicle, although I knew it was risky because it had been the target a week earlier of a hijack attempt by six armed fighters. Fortunately, ECOMOG troops came our rescue.

This trip was not so comfortable either. Two ECOMOG soldiers were on the UNHCR truck, which was following me. We learned that earlier, a vehicle driven by the U.N. security assistant had been commandeered by armed fighters despite the fact that he too was escorted by two ECOMOG soldiers. As we drove through Dualel market, I could see armed men in looted cars which had been painted in camouflage colours. One such car overtook us and stopped. I could feel a cold sweat running down the back of my neck. My knees were shaking. I could hardly control my driving. However, the fighters ignored us and we drove on.

On reaching the Paynesville school, the two ECOMOG soldiers appeared very scared, restless and in a bad temper. If the children were not ready, they said, we would have to return immediately to Riverview without them. I objected, but told those taking care of the children to hurry up. In less than 15 minutes, we had all 75 children aboard and headed back to Monrovia.

Mission accomplished, I tried to raise the U.N. communications centre by walkie-talkie but was rudely interrupted by a fighter using one of our stolen handsets. "You clear the network, this is General Butt-Walked," he said. "Don't you see that we are busy on an operation?"

We delivered the children to a school for the blind near the Riverview compound, and I arranged for the coordinator to prepare food for them.

By 6 p.m., we were back at the residence of the UNDP Representative attending the daily security meeting. As the day had demonstrated, security was in short supply.

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 104 (1996)