Sunday, November 27, 2005

Marshall and more


Today our project driver, Sammy, and I drove to Marshall, a small fishing community of about 4,000 people. Marshall is located on a lagoon, near the airport, 40 minutes off the highway. The modus operandi of the drive was to do a bit of four-wheeling, but unfortunately the rainy season was over and the road was dry. No rain = no mud = no four-wheel driving. The drive, however, was worth it (partly because we ended up racing a truck from the Firestone Plantation down the dirt road). It baffles Sammy that you might want to use four-wheel drive vehicles for recreational purposes, so he came along as an instructor.

Marshall, while extremely picturesque, is far from romantic. It’s very densely populated, un-sanitary and hot. People in Marshall live in desperate poverty. As soon as we rolled into town the mayor came to greet us with his deputy. After the necessary pleasantries he cut right to the chase and started asking me how our NGO would assist them. I explained to them what we do; and we really do nothing that would make a dent in their immediate needs. (It’s up for debate what we do for them in the long-run, but I like to believe that it is something.)

After that exchange, the deputy mayor walked us through the town, and to the beach. I found out that there are 11 boats and a total of about 255 fishermen in the village. When I asked him how the fish was distributed, I was really hoping to hear about some elaborate community-wide profit sharing scheme. No. The boats have owners, the owners get the fish, the fishermen get a salary and the community supports itself by drying the fish in coal-fired barrels. There is also one man who fixes the boats’ outboard motors, two flimsy shacks selling items like soap, oil, and rice are sold, and one movie theatre. The movie theatre is nothing more than a windowless shack that houses a small generator, television, DVD player, and some wooden benches. Today it was showing a Jet-Li movie.

On the way back to the main road we gave some guys that were bringing coconuts to market a ride in the back of the pick-up. Bouncing back to the main road, listening to jams on UNMIL radio, Sammy explained to me that the guys in the back of the truck were former combatants looking for a way to make some money. This made me a bit nervous, because all of them were carrying rather large machetes. But when we dropped them off it was nothing but smiles and some really good coconuts.

Politics…

On the political front, things have been quite interesting in Liberia. I went to the release of the final election-results last Tuesday. This event was attended by Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the President-elect who will be the first female president in Africa, and the special representatives from ECOWAS, the African Union, the EU, American Embassy, etc. In other words they were big-shots. I sat behind the big shots, across from the Sirleaf. Two interesting things happened outside of the speechmaking.

First, the Chairman of the National Elections misread the final elections results, and had to come back to the podium to correct herself publicly. This is a rather big SNAFU not only because she should really not be making those kind of mistakes - she was off by 900,000 votes or so - but also because hearings into complaints of elections fraud are on-going, and correcting errors like that don’t look good at all. But copies of the speech were distributed to the press right after the event, and it was evident that it was just a screw-up.

The other interesting thing was that the Chairman of the CDC was at the event, and was very publicly acknowledged by the SRSG. As a result the guy had to get up, rather embarrassed-looking and wave to the applauding audience. As it turns out, other leaders in the CDC did not take too kindly to his attendance. Apparently, ex-combatant/CDC partisans came to his house to collect his party car after he was suspended from the party. He is now under the protection of the Ministry of Justice, after having received threats on his life. The presidential candidate of the CDC, George Weah, has not conceded defeat, and the CDC is continuing to present witnesses to support its claim that the election was fraudulent. None of the twenty something elections monitoring groups detected any fraud, even though there was some limited fraud in the last elections (people are very reluctant to talk about this right now, as you can imagine).

Otherwise, things go on. Had a good thanksgiving dinner with some NGO and UN folk. The food was plentiful and good. Also, check out some good photos from the observation operation.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Bush Devil...


This creepy thing followed me down the street today, with drummers and all. I eventually gave up two dollars to take this things picture. It's a bush devil, supposed to scare away evil spirts, or something rather. I don't know if that makes me an evil spirit, but it defenitely scared me away.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Flip-flop art...


Flip-flop art seems to have become quite a phenomenon among the expat community in Liberia. After having been gifted my own, very cool, flip-flop car, I went to the store to investigate. After a bit of driving around I finally found the artist, Stanley Yaawaison. As it turns out, he has been making flip-flop art - not surprisingly out of multi-colored flip-flops that he finds washed up on the beach -for the past 15 years. Originally intended as toys for Liberian kids, his various cars, planes, helicopters and other vehicles are now primarily bought by the expat community, mostly Europeans.

