Monrovia, Liberia—The sirens usually sound on Monrovia’s Tubman Boulevard in the early evening. In the Sinkor district of the Liberian capital SUVs belonging to NGOs, motorbikes, and local jalopies pull over to either side of the road to make way for the absurdly over-sized motorcade that follows. There are men with guns in pickups, cars and four-wheel drive vehicles, perhaps an ambulance, and U.N. personnel in bulky Nissan Patrols.
Monrovia, Liberia, September 9, 1990: Many Liberians once thought that President Samuel Doe was invulnerable, protected by powerful black magic. But, in the video, he is slumped on the floor, his hands tied behind his back, naked except for blood-stained underpants. A crowd of young men in fatigues surround him, some carrying machine guns, one holding a microphone in front of Doe’s face. As Doe cries, a fighter strokes his head gently and then grins at the man sitting behind a conference table in a black executive chair, underneath a picture of Jesus. This man is clearly in charge.
When I was an undergraduate at Oxford University my tutor—a deeply eccentric but profoundly decent man who claimed to both “loathe this century” and be surprised by the fact that he had lived to see it—had a map on his wall. The map showed the world. The continents were outlined in black on a white field. Shaded red were all of Britain’s former overseas possessions, from India to swathes of Africa to North America.
I met war photographer and filmmaker Tim Hetherington two years ago in New York. I was working at The New York Times and, one evening, went to the Umbrage Gallery in Brooklyn to the launch of a retrospective of Tim’s work from Liberia. Amid the pale walls and bottled beers, in the center of the room, a tall, dark-haired man held court in an understated manner. Later, I emailed Tim—explaining my own more modest photographic work—and asked to meet him for a drink. To my surprise, he accepted. After that evening in the Meatpacking District, we corresponded.
When Laurent Gbagbo was dragged out of his hole beneath the presidential residence in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, wearing a white vest and a bemused expression, it seemed on the surface a fitting end to his country’s miserable post-election stalemate. The recalcitrant strongman who would not step down was humbled, but not dead.
Freetown, Sierra Leone—Twelve days ago, I rode on the back of a motorbike through the forests of Grand Gedeh County in eastern Liberia to a remote crossing point on the border with Ivory Coast. On the Liberian side were jumpy Bangladeshi peacekeepers who stood close by local security forces wearing blue fatigues and coalscuttle helmets. On the Ivorian side were the rebels of the Republican Forces, who support Alassane Ouattara, the internationally recognized winner of Ivory Coast’s disputed presidential election last year.