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Poignant memories from the land of sweet liberty

Poignant memories from the land of sweet liberty

Liberia, just as Ivory Coast’s capital, Abidjan was referred to as ‘Petite Paris,’ so was this country, the land of sweet liberty considered to be ‘Little America.’ It has seen the good and the worse times but once the guns went silent and the child soldiers realized it was no good to continue snuffing lives out of humans, both locals as well as foreigners, people were always in a hurry to pack their bags and return. (Photo: Osman Benk Sankoh)

The land is welcoming.  It attracts and repels every idea not to return. Sometimes, I even wondered, considering the number of people that I had known, who had always made a second coming, if this land is not an aphrodisiac. First, it was ECOMOG soldiers who, even after their mission was accomplished in the late 90s dared ventured back and settled on the very streets where they had targeted rebels. Now that the UN Mission is currently here, most people have left but even before you know it, they are back, for one reason or another.

Looking back, when on July 12, 2004, I boarded an almost broken Weasua propeller aircraft from Lungi Airport to Roberts International Airport (RIA) on a very rainy day, I never thought  this was one place where I was going to stay this long . From then, unto today, I had spent seven years of unbroken stay in Liberia. Today, even as I pack my bags to take a break, it is with a feeling of nostalgia. I had made friends in this country, I have been exposed to a whole lot of experiences that I never thought I was going to have and I have also had the opportunity of putting to test both my leadership and administrative skills other than my journalism know how.  And the result? Well this is for those I have worked with over the years to say but like the proverbial Agama lizard who could jump from the high Iroko tree and praises itself if no one does, then I will definitely thump my check that at least I have a seasoned outlook on global peace, security, humanitarian and even recovery issues.

But how did it all start? Margaret Novicki, Patrick Coker and Kingsley Lington had all worked with the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL).Then, as a student at the university and a journalism apprentice to known names like Sulaiman Momodu, Idrissa Conteh a.k.a Atomic Pen, Abubakarr Talib Jalloh and Umaru Fofana among others, I made it my responsibility to always cover activities of UNAMISIL whether rain or shine. For me, it was not only gathering news but doing exclusive interviews with the egg heads of the Mission  and  also writing Opeds whether they liked them or not. While we sang praises of the Blue Berets for their efforts at getting all factions to the peace table, we also took some time to draw their attention to issues that they would be happy not to see on the dailies. But in the interest of fair play and objectivity, we questioned why five hundred peacekeepers could easily surrender their weapons to rag tag rebels and allow themselves to be detained at Sam ‘Mosquito’ Bockarie’s ‘cassada’ farm in Kailahun. We also questioned why a UN spokesperson could easily rush to broadcast to the entire world that rebels were hurriedly knocking on the city’s gates at Waterloo when in actual fact, kids were busy playing on the dusty fields of the township while women were busy selling their cassava bread and fish to customers.  While we checkmated them on some of these issues, we were quick to put pen to paper again when Gen VJ Khurmar Jetley, UN Force Commander renowned for his stainless Ray Ban glasses and well starched and spotless military fatigues launched Operation Khukri and extracted his peacekeepers from the jaws of the rebel enclave in Kailahun.

If all these were being counted into the books of the UNAMSIL PR machine, it never occurred to me until one day, after a press briefing at their Mammy Yoko headquarters, that I was called by the trio and told to start packing my bags as the team was soon heading to Liberia to set up another UN Mission. I never thought I was ever going to be given such an opportunity. I was comfortable being a journalist and all I wanted was to be an editor but then, I was already an editor.

However, the day came and I was at Lungi airport where I bade farewell to the city and then boarded Weasua. The flight itself was another story altogether. With limited flights then to the country that was just emerging from conflict, we were packed like sardines and shared the limited seats with luggage as if there was no luggage compartment.  Adding to our woes, it was raining heavily and the roof of the airplane was leaking like a rat infested thatched hut.  With hope and prayers, we arrived safely at the Roberts International Airport (RIA) and immediately went through Immigration. Let me spare you the spectacle of the airport then, the pothole-riddled road that led me to the city and the bullet ridden and carcasses of buildings that greeted me. The city was still a ghost town and curfew could be announced at any hour of the day. Lotus Restaurant then was the only place to get a descent lunch. If you wanted a sober dinner or some quiet place for sober reflection, then it had to be Royal Hotel or La Pointe at Mamba Point. Interestingly, the latter was the first place I was taken to and I think it was a dinner organized for Margaret Novicki who was celebrating her birthday or so, on that very day.  

