He pointed the nozzle of the AK-47 straight in my chest and ordered “don’t move!” My heart leapt more than I had ever experienced. My entire system went jittery; I fought hard to balance on my two dry legs. “If you move you are dead!” he bellowed from the outside of the compound in which I had lived since 1999.
Journalist D K Sengbeh with UN Nigerian Contingent Peacekeepers after a medal parade in June 2012
After a heavy gun fire had ceased, I had decided to get out of the house (in the compound) where my father, brothers and some community members were seeking refuge, to catch a glimpse of what was happening around us and get the others in the house informed.
I had no thought or imagination that five armed men (government forces) had posted around the fence, wanting to know who were in. I crept towards the front gate (they were looking at me; I didn’t know.) and spied but saw no body. I decided then to move few steps towards the ‘colomo’ side to get a better view, only to feel a bayonet tied to the nuzzle of an AK-47 hitting my chest. I turned living dead, as the young man warned me to keep it quiet. I did.
When I look on the other side of the fence, three other guns were already pointed at me. “Who are you people in this big compound?” their commander demanded. “We are all civilians who could not run away because the fighting….” I said with some relieve. “How many soldiers here?!” another quizzed, all their guns still pointed at me. “We so, so civilians-o,” I replied. We were immediately assembled in the porch and they soon realized were we truly innocent civilians.
However, my indelible shock on this day was yet to come until the soldiers could not get what they wanted form us: cash and a back-bag (back pack) to put in their loots. Because we could not provide their needs, they threatened to “execute” me. It was at this juncture that one of them rested the nuzzle of the gun on my left shoulder and empty an entire magazine, firing as the empty shell flew in all directions. Since that metal torturing in Bardnersville Estate, behind Area F in the same compound I currently live, my left ear has never fully recovered.
However, thank God, we weren’t branded “enemy collaborators” and killed like others.
That was July 30, 2003 during the heydays of the war, when fighters on both sides were shooting and launching bombs indiscriminately. Stray bullets flew, striking down innocent people. Exploding bombs killed civilians and damaged buildings, often the innocent – particularly women and children – were left disfigured and maimed for life.
Peace was coming
Some of the UN Peacekeepers who helped bring peace to Liberia
Fourteen years of back-to-civil war, from 1989 to 2003, had turned Liberia into a failed state, presenting a humanitarian situation more catastrophic than elsewhere in the world at the time.
More than a million people, clustered in the country’s then ravaged capital, Monrovia – a city built for just 500,000 residents – were losing hope. Some prayed for divine intervention to end the carnage. Many of them, myself included, wondered whether anyone anywhere in the world truly cared about what was taking place in Liberia.
Of course, people cared, but the intervention seemed slow as the death toll rose as a result of brutal killings, stray bullets, grenade explosions, starvation and the rest. As West African and other international leaders and bodies gathered in the Ghanaian capital Accra to hold talks to end the war, hope began to appear on the horizon, and it was a great sigh of relieve when international wires announced that the UN would send peacekeeping troops to Liberia. On 18 August 2003, Liberia’s warring parties signed the Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which led to the deployment of the ECOWAS Mission in Liberia (ECOMIL).
ECOMIL, a force of predominantly Nigerian soldiers, would first quell the carnage of brutality and cannibalism to pave the way for other interventions. ECOMIL, indeed, played the vanguard role in 2003 to end the war here, when the world seemed not to care. On October 1st 2003, ECOMIL soldiers would be re-hatted with blue helmets and automatically re-named as the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), the largest UN peacekeeping force at that time of about 15,000, to man the peace gained.
The Journey To UNMIL
The joining to UNMIL started with the adoption of Security Council Resolution 1478 on 6 May 2003, during the Council’s 4,751st meeting.
Some nine years later, I was fortunate enough to visit the very room in which this decision was taken, when I visited the UN last year – thanks to the Reham Al-Ferra Memorial Journalists Fellowship (RAF) Program.
As our tour guide led us – myself and the 10 other 2012 RAF Fellows – and gave us a detailed explanation of how the Security Council works, my memory immediately went back to the bloody days in Liberia and how the UN’s decision helped to save a dying country and its people.
The United Nations Security Council or (UNSC) is one of the principal organs of the UN and charged with the maintenance of international peace. Its powers include the establishment of peacekeeping operations, international sanction, and the authorization of military action.
My fellow RAF colleagues didn’t know what was going on inside me—and they wanted to get all information about the UNSC and the UN in general, the purpose of our program. Every year the UN, through the Reham Al-Farra Memorial Journalists’ Fellowship Program of the Department of Public Information (DPI) invites junior and middle-level media professionals from developing countries to the UN Headquarters in New York to acquaint them with the workings of the world body.
Established in 1980 by the UN General Assembly, the Reham Al-Farra Memorial Journalist’ Fellowship was re-named in memory of Ms. Reham Al-Farra, a young journalist and staff of DPI killed in the August 2003 attack on the UN Headquarters in Baghdad. It was the same August 2003 that marked the end of an era of brutal war in Liberia.
Despite the number of years passed so far, the memories are still fresh of the fighting between Government forces and various warring factions (mainly the Liberia United for Reconstruction and Democracy, or LURD and the Movement for Democracy in Liberia).
As the conflict intensified, so did the threat of a humanitarian tragedy. In an effort to deal with this, the then-Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, outlined a three-phased deployment of international troops to Liberia, finally leading to a multidimensional United Nations peacekeeping operation.
