Partial view of the remains of the notorious Gbartala Base where dreaded men and women, including child soldiers were trained to inflict terror on the Liberian people
“The first thing when they took you there, there is a big hole they used to put you in. You get snakes and other bad, bad things there. You will be there without food and water for three days and nights, and when you survive, then, you are good to go,” recounted a former Anti-Terrorist Unit (ATU) officer of the defunct infamous Gbartala training base in Gbartala, Kokoya District in Bong County.
The place once used as a slaughter ground, a community of torture and a ‘hell on earth’ in Liberia only ten years ago is today a source of livelihood and survival-making ground.
Looking more than a ghost town, shanty ramshackle buildings, tall grass and mostly plump (mango) trees welcome you to the once most feared place during the country’s bloodiest and destructive decades of war.
Here’s where the helicopter used to land either to take men to the battle front of supply arm and ammunition
Flies and other crawling insects enjoy themselves, feasting on decomposing and red plumps falling from the fresh grown trees. There, you see roofless buildings with vanishing mixed-fading colors of orange, red, white, black and green. On these deserted buildings, one beholds inscriptions such as ‘Executive Mansion’, ‘SSS Cobra Base’, “Welcome To Executive Mansion’ among other captions, clearly hinting the history of the place. You will see a mixture of fresh and dying crawling savanna grass surrounding a pavement and a helipad. This is where the helicopter used to land with “enemies of the state” and from where it picked up for “covert operations” and for the battle zones, I am told.
Moving from one end to the other, you see foot paths snaking through and networking from one end to the other, meaning people are always there, and that this once dangerous place is still alive, but in a completely different form, fashion and manner. I am told people go there for various reasons: some just to see the area, taking into account its gruesome history and to take pictures; some to probably eat some of the juicy mango fruits; to some it serves as short-cut to get to other parts of the region, but for scores of others, it’s a place to make money. That’s why you will see people—elderly and young women and men, and children—crushing giant rocks here and there for sale as a new form of employment to keep life going.
Oh, yes, that’s the former Gbartala Training Base in Bong County—the place where former President Dakpahan Dr. Charles Ghankay Taylor’s notorious defunct Anti-Terrorist Unit (ATU) was trained, where summary executions were as common as ABC, and where teens and young people were trained and drugged to valiantly and remorselessly execute any kind of violence— flogging and killing their mothers and fathers, raping women and girls (babies, too), and brutalizing just anyone.
Indeed, a place once used as slaughter house has now turned into a store house of survival, though with great relief but with back wrecking toil. After all, there is no easy way to survive here nowadays.
Saturday, March 23, 2013, almost a decade ago after this terrible place was brought to close, I stood there imagining vaguely, considering the stories of what happened there, and what those who were trained there did to many people—including poor me.
Several groups of state security and militias including elements of the disbanded Special Operations Division (SOD) of the Liberian National Police, the elite Presidential Guards, the Special Security Service (now rebottled the Executive Protection Service, but with same attitude), the militia Small Boy Unit, among others were trained at the Gbartala Base, but the ATU was the most deadly.
Shortly after his inauguration as Liberia’s 21st President in 1997, Charles Taylor created the ATU. The ATU was initially used to protect government buildings, the Executive Mansion, the Roberts International Airport, and to provide security for some foreign embassies. When they were initially deployed in Monrovia and other important locations, officers of the unit spoke to no one. They only used the nozzle of their guns to direct people to do what they wanted done.
In 1999, the ATU’s responsibilities were expanded to include combat and other war-related duties, after rebels from the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy began operating in Liberian territory. Chuckie Taylor, the son of President Taylor (both currently jailed for crimes against humanity) led the ATU which relentlessly committed torture, such as various violent assaults, rape, beating people to death and burning civilians alive.
Information collected by Human Rights Watch suggests that ‘the ATU, a pro-government military unit, also committed war crimes during Liberia’s armed conflict from 1999 to 2003. In the years that Chuckie Taylor headed the unit, these war crimes included extrajudicial killing of civilians and prisoners, rape and other torture, abduction, and the recruitment of child soldiers, including the Small Boy Unit.’
