Originally created 09/30/01

A different country



When Shad returned to Monrovia in mid-May, he was taken at gunpoint before the coup-makers.

"They welcomed me back and said they were happy I had come back home."

Nervous with all of the guns around, but feeling some of the outrage he had unleashed on the phone from New York, Shad stood up.

"Well, thank you very much for the welcome," he said. "I don't know why you have welcomed me, but there are three things I want to make clear."

"I said the first thing was that if they expected me to say anything against President Tolbert, I would not do so, because when Tolbert was alive I'd said what I had to say. I said it publicly, and I would say nothing against him."

Second, he said he wanted no part in their government. And finally, he told them he wished for stability and would be a resource for the new leaders to that end.

When he was done, one of the men got up and addressed him.

"We hear what you've said, and we agree to what you say," he said. "But let me tell you why we spared you. It was not because of what you did, or what we heard you did (with the labor unions) and so forth. It was because of what our fathers told us that your father did."

Shad was spared, as were Wokie and their children and her mother. But Wokie's brother A.B. Tolbert, who had proudly told [as]60 Minutes[xs] of his presidential hopes, another brother and her uncle were all dead.

Around the world, the killings were a news spectacle, water-cooler conversation. But for the Tubmans and Tolberts, they were deaths in the family and a sudden end to the peace and prosperity their fathers had fostered. For the next decade, Shad lived quietly in Liberia and tended to family business, including two rubber estates, while Wokie took her mother and children to the safe harbor of the United States.

Samuel Doe, the new president, made some headway at first. He made an earnest effort to get educated. He was lightly embraced and well-financed by the Reagan administration, which was still paying top dollar for allies in the Cold War. Fueled with millions in American aid, however, Doe and his ministers lined their own pockets.

After a few years, when the Cold Warriors stood down and the stream of money slowed, Doe started to lose his grip on power. He promised elections that never came. When one finally did, he rigged it. And after a failed coup attempt, he unleashed his fury against tribes he felt were plotting against him. A minor official in the Doe regime, Charles Taylor, had lost favor with the administration in the mid-1980s and fled Monrovia. Taking a circuitous route, which included an escape from a prison in Massachusetts while awaiting extradition, Taylor made his way to Libya. There, he and a small group of fighters trained for several months.

Taylor and his fighters, freshly supplied, made their way to the Liberian border and on Christmas Eve 1989 started fighting their way across the country as the National Patriotic Front of Liberia.

From the beginning, the fighting was brutal. Teens and children as young as 10 were conscripted and did unspeakable things to one another, their neighbors, even to their former schoolteachers. The Patriotic Front splintered, and Taylor found himself in a race against former comrade Prince Johnson to get to Monrovia and unseat Doe.

Johnson and his troops won the race, and after a siege of the capital, captured Doe and mutilated him before he died, chained in a bathtub in his underwear. His captors proudly videotaped his torture, which became an underground hit in West Africa.

Doe was dead, but the fight raged on. Johnson held the capital, and Taylor and his rebels controlled the countryside. Factions, including troops loyal to Doe's memory, continued to subdivide into an alphabet soup of death squads: NPFL, INPFL, Ulimo-K, Ulimo-J, LDF, LPC, AFL. Other nations in West Africa assembled a peacekeeping force to try to protect civilians.

But it was a bloodbath. People were dragged out of their homes and never heard from again. Bodies littered the beaches, and mass graves were common. Men beheaded in the streets. Pregnant women disemboweled and their unborn children killed. Each faction operated its own checkpoints, where child soldiers often killed indiscriminately.

Native tribal tongues became passports of a kind. People who could not prove their heritage could be killed on the spot. One of the worst acts of evil in what would become a seven-year succession of evil acts was the massacre of 600 refugees who had sought shelter in St. Peter's Lutheran Church in suburban Monrovia. Soldiers stormed the church compound one evening and started killing unarmed men, women and children.

Some died on the window sills where they had tried to climb out. Some died under the pews where they crawled. Some were splayed on the church altar. The carnage and stench were so thick that the church gave the government permission to burn the building.

