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Taylor left legacy of child killers, amputees in scarred land

Associated Press
Published April 2, 2006


FREETOWN, Sierra Leone - The severed fingers clinging to the rail of a river bridge. The 12-year-old boy drawing a picture of a bloody knife and a trail of red drops, trying to exorcise the ghosts of those he murdered.

I cried then and cry now as I drag out of the shadows of memory the horrors of Charles Taylor's sieges on Liberia's capital.

Villagers were waving palm fronds and ululating adoration of Taylor the first time I saw him, on a trip behind rebel lines that began with a clandestine crossing from Ivory Coast, balancing Tandy laptops on our heads as we forded the St. John's River into Liberia. That was in May 1990, five months after Taylor launched his Christmas Eve invasion from Ivory Coast.

The debonair, bearded and bespectacled U.S.-trained economist was welcomed as a savior then, his mission to oust the brutal and corrupt dictatorship of Master Sgt. Samuel Doe.

But I noticed that Taylor, who claimed to be a churchgoing Christian and later a Baptist preacher under orders from God, was wearing two amulets. One of his guerrillas told me they were "black magic" charms to protect the wearer from bullets.

Taylor never was wounded in the war he began in Liberia and then spread to neighboring Sierra Leone. But the carnage he unleashed killed 3-million people, more hacked to death with machetes than gunned down. A total of 40,000 people starved during Taylor's first siege of Liberia's capital, Monrovia.

In Sierra Leone, a trademark of the rebels he fostered was to hack off people's limbs. The guerrillas would ask their victims whether they wanted "long sleeves or short sleeves."

Thousands of civilians flocked to Taylor's cause as he crossed Liberia. By then, he had become known for the boys he conscripted. It was a pioneering concept in Africa - an army of child soldiers, some as young as 7, with red eyes rolling and drugged, no taller than a car window and hefting guns longer than they were tall.

"Open your gate!" they would squeak in Liberian slang, and drivers at impromptu roadblocks would give up cigarettes and money. I feared Elizabeth Blunt, an intrepid BBC correspondent, would get us killed since she insisted on giving them candy and cookies. But they reacted as any child - with glee.

The boy who drew the picture broke down in tears when he had colored the last drop of blood dripping from the blade of the serrated knife. Then he tore up the drawing - a gesture trauma counselors said would help him leave the past behind.

Another trademark of Taylor's fighters was men dressed in drag, some in looted wedding gowns, topped by blond and red wigs or Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck masks.

As Taylor left the areas of Liberia where he was welcomed by the Gio and Mano tribes, he met fierce resistance - and his fighters reacted with equal ferocity.

One morning, on a ride to find out how near the rebels were to Monrovia, I saw severed fingers, still wrapped around the rail above the Po River bridge. The victim must have dropped down and drowned.

At a peace march, Doe's troops fired on unarmed protesters as they crested a hill toward the U.S. Embassy. Our photographer, Alistair Sinclair, raced up the hill into the line of fire. I fled with another reporter, Nicholas Kotch of Reuters, to a one-room shack where a mother was nursing a baby.

We came out when the soldiers shouted they would kill anybody harboring reporters. My legs shook as we walked, our backs to the soldiers, as they fired above our heads and hit tree branches that fell around us.

One night, the soldiers started banging at my door at the decidedly unpalatial Ducor Palace Hotel, threatening to break it down. No one answered my desperate attempts to call the reception desk. I called the British ambassador, who sent two army officers to my rescue.

With the hotel no longer safe, the U.S. Embassy gave journalists lodging in a house with two bedrooms and two bathrooms. It eventually would house more than 20 journalists as the siege of Monrovia dragged on.

Soon there was little food in the city. Taylor's rebels cut off the telephones, the water and the electricity.

The day began with a visit to the Ducor Palace and a climb up the dark stairwell of its many floors, then up an iron ladder to the roof that allowed the best view of Taylor's fighters shelling the city from a commandeered Coast Guard cutter.

The work day ended early: The only way to file a story was through the British Embassy, which sent them by radio to a ship offshore that relayed them to Portsmouth, England. From there they were distributed by Telex to the Associated Press, the BBC and Reuters. And they had to go out before 4 p.m.

There were moments of joy. Like the afternoon when American scientists liberated a young chimpanzee from a research facility as rebels approached. The chimp's parents and other chimpanzees had been killed and presumed eaten. The surviving chimp leapt into my lap, shaking with fear, and wrapped its arms around my neck.

Walking to the hotel one day, Blunt, the BBC journalist, and I saw a drunken Liberian soldier wave his gun at a cowering man. "Please, no!" Blunt begged, causing the man to turn his gun toward us. Then, swaying in his drunkenness, the soldier turned back to his victim and let off a volley of shots.

Nigerian warplanes bombed Taylor's rebels out of Monrovia in 1991.

On Friday, it felt strange to be seated 300 feet from the former Liberian leader in Sierra Leone, where he is imprisoned on charges of crimes against humanity, sexual slavery and mutilation for masterminding this country's decade-long conflict.

Taylor, normally cocksure and confident, looked tired, shocked and unsteady when he arrived Wednesday in a U.N. helicopter.

But he was not as unsteady as some amputees I saw Friday morning, walking on their artificial limbs.