When I started working, the HQ was based at the German Embassy but because I was assigned to the Outreach Unit, we immediately made it to the Joint Implementation Unit (JIU) compound in downtown Monrovia where we dealt with ex-combatants and generally, the grassroots. We organized very huge musical concerts and invited top celebrities from the sub region to help us spread the message of peace to a nation that was just waking up from the slumber of war. We organized nationwide sporting events and with time, the A Star is Born National Talent Hunt became our yearly pet-project and the most single biggest event in the nation’s calendar after Miss Liberia.

For this, our Unit became the darling of the country. We had a band, a popular comedian was working with us and our graphic artiste churned out posters and flyers and even comedy that were placed on the very few national newspapers that were then in operation.

As if that was not enough, I became the poster boy of the Mission with my face elevated on giant size billboards all over the city. The message was on HIV/AIDS and rape and even unto this day; people still continue to stop me on the road to ask how much I got from the UN for those billboards.  For the records, I got satisfaction by contributing to that campaign which money cannot buy.

There are friends that I worked with all these years that I will never forget.  Issac Yeah was the one who literally pampered me during those early days.  Kingsley believed in me and left me to take responsibilities on projects I never thought I was going to pull through and my behind the- scenes man was Chris Wolo.  For Sulaiman Momodu , who first took a break and then hurriedly returned to Liberia but this time, with UNHCR as Spokesperson, he was the person I always turned to when I want to compare notes.  We don’t necessarily agree on political issues back home but he is one that I can always confide in.

As I enter my last days in Liberia, I can look back at the sweet and bitter memories that will always linger in my mind. I was part of history when we got rebels to disarm peacefully without resorting to another round of war. I closed my eyes and said a little prayer the day the results of the first post conflict Presidential elections were announced which for me, was an indication that Liberia was now moving forward.  Not once but twice, I have had very close up and personal moments with the President of Liberia, Madam Ellen Johnson–Sirleaf, first, at a farewell gig she organized for Zainab Bangura who had then got a call up to serve as Foreign Minister and then, at the launching of a musical album for Moses Swaray (who won the second edition of the A Star is Born event).  Interestingly, at this program, the President, wanted to pay for a copy of the just launched CD, took some crispy US bills and handed them to me.  Truth is, this was a UN event and the CD was meant to be free and my bosses were all watching.  Does protocol demand that I turned down the President’s outstretched hand?  If I collect the money, what do I do with it?  In any case, it was resolved with smiles and a pat on the back.  For the bitter memories, I lost a friend, Curtis who had joined us on a Sunday for an outing on the beach. Happily we went in the morning and tragically, we returned with a dead body to the John F Kennedy Hospital as the 21 year old was believed to have plunged himself into the lake when no one was paying attention and the rest of the story is history.  I also had my own close shave with death driving on the RIA highway to the airport to catch a flight for Ghana.  The vehicle somersaulted, it was beyond repairs but I escaped unhurt but alas! It was on April Fool’s day and when I called colleagues to break the news to them, they thought I was joking.  As if this was not enough, I had also left Monrovia to take up assignment in Zwedru on board the UN Dash airplane. For minutes, we were in the belly of the cloud and when we got to Greenville, it did not occur to us that trouble was looming.  After fifteen minutes on the ground, we boarded again for the rest of the thirty minutes flight to Zwedru but bad weather could not permit us to land.  We hovered over the town for close to an hour and sensibly, the mission was aborted and we returned to Monrovia. Needless for me to tell you again that it was another moment that I was so much closer to God. 

As I take a break to return to Freetown, people keep asking me: Where are you heading to? Is it to another Mission? Will you come back to Liberia? My answer is simple, for those in peacekeeping; Liberia is definitely one place on everyone’s list of places to return to. I am off to Freetown, I am going home but Liberia is home too and like one Liberian once said, “God willing, I will be back.” I hope to be back in Liberia someday. For this, I won’t say goodbye but, ‘till we meet again, later.’

By Osman Benk Sankoh, Liberia

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  • Ohhhhhh brother Benk, what a sad departure…However, Mama Salone is happy that one of her lost gems is returning home from her sister country, Liberia….. As a friend and family friend, we really missed you when you departed for Monrovia over a handful of years ago, and now, it’s like expecting a new bouncing babe boy….. Come home big boy, your grand reception is awaiting…We know you will also miss Monrovia, but remember, Sierra Leone is always your home…..
    I just wish that thing by the name of death, was just like your return…..how beautiful it could have been…

    There’s no place like home indeed!!!

    29th June 2011

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