Most Americans are probably unaware of recent events that took place in Liberia, the West African republic with long and complicated ties to the United States. “Liberia: An Uncivil War” provides a gruesome on-the-ground account of the 2003 internecine military conflict that destroyed the already-ravaged country – an atrocity that took place despite endless pleas from the Liberian people for intervention from either the United States or United Nations.
The core of the problem was the presidency of Charles Taylor (not the Salon movie critic of the same name), who drove the impoverished and corrupt government into further depths of degradation. Besides wrecking his own country, Taylor was accused of destabilizing the region with his support of rebel groups in other countries. In neighboring Sierra Leone, he was indicted on 17 counts of war crimes.
The film divides its time between Taylor and his military supporters in the capital of Monrovia and the rebel Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), who are advancing on the capital after taking control of much of the country. Filmmaker Jonathan Stack shot the footage from Monrovia while his colleague James Brabazon traveled with the LURD fighters.
The scene in Monrovia is extraordinary for its chaotic breakdown. Displaced people find shelter in a broken-down stadium, where food is in scarce supply but where a deranged preacher holds inane “revival meetings.” A brigade of 32 U.S. Marines arrives, causing the spread of rumors that American aid is coming. The Marines, though, have little interest in protecting anything but the U.S. Embassy – their most daring mission is to bring cases of Heineken back to that diplomatic compound. (It is a wonderfully rich irony that the embassy is later blasted with a mortar shell of American origin – a weapon sold by Washington to the Republic of Guinea, which in turn resold it to LURD). An American nun, Sister Barbara Brilliant, runs a makeshift hospital and provides running commentary on the deterioration of conditions in Monrovia, while local journalist Zubin Cooper notes ruefully how the nation’s intellectuals fled years ago, leaving Liberia without a new wave of leaders.
The LURD faction is even more deranged. Their armed forces are made up of mostly teens and pre-teens; there is even an all-female battalion run by one Col. Black Diamond, who comes across like a Liberian version of 007’s celebrated ally P***y Galore. The LURD fighters are vicious, dismembering their victims and even resorted on occasion to eating the hearts of the slain (they claim it helps them become braver).
“Liberia: An Uncivil War” is astonishing in the depth and scope of coverage it provides. Considering American news coverage of the war was scant (most news organizations were focusing on Iraq), it provides a much-needed brush-up on what was not presented to Americans. At least one American knew what was happening and pretended to be oblivious: President Bush, who blandly stressed the need for Charles Taylor to resign but who made no effort whatsoever to help the Liberians avoid a Rwanda-style genocide. It is impossible to watch this brave documentary without anguishing over the carnage and cruelty captured by Stack and Brabazon.
Oddly, the British media was more interested in Liberia (even though Great Britain had little reason to show interest in this country). In fact, Brabazon was informed through British sources that Taylor placed a death warrant on him, forcing the filmmaker to flee the country while still filming with the LURD.
The ultimate irony presented in “Liberia: An Uncivil War” was the fact the Liberians begged for American intervention in 2003 and received none while the Iraqis never begged for an American invasion that year and wound up seeing their country destroyed by the U.S. military. Three years later, though, Liberia today has a freely elected president and is piecing itself back together in a relatively calm and orderly manner. Iraq is…well, you don’t need me to tell you what is happening there. So perhaps in retrospect, the Liberians were lucky the Bush military machine passed them by!