The ATU was a Special Forces group initially consisting predominately of foreign nationals from Burkina Faso and The Gambia, as well as former Revolutionary United Front (RUF) combatants from Sierra Leone (Liberians were recruited later). No surprise why many of them could not speak to people but used their guns to pass on instructions. Because it had no legal basis for its existence, the ATU was not under the command of the Ministry of Defense, and reportedly absorbed Taylor’s most experienced NPFL civil war fighters, including undisciplined and untrained loyalists.
Sam Bockarie (alias Mosquito), and Brig. Gen. Abu of the RUF were named as being among the ATU’s senior personnel in a report issued in October 2001. According to a report from the UN Panel of Experts on Diamonds and Arms in Sierra Leone, issued in December 2000, a former SADF officer, Fred Rindel, trained up to 1,200 ATU personnel between September 1998 and August 2000, when Rindel cancelled his contract following negative media attention.
During 2002 ATU members increasingly were involved in criminal activities such as theft, looting, and murder in Monrovia. More than in the past, the perpetrators were apprehended; however, many cases against them remained unresolved. Two ATU members arrested in November 2001 after looting a private residence in Monrovia were released during 2002.
There were many unlawful killings by security forces during 2002. For example, on June 19, an ATU officer and presidential guards (SSS, now EPS) opened fire on a taxicab in Monrovia and killed a 6-year-old child and critically injured his mother and the driver (those of us who witnessed the war here remembered that right?). President Taylor ordered an investigation of the incident, and that was the end. In September 2002 Lt. Isaac Gono, a driver attached to ATU’s Chuckie, was beaten to death by his colleagues, at Chuckie’s command, as a disciplinary measure for denting a vehicle. Former Deputy Minister of Labor Bedell Fahn and four members of the ATU, arrested for torturing two Nigerian men to death in October 2001, were tried during 2002. Fahn was sentenced to 10 months in prison; however, in September he was released. Two ATU members were acquitted and the other two were sentenced to life imprisonment.
My own encounter
There are many stories about the ATU’s activities, abuse of power and ruthlessness. Almost any Liberian who lived in the country at that time has some kind of story or encounter to tell. Mine was the following:
The young man emerged from the undergrowth of flower trees and sadistically moved towards me. Speechless! His face was dead serious, serious more than an angry hunting dog, and pointed the nozzle of his three-magazine AK-47 straight at me. I turned almost lifeless; I knew what that meant: I would be shot and killed, and nothing would come out of it.
With the gun, he directed me where to go, and I follow the unspoken instructions, obeying without any imagination of hesitation. His head tied with a cloth likened to that of a commando, the pekin (meaning small boy in Liberian English) pulled out his rattan switch and spanked me twice on my buttocks with all his might. I yelp. He barked at me to keep it quiet—his first speech. I obeyed, swallowing the excruciating pain instantaneously. “Who are you; who told you to pass this side to spy on us,” he bellowed at me. “I am a journalist,” I responded while instantly displaying my I.D. Card. “I am journalist and I work for Kiss FM and Patriot Newspaper,” I added, the gun pointed at me, as another of his colleague, more mature, came towards us. His gun was also pointed at me. “You say Kiss FM?” the approaching colleague inquired. “Yes sir!” I responded in a somewhat military style. “He’s blessed. Let him go; he working for the papay [President Charles Taylor] station.” Immediately, I gained my freedom, and away I flew.
Almost 12 years ago (late 2001) when I had this encounter with two young officers of the dreaded ATU before the Foreign Ministry (now hosting the offices of the President), the memory has remained fresh in my life. Each time I am walking in front the Foreign Ministry (going towards the head offices of the Public Procurement and Concession Commission), I am reminded of how that little boy spanked by buttock before asking my identity. I still fear walking there, and that’s why when I visited the Gbartala Based Saturday, March 23, 2013, my mind quickly ran back to a dozen year, when I encountered some of those trained at the dreaded base.
Indeed, there are many gruesome and acute human rights violation stories about Gbartala Base. Besides it being used for training ATUs and other guerilla militants, it was used as a punishment camp, likened to the infamous Belleh Yellah Prison Compound in Gbarpolu County, formally closed by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in 2009. Planted in the heart of the Belleh forest, the defunct prison compound, completely cut off from the rest of the country via road, was only accessible via air. It was where the government jailed hardcore criminals and its political antagonists and subjected them to hard labor.
