You can tell you’re flying into Liberia because the world goes dark. An hour out of Banjul, lights on the ground disappear. Eighteen months into its first proper peace since 1989, after 14 years of spectacularly brutal civil war, Liberia still doesn’t have electricity or running water. It hasn’t had any since February 1990, when Charles Taylor – former warlord, later president, currently in exile in Nigeria, where he’s still causing trouble, according to the Coalition for International Justice, funding armed groups and political parties across West Africa – sent his militia to take out the electricity plant. During his presidency, which he won in 1997 with the sinister campaign slogan ‘You killed my ma, you killed my pa, I’ll vote for you,’ and the promise that if he wasn’t elected, he’d go back to war, he didn’t bother to fix the lights or the water. Either because he was spending the money on cocaine, guns and women, or because he was preoccupied with failing to repel the rebels who finally got him to stand down in the summer of 2003, after attacks on Monrovia so fierce that Liberians still call them World Wars One, Two and Three.

It’s no surprise that Liberia has fallen off the UN’s Human Development Index, because there’s nothing left to measure. Yet this used to be West Africa’s success story. The first African republic, founded by freed American slaves in 1847, with a constitution written at Harvard, Liberia had the US dollar for currency, called itself ‘America’s Stepchild’ and played host to the Omega listening station for the US government, as well as the largest CIA station in sub-Saharan Africa. During the affluent 1970s, when Firestone rubber and timber exports made money, Liberians commuted from Monrovia to Washington DC. Now, it’s a failed state. It has few schools, hardly any hospitals, bad roads and no money. UN sanctions, imposed in 2001 to curb Liberia’s support for rebels in Sierra Leone, are still in place (‘to consolidate the peace’, the UN says). The only thing it does have, for now, is peace, because the only thing that works is the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), Liberia’s biggest employer and its salvation, in the shape of 15,000 peacekeepers.

In January 2004, I came to Monrovia to research a book on Liberia’s refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). The book was commissioned with a view to publication during Refugee Week in the UK, and I had two months to research and write it. The research was easy enough, because three-quarters of Liberians, from the Archbishop of Monrovia down, are or have been refugees or IDPs and everyone has a story. It wasn’t a problem that most of the country was out of bounds, either, because most of the people had moved into the formerly graceful buildings of Monrovia, the capital city built for 300,000 and now housing a million.

I have come back a year later to launch my book here, on a grant from Somerville College, Oxford, which kindly and puzzlingly funds long-gone graduates for such things as a book launch in a country with no bookstores and half the population illiterate. The launch is at Monrovia’s City Hall, one of the few buildings not much the worse for war. The rest of the city is still blackened and crowded, there are still hardly any dogs (they were eaten), and the Atlantic beaches are still spectacular, though no one who knows about Monrovia’s sewage system is fooled by those blue waters. Other things have changed, however. Last year I came on a tiny plane from Abidjan with a missionary, a Lebanese businessman – Lebanese run most of Liberia’s supermarkets, bars and hotels – and a dour Russian crew. This year, I arrive in an SN Brussels Airbus with a couple of hundred German holidaymakers with shorts, tans and loudly expressed confusion about where the hell Liberia is and who switched all the lights off.

My host, again, is the International Rescue Committee, a large NGO which provides IDPs and refugees with education and healthcare, and me with a comfortable house in a compound with guards and gates. These are reassuring, even if the country is less precarious now: last October a riot between Muslims and Christians saw IRC staff stuck in their offices, watching as rioters set fire to the petrol station opposite. It didn’t blow, and is still there along with dozens more that have appeared since Liberia’s new rulers opened up the fuel market. The transitional government was set in place by the 2003 Accra peace accords, which also persuaded Charles Taylor to leave his fiefdom without much of a fight, amazingly. So far, though most of its ministers are from the fighting factions, the government hasn’t murdered anyone, making it the best for years. It’s done a few popular things, like free up cellphone licences and allow more car imports (most of Liberia’s cars were either looted or dismantled to make them ‘looter-proof’). Less popular is the rising rice price. A new roadside sign says: ‘Rice is life. But all is not well in the world of rice’ – it’s now an outrageous US$35 a sack. It’s also hard to rebuild a country when cement costs $30 a bag.