Well over 100,000 Liberians, perhaps as many as 250,000, were butchered during the war. Hundreds of thousands were displaced, fleeing to Monrovia, or if they were lucky enough, to the Ivory Coast or Ghana or Britain or the United States. Water and electricity were cut off during one of the sieges of Monrovia and haven't been turned back on since.

People had to eat their landscaping in order to survive, felling palm trees for their hearts and picking greens from the back yard.

Houses were looted. Businesses were looted. People looted their neighbors' Bibles and sold the pages to peanut vendors, who used them to bundle nuts for sale.

Even the peacekeeping forces are widely believed to have turned their military precision to looting operations, shipping entire buildings home.

The war was not a sustained offensive so much as a series of strung-together attacks and skirmishes. And when it seemed that it might have burned out, the embers were just biding their time in the ashes.

Time and again, refugees would return to their torn-down houses and torn-up villages only to have to take flight again in another season.

Eventually, some just stayed away for good.

'Don't forget Liberia'

It is February 2000. Shad Tubman stands at the front of the First Church of the Illumination ¡ a narrow nave lighted by five small chandeliers. The townhouse church is on 120th Street in Harlem, wedged on a block of family homes and boarded-up facades. This is the temporary home of wife Wokie's ministry, the Invisible Ark of the Covenant, where Shad leads worship from time to time.

More than a dozen members of the church, some Liberian expatriates, have gathered here on a brisk Wednesday. Shad removes his sweater before the service, but even in his shirtsleeves perspiration beads on his face as he opens the worship. He prays with his eyes shut tight, as if he's trying to forget something or remember it again. His arms are out and his palms are up and his voice thins and strains as he prays for the deliverance of Liberia and a blessing on its leaders.

Wokie preaches on Acts 12:3, which tells of King Herod bringing violence on some who belonged to the church. There are leaders in the world today, like Herod of old, who give the people a taste of killing and the people want more blood, she says. Shad and the Spirit dance throughout the service. They kindle a heat and light that surpass the modest output of the little bare bulbs in the church.

"You think this is our inheritance?" Shad cries out in prayer. "There's more," he tells them. "An uncorruptible inheritance."

The service twists, turns and tumbles ahead, until at last Shad finds himself intertwined with most of the congregation in a laying-on of hands, reaching an emotional crescendo that leaves him shaking. His eyes glisten. Shad learned the power of the Spirit a long time ago, long before he himself was born again, when he was a young man and his father was president. Visiting his father in his rooms at the executive mansion, he walked in and found him face-down on the floor, praying.

"That had a tremendous effect on me. I said to myself, here is a man that we all look up to, and here he is like a slave before God."

"God brought Liberia to Africa for a purpose," Shad says. "I think he has some greater things for us to do."

Shad and Wokie are part of the large Liberian expatriate community and would not have been safe in their own country for long stretches of the past 21 years.

They have six children ¡ four girls and two boys ¡ scattered in the United States and Africa, but most call the New York area home. Shad and Wokie dote on their seven grandchildren, happily spending their days baby-sitting in their modest home in the New York City suburbs..

Their lives are comfortable, and it would be hard to leave even if their homeland was hospitable. But they feel compelled to return to Liberia to spread their ministry and help their countrymen.

"What I tell my Liberian compatriots ... is try to be like the Jews. No matter where a Jew is, he doesn't forget Israel. Don't forget Liberia," Shad says. "Send your children home from time to time to know their culture. Let them know that they have a home there. Build something; do something. Don't forget Liberia.

"My brothers John Hilary and William Eli, they have been in Liberia throughout this thing. They have not left; they refuse to leave. They're doing the best they can to help. I'd like to throw my lot in with them."

The Liberian Civil War

2.19 million: Liberian population in 1990, the first full year of the war.

750,000: The number of Liberians who fled to neighboring nations during the war.

750,000: The number of Liberians who fled their homes during the war but sought shelter elsewhere in Liberia.

200,000: Estimated number of deaths during the war, nearly one in 10 Liberians. (If the United States were to lose 10 percent of its people, it would equal the combined populations of Georgia, Florida and South Carolina.)

Sources: U.S. Census Bureau International Data Base; 2000 Census; U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.