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Jewel and I are talking about Liberia’s past and future when I ask the senator which she thought voters associated her with. As soon as I pose the question this way, I know Jewel will claim the future. And she does, with a nod. “The future.”
A visitor in a moment, a highly post-conflict moment, I’m aware how little I can do in Liberia. After a week here, the grand total of my footsteps is pitiable. But I can buy the newspaper, and I can write down signs, and I can ask questions. Sitting in a room wallpapered with a war criminal’s face, there’s an obvious question to ask, and it takes me a long time. This one has to be posed correctly, without facilitating its answer. It’s also important that I look the senator in the eye.
“Do you feel responsible for the damage done during the war?”
“Of course,” Jewel says. But just as quickly, she swoops up and out of apologetic terrain. “There were a lot of people caught up in the war,” the senator says. One of the bizarre habits of her ex-husband was to refer to himself in the third person, as in, “Charles Taylor will not back down,” or “Charles Taylor will be Liberia’s sacrificial lamb.” And because Jewel sounds so well rehearsed, I have to wonder if her answer—“It was a Liberian issue, not a Charles Taylor issue”—is a direct quote from the war criminal himself. “Wars always bring all kinds of problems,” Jewel tells me. “Atrocities are committed and things happen.”
Later, I locate Taylor’s answer on the record. When asked by a journalist whether he was responsible for war crimes, like the gang rape of sixty-four percent of Liberian women, or the recruitment of child soldiers, or the amputations these children suffered while soldiers, or, more generally, a death count that neared a quarter million, Charles Taylor said this: “The whole problem is like the chicken and the egg…. There are too many skeletons in the closet to begin to apportion blame.”
The chicken, the egg, many skeletons, no Taylor.
“Forget blame,” he closed.
“What are the advantages or dis…?” the voices stay with us in the car as we speed away from the radio studio. The sky is nearly dark, and someone has finally offered to help us, in spite of the 26th, or maybe because of the 26th. Regardless, we follow the 26th Samaritan down a bumpy dirt road lined with tin-roofed homes, stopping at the largest one. Before I can discern how large it is, though, I’m stymied by a pack of little girls. They all look five. More appear, then a few boys. This staring, I’m used to; what disarms me is their stillness. There’s none of the usual grabbing hands, no where’s-my-26th, lady, it’s-the-26th. These are stone children, multiplying. By the time the Minister reappears—ready to proclaim the housing crisis averted before the sun sets on the 25th of July—there are at least two dozen kids on or near the porch. “The journalists can fit here,” says the Minister. I ask the obvious question: “What about the family?” He says something about an office, plenty of floor space, cots. “It’s not a house,” the Minister finally clarifies, as if these five year olds really were stone miniatures. As if more weren’t climbing onto the porch as he spoke, coming from god-knows-where. “It’s an orphanage.”
Wearing a headscarf and a house dress that falls limply over her thin body, the Minister’s sister looks weary enough to pass for his mother. I’m supposed to sleep in her bed, a queen-sized mattress that could accommodate a quarter of her ten children. I’d lobbied hard to stay in the orphanage quarters. Though I was wary of treating Liberia as a candy store, what concerned me more was the fact that I’d seen this country from a car, rolling through on Firestone tires. I was tired of the back seat, not to mention my escorts.
“No really, I’d prefer to stay there,” I finally said bluntly, but the Minister wouldn’t hear me. I’d thrown caution to the wind to come here, and the Minister of Information caught it on my behalf. He would not let me leave his sister’s room. His sister, however, listens when I say I won’t sleep in her bed—not alone. She agrees to join me.
“This is a lovely room,” I say later, to dull the awkwardness of strangers undressing.
She laughs a cold laugh. “You don’t see the bullets?”
I look up at the bureau, at four divots splintering the wood.
“Rebels ruined this house,” she says. A fact: rebels ruined this house. There’s a line of holes in the opposite wall. She’s painted over them, in green.
During the civil war, the Minister’s sister took her ten children into the bush. Returning to reclaim the house, she found doors broken off their hinges, furniture smashed or taken. None of this woman’s children died during the civil war. They’re watching the end of a dubbed Sandra Bullock movie. Do Liberians know what renaissance means? I’d asked the Minister. I do not ask his sister, once shown the scarred wall of her bedroom, painted bright green.
“My sistuh!” yells a familiar voice. That boing and click-click, boing and click-click.
I keep walking, knowing which amputee it is.
“My sistuh!” he says, “Newspapuh!”
I’m carrying the newspaper I just bought, and I’m sure he has noticed. My sharp little brother must also know the 26th is over. The headline of today’s paper confirms “Fireworks Spark Panic: War Memories Rekindled.”
I look out across the street, pretending not to hear the boings and clicks. “My sistuh!” I can cross streets in Liberia now, but with no less dread than I felt on day one. Herds of cabs push in both directions. Before I realize what he’s doing, my brother is boing-clicking ahead of me, boing-clicking right into traffic, holding up his only arm to stop it. Miraculously, the cars stop, and I realize I have one option: cross.
I do, the boing-click, boing-click behind me. On the opposite roadside, as my amputee gives a short speech about the price of crutches, I rummage for a small bill, startled by the thank you rising in my throat. The same way I’ll be startled a month later, when I read an article about amputee soccer. Startled by how much admiration I have for these lines:
When Mr. Parker takes a shot on goal, he resembles a gymnast on a pommel horse, suspended from his crutches and swinging his leg through the middle like a pendulum. When he races for the ball, his stride is a cross between a gallop and a hop, a motion that is both graceful and athletic. After he scores, Mr. Parker performs a joyous, airborne jig…
—Wall Street Journal, July 28, 2008
For these three sentences, he can run through the candy store, stuffing his pockets. Re-learning to live; that’s what it looks like. The airborne jig of an amputee. Boing-click. He leaves me on the shoulder of the road, newspaper in hand, and propels himself back through traffic. Once behind the gates of the Lebanese hotel, calmed by instant coffee and silence, I finally read:
The artillery and rifle-like sounds that preceded the colors were celebratory, marking the nation’s 160th birthday.
But to many war-wary residents with more terrifying images of such sounds in a war-ravaged capital that has seen some of the bitter gun battles on the continent, they rekindled memories of the war and its aftermath.
A 76-year-old man in Plumkor was seen gathering his belongings and tying up a bundle to the amusement of his friends and neighbors. “You keep laughing,” he said, “I am not waiting for any mortar to fall here.”
—The New Democrat, July 27, 2007