The UN has had its usual economic and cultural knock-on effects, good and bad: high hotel and restaurant prices; a Thai restaurant run by a Thai family who follow UN missions (they have successful establishments in East Timor and Afghanistan); a ‘Yugoslav’ night in the Royal Hotel’s swanky new extension, where a Bosnian Serb Civpol (Civilian Police) officer from Banja Luka hangs out with Bosnian Muslims. They all followed Jacques Paul Klein from the Balkans, where he ran UN missions; in Monrovia, he was the special representative of the secretary-general until last month, and arguably the most powerful man in the country.

With four times the budget of the transitional government, Klein can exert pressure, but that’s all. As one disenchanted UN staffer told me, ‘the UN mandate in Liberia is so weak, we can do nothing about corruption and impunity.’ Charles Taylor is the only Liberian warlord to have been indicted, and that’s for his involvement with Sierra Leone’s RUF, not for the unspeakable things he did in Liberia. His hideous legacy emerges suddenly in conversation and then disappears, like foul bubbles. As we drive past Taylor’s old house, for example, my Liberian companion says: ‘I saw rebels betting what sex a woman’s foetus was. Then they opened her up with bayonets to see who’d won.’ As we drive past the official Executive Mansion downtown, K. says, in the middle of a conversation about nothing in particular: ‘That man CharTaylor, he imprisoned me twice because I was a student leader. They made me drink urine and you know bamboo? Inside it has a very sharp bit and they were sticking it in my appendix.’ Appendix? ‘No! Penis! I was bleeding and they were laughing. Such people!’ Another man in the car shakes his head. ‘That man,’ he says, with fury. ‘He put people in pits and shot them. He has to pay.’

Corruption enrages Jacques Paul Klein. So does the Liberian National Election Commission’s crazy decision that in the upcoming elections in October, everyone has to vote in their home district. When three-quarters of the population is displaced, this is either malicious or stupid. ‘They say I’m a colonialist, an authoritarian,’ Klein says. ‘And I say: “I’m sorry, but you’re violating every human right I know of.”’

This becomes obvious in Monrovia’s IDP camps. I’d asked the IRC’s helpful information officer to track down women I’d met a year ago in the camps, thinking they wouldn’t be there. I hoped they’d have gone home, but they haven’t. There are a few empty spaces where huts have been demolished. But returnees are a minority, and most of these women are from the most distant counties, which have yet to qualify for the UN’s returnee programmes (people get a lift home, some luggage space and some tools). Women with husbands have been sending them on ‘look-see’ missions up north, to learn what’s left of their homes, schools and clinics. Usually, it’s nothing. ‘We don’t even have sticks to make houses,’ one woman says. ‘We have to build with mud, like our forefathers. Thank goodness we paid attention!’ It costs 500 Liberian dollars to get home, and they don’t have the money. They want their vote, though, because it might mean peace.

I’m pleased to see them again, and they’re pleased to get a book, but they’ve obviously got more important things to think about. Thankfully, that doesn’t include security. Last year, people were still scared and the fighters were still armed. Women told me they recognised their rapists when former child soldiers came to visit their parents. But a DDRR programme – Disarmament, Demobilisation, Rehabilitation and Reintegration – has disarmed 100,000 people. The peacekeepers have soothed fears and opened up the country. I hear of a Liberian aid worker who was driving up north and met some young former combatants. They charged the vehicle with machetes, but the driver didn’t flinch. ‘I’m not scared,’ he said. ‘I’ve got the power now, not you.’

That’s optimistic. Most of the politicians now in power are ‘the same warlords and murderers’, as Archbishop Michael Francis told me last year. According to the Accra guidelines, sitting politicians are not allowed to stand for election, but there have already been shameless manoeuvrings. ‘People come here and shake my hand,’ Klein says, ‘and they say they want to be president, and I say what for? They say, blatantly: “Power!”’ Not because they want to fix things, like two million traumatised people in a country with a handful of psychiatrists, like the lack of roads or health clinics, or electricity and water. Schools are supposed to have afternoon sessions but don’t, because the teachers are moonlighting as taxi drivers.

I learn such things from R., a Liberian journalist who helps launch me and my book in the Liberian media. It’s a lively scene, with thirty newspapers and dozens of radio stations. The journalists are curious to know why any Westerner would write a book about a country which they see – quite rightly – as having been abandoned by the West. (The US considered and rejected two chances to intervene, though they could have stopped the fighting in a few days.) I tell them my book is asking a simple question – what is it like to be a refugee? – that is not often asked where I come from. I tell them that there are places where refugees are automatically assumed to be liars, and where ‘asylum seeker’ is a playground insult. They are surprised by this. Barnett, a young Liberian I met last year, said, when I told him about the Daily Mail and its like: ‘But why would anyone think I’d want to be on the run for 13 years?’

