REPORTING FROM LIBERIA — There is no topic more widely discussed today on the streets, in the bars and gathering places of Liberia than the conviction of Charles G. Taylor, the former president of this country, on 11 counts of crimes against humanity in neighboring Sierra Leone.
But the verdict has revealed a good deal about the fissures in Liberian society and the very fragile peace that most people here hope will remain in place.
To many Liberians, the very mention of the name of Charles Taylor conjures memories of the horrors of this country’s protracted 14-year civil war, of children fighting as soldiers and of unspeakable mutilation and killings of civilians. He is widely seen as a ruthless warlord whose grip on the country was as brutal as it was atrocious.
Still, others view Taylor, 64, far more sympathetically, recalling an era under his presidency when they considered him to be benevolent to many ordinary working Liberians.
“I still like Charles Taylor very much,” said Lawrence Kporquan, an amateur soccer player and taxi driver. “He was one of our great leaders. In his time, things were cheap and people could afford things better. He seemed to care about the little people.”
He, like a significant portion of the population, says that Taylor should not be held accountable for crimes that rebel forces loyal to him may have committed. They insist he was punished unfairly by international pressure, particularly from the United States and England.
But Taylor is reviled by a larger sector of the population, who harshly criticize him not only for crimes he is said to have committed in Sierra Leone, but also for his role in the most punishing period of this country’s civil war.
“I see him as someone who is still a threat to stability,” said Edward Palmer, a mass communications student at the University of Liberia. “He still has a loyal following and they could destabilize the country if he had returned to Liberia,” Palmer said.
“I still consider him a threat,” Palmer said. “It’s better to keep him out of the country. He deserved the punishment.”
More than anything, people here are nervous about any return to the violence that rocked this country so profoundly. The government of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a onetime opponent of Taylor’s for the presidency, assigned extra police forces in the event of a disturbance.
However, the streets of Monrovia, the nation’s capital and largest city, have remained calm with people going about their daily lives without incident.
“The reaction has been highly mixed because some people wanted Taylor free and others wanted him convicted,” said Lawrence Randall, executive director of the Liberia Media Center.
“The Taylor base is not organized or energized and, as a result, there hasn’t been much in the way of disturbances,” Randall said. He mentioned the fact that, after the verdict, there was a large rainbow that surrounded the sun.
“Many people think that is a ray of hope for Liberia and for West Africa,” Randall said. “More than anything, people here want peace.”
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(Photo: Finbarr O'Reilly / Reuters)
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