Archbishop Faces Chaos in Liberia

MONROVIA, Liberia — A Liberian bishop who has tried to mediate between warring factions in this West African country has said law and order has “completely broken down” there.

Interviewed in early July, Archbishop Michael Francis of Monrovia spoke of government troops recently “going about molesting people” and looting houses from those who are displaced.

“The little [that people] had, they had taken from them,” he said. “It's a miracle how the people are coping.”

President Bush, visiting Africa from July 8-11, was considering whether to send U.S. troops to intervene. Both the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Catholic Relief Services strongly encouraged him to support the deployment of an international stabilization force for the country of 3.29 million people founded by freed American slaves. The Economic Community of West African States meanwhile announced plans to send 1,000 peacekeeping troops.

The situation rapidly deteriorated after two rebel groups, the Liberians United for Democracy in Liberia and a sister force, the Movement for Democracy in Liberia, overran the country and made incursions into the country's capital, Monrovia, held by President Charles Taylor. The attacks during the past six weeks alone have left an estimated 1,000 civilians dead and forced tens of thousands to flee their homes.

“The government is trying to constrain [the lack of discipline],” Archbishop Francis said. He added that a “tenuous cease-fire” brought a halt to the unrest.

Society of African Missions Father Thomas Hayden spent 17 years in Liberia. He is monitoring the situation from the order's American province headquarters in Tenafly, N.J., where he is vice provincial. Five Society missionaries still work in Liberia, along with Salesians, Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, Missionaries of Charity and Consolata Sisters.

He said a major problem is the lack of any trained army, police or security force in the country for almost 20 years.

“What you have on the ground are young men with machine guns over their shoulders, walking around,” he said. “Generally speaking they didn't bother people until the end of February.”

Earlier this year the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy in Liberia and the Movement for Democracy in Liberia marched into the country from Guinea and Ivory Coast in an attempt to overthrow Taylor.

“They drove 28,000 people from their homes in the south of the country. They looted everyone's home, all of the churches, rectories, homes of the aged,” Father Hayden said. “They took everything that wasn't nailed down.”

Refugees, including Bishop Boniface Dalieh of Cape Palmas and two Society of African Missionary priests, poured into Ivory Coast.

Bishop Dalieh would like to return, Father Hayden said after receiving an e-mail message from him July 10, but the bishop is concerned about the “child soldiers” who make up most of the rebel force.

“They're boys aged 9 to 15, riding around in stolen cars with guns,” Father Hayden said. “They're dangerous because they don't know how to handle the guns and too immature to realize their importance.”

Both Archbishop Francis and Father Hayden are also concerned about food shortages. The archbishop described the food and medicine situation as “very, very difficult and dangerous.”

Father Hayden said there had been no fresh food in Monrovia for the last two months.

“It wouldn't take much to spark massive fighting in Monrovia,” he said.

Aid and relief efforts have also been severely curtailed. Archbishop Francis, who is also in charge of the Liberian Church's aid and development federation, Caritas, revealed that all its warehouses have been raided. Before that, all the facilities of Catholic Relief Services were looted.

“The same thing happened to three of our parishes, and the pastors were dehumanized and ill-treated,” the archbishop reported.

Country's Decline

Liberia's deterioration began 23 years ago when Samuel Doe seized power in a military coup. Widespread human-rights abuses followed, creating instability and international condemnation and, eventually, a revolt almost 10 years later led by warlord Charles Taylor.

Taylor's insurgency quickly turned into an ethnic civil war, the downfall of President Doe and his eventual execution. Ever since, the autocratic Taylor has been trying to extend his influence, coercing thousands to battle against foes in neighboring countries and bringing instability to the whole region.

Archbishop Francis has tried to mediate between the warring factions and leads the Interreligious Council of Liberia, a body admired for its effectiveness.

“The council is very interesting because it's made up of Muslims and Christians — perhaps the only council of its kind in all of Africa,” Father Hayden said. “Many members of the [Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy in Liberia] are Muslims, but they're not allowing religion to enter this conflict at all, and that's to the credit of the interreligious council.”

Father Hayden estimates that 25% of the country's population is Christian, 10% Muslim and the remainder traditional African religions.

Indeed, except in the south of the country, most of the priests and religious have been relatively safe and have remained in the country. Father Hayden said he believed they were “at risk” but did not think they were in much danger from a rebel group, although “Taylor has an intense dislike for the archbishop,” he said.

People have told Father Hayden the only person Taylor fears is Archbishop Francis. The archbishop “is not afraid to criticize Taylor anytime he steps over the bounds on human rights as he's done over and over again … but Taylor respects him for his integrity,” he said.

However, he said, the Church's leader in Liberia is not worried. “If you kill me they'll find another archbishop,” he is known to have remarked.

Taylor vowed in early July to step down and possibly accept asylum in Nigeria once peacekeepers arrive. But Archbishop Alberto Bottari de Castello, the apostolic nuncio to Liberia, is pessimistic.

“He is a master of presentation and deception who will change his mind,” Archbishop Bottari de Castello said. “He's a terrible man and very difficult to believe.”

“He speaks very convincingly but during his presidency he signed seven negotiated peace treaties and didn't keep one of them,” Father Hayden said of Taylor. “So the question is, will he keep his word? I have my doubts because he just cannot be trusted.”

Taylor has already hinted any exile would be a “cooling off” period before he returned to Liberia.

Archbishop Francis said he was disappointed by the seeming reluctance on the part of the United States to assist Liberia because of the country's historic ties and its significant help during the two world wars and the Cold War.

But according to Father Hayden, ending the conflict would be just the “first phase.” The nation's infrastructure is all but ruined and the country lacked a skilled work-force for 20 years.

Asked about his feelings for the country's future, he replied, “I am hopeful, but I'm not terribly optimistic.”

Edward Pentin is based in Rome.