As French troops conduct life-saving patrols in northeast Congo or trade gunfire with rebel forces in Ivory Coast, and as British troops ponder the timing of their withdrawal, after three long years of trying to end a brutal civil war in Sierra Leone, spare a thought for the rolling plains of Virginia, Maryland, White Plains and New Georgia, recently the scenes of fierce gun battles, killings of young and old, massive displacement and starvation and home to thousands of child soldiers made to do much of the unspeakable work of civil war.
These places sound American, with good reason, for they sit in Liberia, the country established in 1847 by freeborn blacks and former slaves from the United States who left these shores for an Africa they knew nothing of. The emigration idea originated with a group of prominent white Americans, Francis Scott Key (who penned the Star-Spangled Banner) and Bushrod Washington (nephew of George) among them, who had formed the American Colonization Society to encourage blacks to settle in Africa.
So spare a thought for the American blood that courses through the veins of one out every 20 Liberians, for a country whose capital city was named after America's fifth president, James Monroe, a country shelled by the Germans during World War I because its president refused to surrender up Americans and other citizens of Allied countries. Spare a thought for a country whose rubber during the 1920s consolidated the great American automobile industry and where the tire giant Firestone established the world's largest plantation on acreage larger than the state of Rhode Island. For a country that became the primary staging post from which the United States fought communism in Africa from the 1940s on.
Spare a thought. Because tragedy is unfolding there yet again. And while the European countries have sent soldiers to help keep the peace in African nations with which they have longstanding relationships, either as former colonies (as in the case of Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast) or through shared language (Congo), the United States seems barely to notice that its old ally Liberia is on the brink of disaster, exacerbated by years of misrule and impoverishment.
In 1989, when Liberia's first civil war began, African leaders called on the United States to help end the crisis, but no help came. As Herman Cohen, former assistant secretary of state for African affairs during the first Bush government told me, "We were given a direct order from the White House not to do anything. Robert Gates, who had come from the CIA, was denigrating the historical relationship. He said, "It's meaningless, it doesn't govern us anymore. We treat Liberia just like any other country, and we have no real interest there.' " Only a few years before, President Reagan had lauded Liberia as having a special friendship and firm bond with the United States, based on more than a century of diplomatic relations.
By the war's end in 1997, about 200,000 people, most of them women and children, had perished, and more than one-fourth of Liberia's population of 2.6-million people, the fortunate ones, had fled to neighboring countries or America. It was not the United States that finally helped save Liberia, but the United Nations and a coterie of West African leaders who created the region's first peacekeeping force.
How many Americans knew this _ and how many truly cared? How many know about the chaos and violence in Liberia today _ and how many truly care? Therein lies the paradox.
Liberians, whether or not they claim American ancestors, have always felt a singular closeness to the United States _ just look at the Liberian flag, with its star and stripes. Until relatively recently Liberians believed this feeling to be reciprocal, expecting support from the United States during their country's darkest days. In these weeks following America's liberation of Iraq, Liberians have staged rallies urging that the United States step in to help end their chaos and suffering.
Yet the average American knows nothing of Liberia. Even American blacks, in theory the country's natural constituency, view the country with an ambivalence and skepticism that originates in the circumstances of its founding.
Though there were some Quakers in the early 1800s who supported emigration on the basis that blacks would never be treated equitably in American society, Liberia's establishment was encouraged less out of American philanthropy than out of a fear of emancipated blacks leading slaves into revolt.
At the time, many American blacks saw Liberia's creation as a plot by racists and anti-abolitionists to dilute their claims to freedom and a rightful place as citizens of America. Though some African-Americans have visited or emigrated to Liberia, seeing it as a kind of Israel-like haven, many more have been ambivalent about it.
During the revolutionary 1960s, for instance, many African-Americans felt greater empathy with the liberation struggles of the African nations then gaining independence, which they saw as paralleling their own quest for empowerment, than with Liberia, which was witnessing a struggle between people of American-settler descent, who were accused of creating a society of privilege, and the indigenous population who felt largely suppressed.
The interest of America's white establishment waned along with the Cold War, as Liberia seemed to have outlived its strategic usefulness. Some interest among American blacks was spurred in the 1970s by President William R. Tolbert, who encouraged their participation in Liberia's political, economic and social life. But Tolbert was assassinated in 1980 and his successor, Samuel Doe, was pro-Reagan (not a popular position among American blacks) and rabidly anticommunist. He would die violently, but not before the Reagan White House had pumped $500-million into his astonishingly corrupt government. Doe's replacement after a seven-year civil war was Charles Taylor, an autocratic warlord who now stands indicted for war crimes by a U.N.-Sierra Leone court for his support of rebel forces in that neighboring country and who has never been supported by Washington.
Just as Taylor has held Liberia hostage to his ego, so has the United States held Liberians hostage because of Taylor's presidency, offering no support for strengthening institutions like the judiciary, the schools, health clinics or the police _ all of which might have helped ensure that child soldiers did not calcify into the terrible time bombs that we all understand them to be. The idea that since Liberians voted Taylor in they could rot with him seemed pretty much to be the policy.
Now, rebels, purportedly supported by Liberia's neighbors, threaten to overrun the capital city unless Taylor steps down. Peace talks in Ghana seem to have collapsed. Monrovia is the only African capital with no running water or electricity.
President Bush is scheduled to visit Africa, though not Liberia, in two weeks. So far his only interest in Liberia has been to position U.S. forces to aid in the evacuation of American citizens and to call for Taylor to step down. The congressional black caucus staged a rally Thursday urging deployment of ground forces, but Capitol Hill is focused on other matters.
Liberians often say that had their nation been established by white pioneers in the early 1800s instead of black pioneers that the United States would have intervened to forestall the first civil war, and probably would be intervening now. Even if the majority of those affected have no direct blood ties with the United States, their linkage is a spiritual one, borne of an old friendship and family relations and fused, over a century and a half ago, through an American culture imposed on African soil.
Today many Liberians want the United States to take the lead in helping to establish a multinational force with the active engagement of its own soldiers to rescue innocent Liberian civilians, until such time as the United Nations and Economic Community of West African States, now playing a key role in trying to mediate the situation, can step in. It would be a humanitarian gesture, an act of responsibility, for which the United States would always be remembered, not only by Liberia and the rest of Africa, but indeed by the international community which has recently become so skeptical about the role of the United States in the world.
Nancee Oku Bright, a native Liberian, is chief of the humanitarian division of the U.N. mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.