UNMIL is Born; Peace is Won
Then, on 1 August 2003, the Security Council adopted resolution 1497, authorizing the establishment of a multinational force in Liberia and declaring its readiness to establish a follow-on United Nations stabilization force – known as the UN Mission in Liberia, or UNMIL – to be deployed no later than 1 October 2003.
In September, the Security Council welcomed Secretary-General Annan’s recommendation to establish UNMIL, and unanimously adopted resolution 1509 which established UNMIL.
The Secretary-General recommended that the Council, acting under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, authorize the deployment of a United Nations peacekeeping operation with a troop strength of up to 15,000, including 250 military observers, 160 staff officers, up to 875 civilian police officers and an additional five armed formed units each comprising 120 officers, and a significant civilian component and necessary support staff.
UNMIL has since been a multidimensional operation, composed of political, military, civilian police, criminal justice, civil affairs, human rights, gender, child protection, disarmament, demobilization and reintegration, public information and support components, as well as an electoral component.
However, while tensions subsided somewhat with the deployment of ECOMIL, the situation took another step for the better with the start of operations, on 1 October, of the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) – as mandated by the Security Council’s resolution 1509. The vanguard of the ECOMIL forces were re-hatted as UN peacekeepers, with the UN presence subsequently contributing significantly to the building of a brand new Liberia based on strong democratic principles.
The Security Council’s decision brought joy to many Liberians, and this could be seen in their actions when thousands of them celebrated the arrival UNMIL – the international forces that were instrumental in disarming combatants and helped Liberians hold their first democratic election in more than 25 years.
Ten years of peace later, I still keep imagining what could have happened had these international interventions not happened. Had the Security Council not taken its decision, the world would have likely witnessed another genocide on the African continent, a “Liberian Genocide” this time, as evidenced by the huge cache of ammunition and machine guns that were seized by ECOMIL troops while the weaponry were reportedly being brought into Liberia through Monrovia’s airport.
Inarguably, had then-President Charles Taylor and his forces gotten those armaments, the consequences for Liberia could have been catastrophic. Mr. Taylor had already ordered his men to “move from house to house”, looking for suspected opponents, and who knows, maybe I, too, would not have survived to tell this stories of the gun’s nuzzle in my chest and the shooting in my ears.
After having extended UNMIL’s mandate repeatedly over the years since 2003, the Security Council, again, on June 17 extended the mission’s mandate to September 2013. This time, I was right there in New York, and I saw it happen.
We All Won The Peace
Ten years of peace has not been an easy journey that we as Liberians should not appreciate. Everyone has played significant roles to make us come this far. Liberians have peace today because ten years ago they decided to study war no more and embrace peace; because the war lords agreed to stick to an agreement they penned; because the ex-combatants were ready to lay down their guns and bombs and embrace stability and civility.
Plaudits For UN Peacekeepers
However, I would not be done with this memoir without mentioning the UN’s crucial role—I mean those who left their comfort homes and families to help us get here. Ten years later, they are still on the ground helping us gel and maintain the peace. The ECOMIL/UNMIL did not only help us to end the war and find the peace, but they have been instrumental in protecting it, in piloting it, Preserving it, promoting it, and in “nurturing” it.
Liberia’s Vice President Joseph Boakai, representing President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf at this year’s UN Peacekeeper’s Day event at UNMIL Headquarters in May, called on Liberians to hold together and secure their country away from any course that will pull it back into discord and disharmony. “If we so did, we would have decorated the [UN] peacekeepers with the highest honor.”
The Vice President gave an account of the contributions of UN peacekeepers in restoring peace and stability to Liberia, noting that “On a solemn occasion of this importance, I have never forgotten to call on all our citizens and foreigners alike to pause, reflect and gratefully acknowledge the peacekeepers’ crucial contribution to the maintenance of peace, security and stability that we enjoy in Liberia today. By their presence and selfless sacrifice, these peacekeepers have taught us that people everywhere have the right to live their lives in peace and justice, free from fear, free from threats of war, free from all forms of domination.”
Since peace came, two back-to-back democratic elections, for the first time in at least five decades, have been held and the country is seemingly on an irreversible path, being regarded as a post conflict success story. Next year, a special senatorial election will be held, before the journey begins for 2017—the third straight presidential election.
As of May 2013, there are more than 111,000 UN Peacekeeping soldiers and police from 116 countries serving on missions around the world including the more than 8,000 in Liberia. Indeed, the UN needs to be remembered and applauded by Liberians, and if nobody does, it can’t be me. No, it can’t be me, because I know with peace, that fellow will never point that his rusty AK-47 nuzzle at me; no, he will never empty an entire magazine (shooting) to give me a hearing impairment; no, never.
* About The Author: The author is a respected Liberian journalist and media consultant with 12 years of professional experience. He’s Assistant Secretary General of the Press Union of Liberia, Editor-In-Chief of The Informer Newspaper, a UN Fellow, and Liberia’s first UN Medal Award-winning journalist. He holds a Bachelor’s of Arts Degree in Mass Communication (UL) and a Diploma in Journalism (International School of Journalism). He holds dozens of certificates in journalism and communication from studies in Ghana, China, United States and Switzerland, among others. He can be quickly reached via (+231) 886586531/777586531/777464018/ firstname.lastname@example.org