Mr. Yaawaison, a very friendly and talkative man, who some claim is insane (I found no evidence of this in my own conversation with him) is originally from Lofa County. He arrived in Monrovia in February, 1984, "precisely at 11 o'clock at night", as he recalls. A few years into his stay in Monrovia, he began to make cars out of flip-flops that washed up on the beach. What started as a past-time supported him thoughout the war. Today, he continues to support his wife by selling his flip-flop art.

The artisan shop where Mr. Yaawaison works sells other, more boring and generic crafts. It is located right across from the United States Embassy - inauspicouly guraded by a tank and Jordanian UN peacekeepers, who recently had to repel stone-throwing protesters by beating them over their heads with batons. The owner of the store, Mr. Kobehas, claims to have supported Mr. Yaawaison since 1992. He takes a third of the $5 that each piece costs. Mr. Kobehas notes a marked increase in demand for this flip-flop art since the the war ended, and the international community arrived in full force. Recently, one man shipped over a hundred of the pieces back to Germany. Now, Mr. Kobehas wonders if there is a greater export potential. I suppose, you never know. In either case, it's good to know that there are intersting people and places yet to be discovered.

Friday, November 18, 2005

On a more positive note...


On a more positive note, the CDC marches have stopped for now, after presidential hopeful George Weah urged his opponents to stop thier protests. He stated that the CDC will use legal means to voice its greivances. The party claims that there was wide-spread fraud during the November 8 election. The party claims, among other things, that polling officials were given extra ballots to mark in his opponents favor. I have seen the complaint filed with the National Elections Commission. The complaint, however, does not claim that this occured in more than a handful of polling places, and it unlikely that any kind of systemic fraud, enough to tip the election in favour of what would be Africa's first woman president, occured in this election.

I did go to the complaints hearing last Wednesday, an event that was well attended by international observers, as well as over 50 Liberian journalists, CSO members and other interested parties. At the hearing, the CDC did not actually present any evidence or witnesses, instead the party asked for a continuance of the hearing. The second hearing is scheduled for 4pm today, and given the lively nature of the last hearing, should prove to be an interesting court room drama.

The CDC marches have been lively, partisans wearing plants and weeds as adornments. However, there have also been instances where journalists have been attacked, and the Press Union of Liberia yesterday declared that it plans to boycott future CDC events unitl the party is able to gurantee the saftey of the press.

On a final note, marches are interesting events to witness, not only because of the political messages that they carry, but also because of the interesting way in which they stimulate the economy. Following any march are always minions of vendors, carrying cold drinks on their heads or in carts. Given that the CDC partisans march all the way from Congo Town to the National Elections Commission to the American Embassy - a journey of a few miles, in stifling heat and humidity, business is no doubt good for these vendors.

Reconciliation?

People tell me that there were over 100,000 people directly involved in a war in which about 200,000 people were killed, a war that started here in 1989, and only ended about two years ago. The population of Liberia is 3 million - so about three percent of the population killed six percent of the population over 14 years. The criminality was not just limited to combatants shooting each-other, or rebels indiscrimintaly shelling civilians, burning homes. It includes canibalism and torture.

It is difficult to choose to get away from the reality Liberia's very near past. Not only because the physical destruction of the country is obvious wherever you turn your head - bullet holes in buildings, burned-out rubble, and the fact that there is no power grid or pipe-borne water, maybe even potholes in the capital that are so big that they swallow entire SUVs. But what is most IN YOUR FACE are the armless, legess, former combatants that gather in front of supermarkets, restaurants, bars, and NGO offices looking for donations. There are a lot of them - and they are relentless. As unfortunate as it is, a huge mistake is to give them something, as a kind gesture like that more often than not creates a mob scene, crutch borne ex-fighters hobbling in from every corner to fight eachother over less than a dollar.

I've learnt to deal with this, learnt to get in my car without making eye contact with any of these guys. But I found out something very disturbing yesterday. One of the former fighters that loiters around our office has no arms at all. Only to stubs that end right before where his elbows used to be. I had always assumed that this man's arms had been blown off, or shot of during the fighting. I was wrong. Yesterday my driver told me that this man, who actually looks no older than 16, was a former fighter in the Armed Forces of Liberia - Charles Taylor's fighter, and was captured by LURD rebels a year or so before the fighting ended. One the LURD fighters found him to be "too little to fight" and cut off both of his arms "so he wouldn't have to fight anymore". It turns out that the LURD commander who commited this crime is still around Monrovia, and that these two men run into one another from time to time. It makes the former fighter with no arms "sad" everytime he sees his former tormentor.

