Sunday, February 27, 2011

Old Emails: 2004 Liberia

Monrovia, Liberia
March 14, 2004

Please excuse the group format – I decided that it is much easier to write an email on my computer in my room at night than it is to start writing only to have the electricity go out on the computer right as I’m about to hit send. I’m currently in Monrovia , Liberia . I spent one week in Sierra Leone and landed in Monrovia yesterday. It was not as exciting as my previous trips to Sierra Leone . Sometimes I think its more fun to travel alone because then you get in more scrapes that make more interesting stories.

I did finally get to fly on a helicopter. If you remember from my previous Sierra Leone adventure, my biggest disappointment was that the helicopters were all grounded and I had to take the ferry. Well this time, I got on the helicopter. It was a little anticlimactic. It’s loud, smells like helicopter fuel, and the seats are basically bench seats along the sides of the helicopter so there are no backs. It’s not so bad for the 10-minute flight from the airport to the hotel but for the hour-long trip to the provinces, it’s not that great. They give you headphones to wear to block the noise so you can’t talk to any of your neighbors. I have discovered (something that Alec already knew) that I can pretty much sleep anywhere – on a helicopter, in a train station, in a bumping car on a back highway in Haiti. Closing your eyes and napping is a very useful alternative to nausea, which is my other option. On the last part of the helicopter trip there was a big to do as they loaded up the helicopter with fresh supplies for some of the troops. As our “onboard snack” we were able to help ourselves to the tomatoes, cucumbers, and cabbages that were stacked between our feet. As I was the only woman on the flight, I was also blessed with the only earplugs that they had.

We’ve been using the UN military helicopters and planes and in general, the Ukrainian and Russian pilots are very chivalrous and help me into and out of the helicopters. I felt sort of like a movie star on Friday. The Bangladeshi troops stationed at the Bo Airport asked if they could have their picture taken with me. It could be sweet and innocent but I know better of what those guys are capable of doing. There are probably disgusting things being done with my photo as we speak. That’s the flip side to the chivalry.

Colleague is teaching me to drink single malt scotch and I am teaching him how to hear the beat in music so he can eventually learn how to dance. We have argued a couple of times about gender issues -in criticizing anything about the military, are you ignoring the fact that the soldiers may die at some point fighting to protect the civilians.  I argue, the military are supposed to protect the citizens – particularly the women and children – not rape them. It’s so disturbing the things that you hear in this job. I heard about a gang of Bangladeshi soldiers gang raping a 10 year old. Some man also raped and gave an STI to a 3-½ month old baby. These people are usually never punished. They can often make monetary payments to the victim and get off scott free. Anyway, I’m trying to expose it all in the bulletins that we’re writing so maybe I can embarrass the UN more to take this stuff more seriously and punish these guys.

Surprisingly though, I am not opposed to the military or to the presence of UN peacekeepers. They are in general, very good. You see them playing with the kids in refugee camps, they organized volleyball games with the Sierra Leone kids out in the wilderness outside of Kenema. They are usually fathers who have young children at home and they keep the pictures of their children with them. I met a very nice and enthusiastic young Pakistani man who has three kids. He talks about them fondly and how overwhelmed his wife is and how he wants to go home so he can play with them and let her rest for a while. It’s sweet. Of course, I haven’t really met the Nigerians, Ghanaians, or other African troops. They are supposed to have thousands of girlfriends and leave behind lots of babies as they pull out of the country. This is no new revelation, this has been happening since the beginning of time but it’s scary and sad that absolutely no progress has happened on this issue.

We stayed in Bo at the house of one of the UNHCR staff one night. He was American and had satellite tv so we had a good time watching MTV and talking about Chris Rock, Dave Chapelle, and old Saturday Night Live skits (in particular the one about Strom Thurmond during the Clarence Thomas hearings). Unfortunately, there was no electricity after 11pm and it is the middle of the dry season. That means it’s hot as hell and there is no breeze at night. The next day was a relative paradise compared to that. We stayed with the Pakistani Battalion in the field near Kenema. They put me up in the VIP “container” – it’s a former shipping container that has a bathroom and an air conditioner. I even had my own “room attendant”. The food was out of this world! A huge buffet of several kinds of curry. The Pakistanis treated us like royalty.

Liberia looks a lot better than it did the last time I was here. The restaurant at the hotel we are staying in has instituted a delicious Lebanese style brunch that we indulged in this morning. It was a nice change from the nonstop diet of Barracuda that I had adopted in Sierra Leone . I’ve been trying to avoid dairy, salads, uncooked foods, and anything other than bottled water. So all I eat is barracuda and rice.

The air conditioners are working; we have running water with pretty good water pressure, and CNN. In fact, we were watching CNN yesterday afternoon talking about work and suddenly – Ken Bacon, our boss, appeared on the screen! He was being interviewed live about the Sudan . What a small world. There we sat in Liberia, watching our boss in Washington , talk about the Sudan . We were finally able to get on email today so I am feeling a little less cut off from the world. It looks like there is a lot of construction going on. I am looking forward to getting out of the city. We are going to try to ride along on a patrol of the UN peacekeepers. Perhaps I’ll get my picture on a tank a la Dukakis.

Anyway, nothing too exciting has come out the trip to Liberia yet. We did run into the waiter that was working here the last time I was here. He remembered me because we had a memorable evening doing fancy napkin folds and teaching each other different kinds. He bought me a drink. Unfortunately, it led us to open up the bottle of Scotch that we bought in the Paris duty-free and start drinking while listening to Johnny Cash on colleague's Ipod. I decided it would be fun to stay up to 2:30am and dance in my hotel room to Haitian music. Amazingly, Scotch doesn’t really give you a hangover like wine does! A monster may have been born. We’ve spent today just writing up bulletins and trying to outline a larger document we want to write and put out when we return. I get more work done here than I ever do in DC.

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