Though the Gbartala base was not a prison camp, it was however used as a training ground for commission of atrocity and mass execution, and not for the protection of lives and properties.
Some have likened it to being ‘Hell On Earth’. “I don’t blame those who used to come from there and be wicked,” said a former ATU member who doesn’t want his name mentioned in this article. “The first thing when they took you there, there is a big hole they used to put you in. You get snakes and other bad, bad things there. You will be there without food and water for three days and nights, when you survive, then, you are good to go,” he explained. The former ATU man who displayed deep wounds mark behind his thigh said the next level will be to start the real training.
“They will put the rocks in the bag and tell you to climb the hill; sometime they will tell you to go in the bush and they start running behind you shooting until their gunshots finish, if they don’t kill you, then you fit,” he explained.
He explained that many people died in that bush because the trainers were very brutal. “Swear to God, they were very bad. If you are gbelleh (not smart and lazy) you can’t make it,” he explained. “That’s why they used to say gbelleh can go Gbartala.”
Another individual only identifying himself as Victor explained that enemies forces captured from the rebel Liberia United for Reconstruction and Democracy were tortured to death. “They used to cut people into pieces while you living until you die,” he stated, noting, “That place was too bad for some people.” The stories are gruesome and in different versions.
Though Gbatala Base was noted for its unsavory reputation, there are many who found it as a heaven on earth as it provided better livelihoods for them. Many women and girls who were concubines to the base commanders and other top officials were breadwinners for their families and lived decent lives. Other women were employed as cooks and house cleaners and were free to move about at will—no restrictions.
“Me pa (for me) to me the people were good,” Fanta Swaray, who now crush rocks for sale on the defunct ATU base said. When Fanta saw our vehicle moving on the base, he thought were going to buy or ask for crush rocks. She emerged from the undergrowth and hesitantly got into a conversation after I explained to her my mission there. “We used to cook here and eat. We were plenty and life was okay with us,” said.
Fanta, husbandless, disclosed that she has three school-going children: two boys and a girl in ABC, 6th and 8th grades. Now, no longer working for US$75 a month, she must crush rocks, pile them and sell to survive—feed and send her children to school. She said even though they were paid monthly from US$150 initially monthly which later dropped by 50% at the height of the civil war, they were not one hundred percent free as compared to now.
“Chuckie was the one who opened this place first. That’s the house he used to live in,” Fanta pointed to what looked like a ghost house with a fading inscription “Welcome to the Executive Mansion….” It na (never) used to be easy here, but thank God at least we now free more than before even though some of us not enjoying the way we used to.” Fanta said we’re not worrying about war again; we are in peace and it’s alright like that.”
For the last seven years, Fanta and scores of Gbartala residents have been crushing rocks to survive. The rocks are bought by the Chinese construction firm, CICO, which is repaving the Gbarnga-Redlight Highway. In addition, other individuals and companies doing construction work also buy crushed rocks from Fanta et al.
“It was very dangerous to come here those days,” recalled Mohammed Fofana, who was burning tyres on a huge rock to make creaking easy. “Today, it is free to come here; this place is now a hardworking and money making place. He was called Alphonso Fofana during the war as a means of hiding his identity. Carrying names like Mohammed during the NPFL days was dangerous and could lead to instant execution on ground that one was a Mandingo by tribe.
Fofana said they were not crushing rocks free of charge. “We pay 25% of what we get from any sales here,” he disclosed, “to the land owners.”
As journalist Samuka V. Konneh reported in 2011, Gbartala was a “Hell on Earth”. “Though it’s horrifying accounts of torture and killings belong to history, its surviving victims will still remember their ordeals whenever the base is mentioned. The logic was that the base was serving a useful purpose for the leader, regardless of the harms it created.”
Today it is a mere rock crushing center, where poor widows and orphans scratch a living by breaking rocks to sell for food-money. As I got in the vehicle to head for Monrovia, I only imagined how the place used to be, how terrible news came from the ground I had visited. I turned to a colleague and said “no condition lasts forever and by no means can the guns and tyranny liberate.” Gbartala base is only now the shadow of its wicked past. Period!