I end up as front page news – ‘Refugee life is dehumanising, British author alarms, launches book in Monrovia’ – though the dehumanising effects of displacement are not news to any Liberian. Perhaps this is why most of the people at the book launch are white and NGO/UN, though the Liberian minister for gender is there, and the waiters take an interest. ‘I’m displaced,’ says one, ‘can I have a book?’ He can’t, because I could only carry 50 and they’ve all been taken. There’s little chance of distributing more, when the only bookshops are a few stalls at the Ministry of Education, selling tatty novels and textbooks, often to the people who once owned them.

Klein arrives with his motorcade and close protection force. He gives a powerful speech about impunity and malaria, because he’s losing peacekeepers to disease. (A UN gossip tells me that the US refused to stay in Liberia after all the marines got malaria at Camp Schieffelin. ‘We’ve just come from Iraq,’ a colonel said. ‘And this is worse. We’re leaving!’) Then J. takes the microphone. He was 14 when, with his mother and sister, he took refuge in a church that was later attacked. Six hundred people were hacked to death. J.’s legs were shot to bits. ‘Mr Klein,’ he said, ‘I have been trying to speak to you but I can’t get near you. What I want to know is, who is going to help the victims?’

Ex-combatants have been paid US$300 to give up their guns. Their victims get nothing. ‘In practice,’ a disenchanted UN worker says, ‘everyone who wasn’t mean doesn’t get anything.’ This is the way reconciliation is, of course, and it tastes nasty. But it tastes worse when nothing has been apologised or paid for. Both Taylor and Prince Johnson, famous for chopping former president Samuel Doe to death on video, have become pastors, and are now fond of saying that they’ve been ‘arrested by God’ so no one else need bother. One notorious thug, General Peanut Butter, recently declared his intention to be a senator in Nimba County. He didn’t mention being elected, because he didn’t need to. ‘With our mandate,’ the gloomy UNMIL man says, ‘we can’t do anything about it. If he says he’ll be a senator, he will be.’

The favourite to win the presidency is the footballer George Weah, whose record of doing good in Liberia should be set against his lack of presidential qualifications (he’s poorly educated and has never had a job, apart from playing football). His candidacy is alarming for some and gives hope to others, including Liberians disillusioned with everyone else. ‘Book or no book,’ they say, referring to the educated elites who failed them in the past, ‘we will vote for King George.’ He is the front-runner, but the other forty candidates have not given up. ‘There are more child sacrifices now because of the elections,’ K. says one day, casually. I make a flippant remark about there being plenty of abandoned children to kill, but he stops me, quite seriously. ‘No, they have to be loved. The more they’re loved, the better the magic. I heard a new marketplace has had a child’s limb buried under each of its corners.’ This doesn’t seem far-fetched here: Charles Taylor once sued an academic for libel who said he had been seen eating a human heart, and lost.

Liberia’s children will be sacrificed in other ways, too, if people don’t pay attention. Klein searched for months for $59 million – a day’s ‘burn rate’ in Iraq – to finish the reconciliation programme for former fighters. The UK government said they would provide money only if it could be proved ‘that Liberia impacts on Sierra Leone’. This is stupid thinking, when Liberia has already destabilised most of West Africa and could easily do so again. Without the reintegration money, thousands of disgruntled ex-fighters will soon be thousands of disgruntled unemployable students and mechanics. Already, a Human Rights Watch report has recorded the ‘insurgent diaspora’ – have gun, will fight – being recruited in Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire. ‘If they don’t pay now,’ a UN staffer says, ‘they’ll be paying two or three years down the road.’

Later, back in England, I get an email from J. He says he’s been getting ‘unexplained visits’ to his house at night. He says I shouldn’t worry if I hear he’s been killed, because ‘that is one of the things that makes life unique. We are here today and tomorrow we are gone.’ He asks for help with paying his tuition fees, so I send him the last of my Somerville grant. I don’t know if he’s duped me, or if he’s really in danger – the church massacre is as well known as the people who did the massacring – but I suppose it doesn’t matter. Everyone in Liberia needs something. Besides, he asks with so much charm. ‘I hate to beg,’ he writes in a final email. ‘But such a country, such a situation – what can you do?’

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