There is a lot of talk of reconciliation in Liberia right now. A lot of talk about sending Charles Taylor to Sierra Leone to be held accountable for his involvment in the atrocities that were commited there. But what about the 100,000 former combatants that are responsible for things like cutting their enemies' arms off because they are too small to fight? How can you hold 100,000 people accountable for the murder, cannibalism, indiscriminate shelling of civilians, rape, torture and host of other atrocities that were commited here? With destruction and murders commited on such a scale it may be only effective to go after the leaders - some of which were actually voted into senate and house seats during the october elections. But even if you go after all the leaders - including current members of congress and senate elect, you victims of the war, like the man with no arms who I dodge everyday as I leave work, will likely run into the man who cut off his arms.

Liberian leaders have thier work cut out for them: building roads, powerplants, water networks, schools, fighting corruption, consolidating democratic practices, rebuilding the economy, and, importantly, finding some way to bring at least a sense of justice and reconciliation to the country. They have thier work cut out for them.


General Peanutbutter was one of the former leaders in the conflict who were voted into office. For more info check out a story at:

http://www.analystnewspaper.com/guestcommentary_gen_peanut_butter_or_tears_of_orphans.htm

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Run-Off Election Over


"We are all Winners" is what t-shirst printed by the National Elections Commission say. Well, anyone who has spent anytime in any politically correct educational institution knows that this is something a good-hearted teacher tells LOSERS. Apparantly, supporters of George Weah buy into this slogan as little as I did in school. The LOSERS of the election marched on the American embassy yesterday afternoon, but were dispersed by tear-gas and batons. Unfortunately for me, some of our observers had gotten into cars for some last-minute sight-seening and shopping, and were stuck in the gridlock that resulted from UNMIL's response; which included tanks, armored personell carries and ohter vehicles rumbling and racing through the streets. In the end, and after quite a bit of worrying on my behalf, the observers made it back to the hotel, onto a bus, a plane - and I was able to wave GOODBYE, LATER (thank GOD that is all over).

Elections here have really been some of the most transparant and well organized that I have seen. Despite some SNAFUs on behalf of the chairman of the National Elections Commission things are going reasonably well, and Africa will have its first female president, EVER. Liberia may be able to re-build, and I will likely move onto other projects having learned A LOT form this project, the people and good collegues. While I am staying until February to do some post-election assesments, and capacity building work, the bulk of the STRESSFUL and intense work is over. It was tough, but very fun at times.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Election Day



Election day has arrived. Voters have turned out in huge numbers to cast thier votes, some arriving as early as 3:00 am to vote. I spent the morning driving around, dropping by various polls to check the scene. For the most part the process has been very orderly, if slow. Vendors are selling water and food to those people in line and everyone is in good spirits. Monrovia is eerily calm, with all shops closed and very little movement (except for the UN tanks rolling up and down the streets). I've spent some time solving logistical problems, replacing broken down cars for observers and the like. All is very calm, and people seem generally ready to see a change in this country. Today is a milestone in the history of Liberia.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Calm before the storm



It is now only one day before election day. Incidentally one of the most beautiful days I've had here, as far as the weather goes. Yesterday was nuts, today is very calm. I spent the day getting observers on UN helicopters and yelling at drivers to pack thier cars with shovels, extra-fuel, tow cables, water... all in order to pick up observers at the promised pick-up time. It was funny, I saw a car break-down right in front of me. The cars we got are truely crap. (Sidenote: both vans we had rented to transport people around the city broke down).

That having been said, now that people are out in the field, it is a calm enough day. I spent last night in my electricityless apartment listening to a poll conducted by a radio station. it was actually nice (the first time I've said that about the current not being available in my apartment.

So today is the calm before the storm. I actually have time to update this blog. Attached are some pictures from my new camera - like I said the old one got stolen, so I have not been able to take any pictures of the massive campagin rallies.

Lastly, there's an article in today's New York Times about the election. I don't find it to be very revealing, thought.