Why did I go to Liberia? And why in 2009, six years after the conflicts had ended?
I’d always been fascinated by the story of the brutal civil wars and the child soldiers and the cannibalism, but whenever I’d see a documentary about the aftermath, they’d mostly be rose-tinted affairs with footage of happy, one-legged football teams shot playing against the sunrise on the beach.
The official message was always: “The UN are here now and everything is going to be fine.”
In February last year I made contact with a Canadian journalist called Myles Estey, who’d moved to Liberia’s capital city, Monrovia, because there was good surf there.
In his work training local journalists and getting to know Monrovia’s citizens, including several ex-warlords and their child soldiers, Myles knew a thing or too about what was really happening to America’s only African colony (the country was gifted to emancipated slaves in 1820).
The more I talked with Myles I the more I realised we had to go and film what was going on. So along with Vice / VBS co-founder Shane Smith and a camera guy called Matt Nauser, who’d previously accompanied Shane to places like Darfur, we made a plan to go.
To get into Liberia you have to have shots for yellow fever, Hep A and C. You also get a choice of which malaria medicine you can take. Without doing any research, I chose to take Larium, which, on later inspection, makes you go completely crazy for about nine weeks. The drug brings an intense, otherworldly anxiety, with lucid nightmares every night and the effects made some of the worst slums in Africa even more exciting than they are already.
The first thing we shot there was walking into the Westpoint slum with our fixer Nagbe. Set on the edge of the ocean, Westpoint is home to around 80,000 people, who all live in primitive zinc shacks. Most of the people who live there are either ex-combatants or the children of ex-combatants and, as such, seen as enemies to the mainstream Liberian society. Work is hard to find if you are an ex-combatant and so money is made by drug dealing, prostitution and armed robbery.
There are also no toilets or garbage disposal in Westpoint, and so the community is surrounded by miles and miles of human waste, filthy rotting garbage and people openly defecating and urinating in the open without cleaning it up. Small children play in all this and take bits of the garbage to sell downtown. While we were there, five-year-olds offered to sell us things like empty VHS cassette tape covers or beer bottle tops.
Things got worse as we waited to gain access to the zinc shack where some of Westpoint’s most hardened criminals go to smoke heroin and cocaine. Word had got around that a white man with an expensive camera was there.
When impoverished ex-combatants on drugs find out that there’s a white man with an expensive camera lost in their maze of zinc shacks then it’s bad for the white man with an expensive camera on many different levels.
As I waited for the shot to start, I had to deal with a gang of kids and older men trying to steal my wallet and my camera.
One kid would try to distract me by tugging on my shirt and begging for change while another behind me would be reaching into my bag. Things turned uglier when a huge Rastafarian came down an alleyway where myriad flies were buzzing around a bubbling yellow chicken carcass in an iron pot, heated from a few small coals. A nude baby covered in flies sat by the spitting pot, screaming with outstretched arms while her mother breastfed another baby, absent-mindedly swatting the buzzing black clouds away.
Yelling “Babylon!” and “Bloodclot!” at the top of his voice, dressed in a ragged black shirt the Rastafarian gestured wildly in my face. His message was that he wasn’t happy about us being there and wished to take the camera. Thankfully we had earlier made acquaintance with one of Westpoint’s main drug dealers and pimps and he convinced the Rastafarian, quite forcefully, to leave.
As I stepped into the drug den, over the body of a sleeping 13-year-old girl, a sullen man in his late 20s with skin the colour of dark purple, his eyes yellow and bloodshot, unwrapped a package of white powder heroin onto foil and heated it into brown liquid from a small white candle precariously balanced in a matchbox.
Within five minutes he and his young friend, who looked around 15, had smoked it all. In between nodding off and babbling about cutting people for money the 15-year-old started pulling on my leg and begging for money so he could go and buy cocaine. He showed me a festering wound on his foot that had turned gangrenous. Then he whispered how earlier that day he had “raped a big bellied woman” and took her money.
Later, our guide took us to a brothel where children are forced to work as prostitutes. We met four older women who were addicted to heroin and alcohol and they told us how little the UN was doing in the areas like Westpoint, where it seems that help is needed the most. They later chased us out into the pitch-black slum after things got a bit heated. Our driver got stuck in an alleyway and crowds of angry people starting banging on the car. It seemed, for a few moments at least, that we were all about to die.
As the week progressed, Myles introduced Shane, Matt and I to three ex-warlords who went by the names of General Bin Laden, General Rambo and General Butt Naked. The last of which had claimed to have killed 20,000 people during his time at war, often killing and eating them, small babies included.
They all reaffirmed what the people at Westpoint had told us. That the image of Liberia as a recovering country is TRUE, but not as TRUE as the UN or the President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf would have you believe.
General Butt Naked is now the reformed pastor Joshua Milton Blahyi and we became fairly close to during our time there.
There’s just not enough work being done there to help the people who need it the most. Places like Westpoint are like pressure cookers waiting to explode. There was talk of the country being taken over in two or three hours, by the inhabitants of such slums, should the UN ever leave. The worrying news is that the UN are rumoured to be leaving next year.
General Butt Naked is now the reformed pastor Joshua Milton Blahyi and we became fairly close to during our time there. A huge, charismatic, bull of a man, Joshua took us to his refuge where he rehabilitates orphans of war and ex combatants and teaches them in the ways of the lord. We watched as he sang and preached his way through a collection of churches in Monrovia on a Sunday and his sincerity about personal redemption was moving, and inspirational, if a little surreal.
Towards the end of our stay we had dinner with him at our hotel. At the end of the night I was drinking in the bar when I met a couple of young mid-Western Americans, who claimed to work for the UN. They were both drunk and so was I; the speedy Larium medicine combining with the whiskey for some quite vociferous conversation.
During the course of our talks I suggested that maybe if the UN were here then they should take a look at Westpoint and its associated problems.
I said something like: “But if you guys are here to help this situation then may I suggest you help to clear up the three square mile pile of excrement and garbage that the most dangerous people in the city are living in every day and night, and which most definitely is contributing to the bad feeling and sickness out there.
“Surely the UN could help set up a basic sanitation system on there. Maybe even somebody could employ the men who live there to work on it so they could make money other than from armed robberies and drug dealing.”
The male of the two UN workers looked at me witheringly and slurred: “If we helped build toilets there the n*****s would s***t on the beach the next day.”
Staggered by his use of language as equally as his attitude I asked: “But if that’s your feelings on the matter then why are you here and what are you doing?”
He reached for his drink and waved me away, much like the mother breastfeeding her baby did to the flies in the alleyway, earlier in the week.
Now, quite enraged, I told him I had somebody he should meet. And that person was stood not ten feet away. And that person’s name was Joshua Milton Blahyi, whom he might have heard of.
The UN guy’s ears pricked up at the name and looked at me quizzically, like “I’ve heard that name before”.
“He used to be called General Butt Naked”, I said. And then I stood up and beckoned to him.
“Joshua!” I yelled. “There’s somebody over here I want you to meet. Come over.”
He caught my eye, smiled and signalled that he’d be there shortly.
I went to inform my new found UN pal that he’d soon be able to tell Joshua his opinion about Westpoint and what he thought about “the n*****s” that lived there.
When I turned around to face him, the chair was empty.