Tuesday, June 19, 2007

University of Liberia Student Protest

The next time I hear that some angry group has started a riot, I'm going to take it with a giant spoonful of salt.

I was there in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs today, when hundreds of University of Liberia students took to the streets. They did it in support of their professors who are on strike until they get the 9 months of salary owed them.

Here's how events really unfolded, at least from where I stood:

The beginning of a peaceful protest. The students were chanting "No more rhetoric - we wan lehn! No more rhetoric - we wan lehn!" I took this picture from my car, intending to make a sad commentary about the students and the obviously deplorable state of education as evidenced by the way they talked. I didn't think I would see the group again, but a little later in the afternoon I had to go back in their direction.
Police were standing on the Capitol By-pass and redirecting cars to the Jallah Town Road. Not understanding what was going on, I drove past them and headed towards Tubman Boulevard, the main road (the only road) that goes past the University and all the way through Monrovia. Near the Mansion, Police tried to stop me again, but by then I could see the crowd up ahead and told them I wanted to go and take pictures.
Students held up placards and yelled out their convictions and pleas. A couple of memorable messages were "No University, No Liberia", and "Give Me Education or Give Me Death." I spoke first to the guy who had the "No University" placard. Tom T., a sophomore in Public Administration. He told me, very passionately, what the protest was all about and what he meant by his message: If Liberia's highest institution of learning does not get what it needs for education, Liberia will fail as a nation.
The arrival of some armed security personnel in vehicles with a mounted gun caused a change in the crowd. Students seemed to become more fired up, and some started addressing their concerns directly to the police, as if they caused the problem or could actually do something about it.
I didn't understand the show of force. Guns for ex-combatants demanding money, yes. But for students asking for a decent education??
The trouble started when the Nigerian UNMIL soldiers arrived and penetrated the crowd, unprovoked.
Fights and confusion broke out as bewildered students were pushed and beaten. I could not believe my eyes.
Students jumped over the fence and fled back to the University, a handful of them throwing stones and a glass bottle in anger.

As I walked away from the scene with another photographer and the last of the crowd, more officers rushed at us, one of them hitting my colleague's camera with a baton. Moments later, as the photographer was pointing out the culprit to other security personnel, a crazed, blood-thirsty UNMIL soldier came running up and assaulted him with his rifle - hit him with it quite viciously, no questions asked.

When I got back to town and heard that University students had "started a riot", I could only shake my head in sorrow.

I'm still floored by the behavior of the "Peacekeepers", but also very proud of the Liberia National Police Officers who for the most part were calm and respectful from beginning to end.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Wrototown on Fire!!

On my way home, I saw a large black cloud of smoke in the distance, and knew it had to be something serious. Sure enough, opposite the Fish Market near the Old Road junction, Wrototown was on fire. Big orange flames engulfing several houses made of bamboo mat and sticks, while hundreds of young men continued watching a football game on the nearby field. By the time I got my camera and returned to the scene, 12 houses were completely burned up, save for the zinc roofs.

This man braved the smoke to dump buckets of water on the fire in an attempt to save his own mat house...
...but for Christine Harding, it was too late. Her house was one of those consumed by the fire.
Bamboo, sticks, straw, and paper. Terrible building materials in a country where people must use candles for light and coalpots to cook! Rumor has it that a single piece of red-hot coal started the blaze.
A few possessions saved. The fire didn't get them, but the rain tonight might. And some people who weren't at home will never know whether their things were burnt or stolen by looters pretending to help.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

A Welcome Sign

On my way back from Mali a month ago, I was in transit in Ghana, where this large sign greeted us at the airport. After the initial surprise I had a good chuckle, and thought others would too.
The Welcome sign was funny at first, with its suggestion that paedophiles go elsewhere. But then it was also sad that we have to put such warnings up at all. I decided not to post it earlier, mainly because it wasn't really a "Liberia Story." Now I share it in a different context:

Maybe in Ghana the problem comes mostly from foreign visitors, but here in Liberia young girls are sexually assaulted very often by family members or familiar people in their communities. I recently heard the case of 7-year-old Sarah (not her real name) who lives with her Uncle and his wife and 18-year-old son in their rooming house. Sarah has to share a room with her 18-year-old cousin, who rapes her several times a week and has been doing so for over a year. All the tenants in the Uncle's rooming house know this, but are afraid to speak out in case they get kicked out. Those who have expressed concern have already been warned by the Uncle not to "spoil [his] family."

Liberia, like Ghana, has passed into law "harsh penalties" for such crimes, but the reality here is that these crimes, especially when committed within families, are often kept secret. And when they are caught, criminals, even murderers, often do not pay the prescribed penalties.

What will happen in this little girl's case?

Luckily, the young woman who told me about this situation does not live in the rooming house and is not afraid to confront the Uncle. Today she told me that she'll speak out again when Sarah's own father comes down to Monrovia next month, and that the Uncle is starting to get worried because of her intervention. This is good news in a way, but July is still weeks away and I worry about the girl constantly; a rescue mission should not be so slow and should not leave the child in care of her abusers once they know a process has started.

There are currently excellent nationwide campaigns against rape and gender-based violence, but, like Ghana, we need to be serious about prosecuting the criminals. I believe we should also prosecute the adult enablers (too often mothers and aunts) who look away and allow children to suffer sexual abuse.

We've got to do more for little Sarah, and we've got to do it more quickly. Real justice in this case will be a welcome sign of our now so-called commitment to child protection.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Lone Star vs. Cameroon

Football. Liberia's great love and our strongest unifier.

The Antoinette Tubman Stadium was packed with Lone Star fans for the African Cup of Nations qualifying match against the Lions of Cameroon. The game was preceded by much controversy and numerous street protests, though, by fans who didn't like the line-up of players. "It's foolish to let an all-local team play against Cameroon," they said. "We need some of our international stars to play if we want to win this game!"

Well, they were right. Cameroon won 2-1, with a first goal from midfield that left everyone speechless with its awesomeness.

What struck me most about the day, though, was the security put in place to deter or deal with rioters. Guns, tanks, teargas and riot gear everywhere!

Well, it worked. We all left the stadium in one piece, unified in our disappointment.

United Nations "blue helmets" - and I guess I should add "blue caps" - keeping the peace

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf greets the players of both teams

Cameroon's second goal goes up on the scoreboard

Police Inspector General, Beatrice Munah Sieh. Almost didn't recognize her out of uniform!

Liberia's finest in their spiffy new uniforms and riot gear

Nigerian police officer wearing teargas canisters on his jacket