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Ring of Desperation

When Liberia calls to collect, can Americans refuse to answer?

October 06, 2003|Alan Huffman

Three a.m., the phone rings. This is never a good thing.

The operator asks if I will accept a call from a Kaiser Railey in Liberia.

I know Kaiser Railey, as well as his family, and that denies me the luxury of sleep some nights. It means I cannot stare blankly at news reports from Monrovia, reports about yet another unimaginably brutal African war that does not concern me. Neither can I help noticing how suddenly and inexplicably the news vanishes, as if our own short attention spans have willed Liberia's trouble to dissipate.

The calls always begin with a polite, "Hello, Alan, how are you keeping? We pray well," delivered in the charming Old South-meets-West-Africa dialect that is unique to Liberia.

Next, the inevitable segue: "Alan, I must inform you that things are not fine with us."

But I am here, not there. Now as always, I find myself deliberating how best -- and how much -- I can help. Which mirrors the ongoing debate in the United States over defining our nation's role in saving Liberia from its ongoing despair.

Kaiser's family, like so many in Liberia today, is struggling to survive. If someone is struggling to survive and he knows someone who can help, he calls collect when he is near a phone. If you know someone who is struggling to survive, you do what you can, right up to the point where his sister e-mails a request for money for a new dress. At that point, you reevaluate.

This is not about guilt. It is about trying to figure out where responsibility begins and ends. This may be the reason the U.S. is reluctant to move closer to Liberia: There is something dangerous, needy and boundless about Liberia, and it is calling to us. We have gotten the call at 3 a.m.

Before we can decide the best course of action, we have to consider the back story. We put Liberia on the map. We didn't create the current mess, and there are bewildering nuances to the conflict that have nothing to do with us. But there is no denying that the trouble started when the U.S. used Liberia as a "homeland" for free African Americans, and those African Americans used the opportunity to do to the indigenous groups something alarmingly close to what had been done to them. Theirs is a history like none other on Earth, and we are part of it.

Until recently Liberia's ruling class was quite accommodating to us, essentially doing the bidding of Firestone, the U.S. military and the CIA. In return, we extracted rubber, built bases for World War II's North Africa campaign and conducted covert operations during the Cold War. We also aided their murderous dictator, Samuel Doe.

In July, after much cajoling, we sent a small contingent of Marines to try to restore order in the wake of renewed fighting between rebels and government forces. Now the United Nations has voted to send 15,000 peacekeepers to Liberia. Sen. John Warner of Virginia has said Liberia's stability is in our best interest because the nation has the potential to be a haven for terrorists. The Friends of Liberia, made up of former U.S. diplomats, Peace Corps workers, missionaries and others, recently asked the Bush administration to help save Liberia:

"Americans made Liberia and Liberia has been loyal to America since the 19th century. It is simply right and just to step up now in this small tragic place to project the ideals and values of America."

Yet the U.S. Marines once stationed at the embassy in Monrovia and waiting aboard ships offshore have left. We kept our eye on the door, with good reason. I also kept my eye on the door when I traveled to Monrovia in 2001, searching for descendants of Mississippi slaves who had embarked for Liberia in the 1840s. With Kaiser and Edward Railey's help, I found whom I was looking for, but it was a risky endeavor, and the Raileys took care of me.

I owe them, and they like it that way.

In the last couple of years the Railey brothers have needed a lot -- money for black market passports, money to travel to mines to buy gold for resale at a profit at the Monrovia docks, money for emergency surgery for a bleeding ulcer (surgery interrupted by the outbreak of fighting in June), money to stockpile rice (a few weeks before people began starving to death all over Monrovia). The Raileys have probably needed a lot more, but sometimes I'm not home when they call. Sometimes I'm there and don't answer.

It is not that the Raileys are beggars. Far from it. The brothers are young, conscientious and ready to make their way through the world, but there is nothing for them to do. They are trapped in Liberia's wreckage. I recently got an e-mail from Kaiser. The fighting had ended and everyone in the family was alive, but their possessions had been looted. And, FYI: The Western Union office had just reopened.

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