On a grassy patch outside a makeshift military base in Zwedru, Liberia, uniformed soldiers stand steel-faced and stiff, ready for the morning drill. Their platoon commander, a short man with a small, round face only partly visible under his heavy helmet, grunts a litany of orders and rallies the troops.
“We have told people that we are prepared for the job and we can do the job!” the commander shouts. “Only morale can carry you!”
These soldiers, stationed in the thick jungle near the border with Côte d’Ivoire, are about to undertake the first combat mission since the close of their nation’s fourteen-year-long civil war, during which countless atrocities were committed, hundreds of thousands were killed, and weapons and bullets flowed freely.
Now—almost nine years since the war’s end and long after the departure of the rebel leader-turned-president Charles Taylor—the country is facing a new security threat along its southeastern border. The government of Côte d’Ivoire has accused Liberia of failing to prevent Liberian mercenaries and militants loyal to the fallen Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo from crossing into Côte d’Ivoire to attack civilians. After Human Rights Watch released a damning report claiming that the Liberian government had done little to address the problem, mercenaries allegedly killed seven UN peacekeepers. Côte d’Ivoire’s defense minister suggested that Ivorian troops could enter Liberian territory to prevent attacks, forcing Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s government to act.
And so the troops have gathered in Zwedru and other border towns. With his orders and pep talk out of the way, the platoon commander outlines the standard operating procedures for the mission and leads the troops in weapons and rounds counts, both signs of change here.
The Armed Forces of Liberia were reconstituted six years ago under the guidance and training of U.S. Marines. Camouflage helmets scrawled with Shit Snake, Born to Kill, The Punisher, and Killer are testaments to the American influence that looms large in Liberia, even off base. The name of the mission, Operation Restore Hope, echoes the failed U.S. engagement in Somalia that ended with the stripped bodies of Marines dragged through the dusty streets of Mogadishu.
But unlike their American counterparts, the Liberian soldiers—many of whom were victims or fighters in the civil war and had friends and family members maimed, raped, and killed in front of them—are not traveling to a far-off African country to save it from itself. Their goals are different. They are defending the porous borders of their nation, conceived as a “land of liberty” almost two centuries ago by freed American slaves who settled on its shores. In reality Liberia was defined by division and inequality between the natives and elites and further fragmented years later by a war fought along ethnic lines.
Thomas Archie, 29, a slim, soft- spoken soldier with a slight stutter and earnest dark brown eyes, remembers the day his mother was struck down by a mortar shell. He was thirteen years old in 1996 when he watched as she was killed near the U.S. embassy in Monrovia. He stumbles over the word—“m-m-m-mother.”
“For fourteen years there was hostility in the country,” he says. “I joined this time so that such things couldn’t be repeated.” Leadership principles and mantras about responsibility, teamwork, and duty are written in neat cursive on a chalkboard in the classroom that houses Archie’s platoon. They reflect a vision for what the Liberian army could be: chivalrous and responsible keepers of the peace.
This would be another significant change for a Liberian military that has never before been viewed as the defender of the nation, but rather as a force representing narrow political and ethnic interests. Captain Gboe, who leads these troops, hopes that this perception will shift by 2014, when the army will be fully operational and the 8,000 UN peacekeepers that currently uphold the fragile peace begin to withdraw.
The border operation is as much about restoring faith in the nation as it is about preventing conflict with Liberia’s neighbors. As Captain Gboe says, “This mission is a real test to see how we can maintain ourselves and stand on our own.”