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African meltdown

Liberia's civil strife strafes American relief workers

This was the worst night of my life," Brian Johnson reported to his boss.

It was no routine exaggeration. Mr. Johnson is the Liberian country director for World Relief and was not able to get word of his safety to World Relief's Africa director, David van Vuuren, until five days after fighting began nearly three weeks ago in the West African country. Nor was it the complaint of a neophyte. Mr. Johnson's work in Liberia spans 28 years. He was evacuated six years ago when rebel forces first began their seige of Monrovia, the capital. And last year, as rebel fighting once again broke a fragile ceasefire, two cousins and the father of his wife Ruth were murdered.

Describing the situation as a "meltdown," Mr. Johnson confirmed the reports of other Christian aid workers and missionaries who said that the widespread gunfire, looting, and armed robbery was the worst they had seen in the country's six years of civil strife.

"These men are vicious," he told Mr. van Vuuren by short-wave radio. Rebel fighters had held Mr. Johnson and others hostage at gunpoint for hours, while bandits wielding AK-47s looted the compound of SIM International where his house is located. Overnight the compound was raided between 10 and 15 times. Ten vehicles and what little food remained were stolen. During the final siege, the assailants discovered the presence of women and children at the compound and warned Mr. Johnson, whose two teenage daughters were with him there, "We'll be back for them."

But the Americans were brought to safety after an emergency appeal to the American embassy in Monrovia. Peacekeeping forces arrived at the compound, where 30 missionary families in addition to the Johnsons had taken cover just outside Monrovia. An armed convoy of nearly 20 vehicles carried them and others to a staging area where the Johnsons were flown in a U.S. helicopter to Dakar, Senegal. It was a halting journey: Both the convoy and the helicopter were fired on by rebels, but because of the push to remove foreigners from the disintegrating country, stops were made along the way-including helicopter touchdowns at the U.S. embassy and in Freetown, Sierra Leone-to pick up other evacuees.

Mr. Johnson's story mirrors those of many other American relief workers and missionaries caught in the storm of fighting. Despite a U.N.-brokered peace accord that was to allow for elections later this year, the fiercest fighting in over three years broke out April 6 between warring factions that agreed last August to share power.

One faction is led by Charles Taylor, a member of Liberia's ruling council; the other by Roosevelt Johnson, who last week held hundreds hostage-including 22 West African peacekeepers and 50 Lebanese civilians-in a former military barracks in Monrovia. Mr. Taylor, who had ordered his militia to shell the barracks, agreed to stop the fighting, but only if his rival Mr. Johnson would leave the country.

Mr. Taylor has had the upper hand in governing the country of 2.3 million since the Johnson forces killed Liberian leader Samuel Doe following a coup in 1990 that unleashed this civil war. Mr. Doe himself staged a successful military coup in 1980.

In 1990, 59 Americans were rescued from the U.S. embassy. That year's fighting killed more than 150,000 and left the economy devastated. The Western African peacekeeping force, sponsored by the U.N. but composed primarily of Nigerian soldiers, as well as a number of relief organizations and missionaries, has maintained a stepped-up presence in the country since that time.

When this month's fighting began, more than 500 Americans worked in Liberia, a country founded by freed American slaves in 1822. By last week nearly all had been evacuated, as well as 1,100 other foreigners.

World Relief's Brian Johnson traveled late last week with his family from Senegal to the Ivory Coast, where he will temporarily supervise operations from a point near the Liberian border. The organization's chief health worker, Canadian Enid Grey, chose to remain inside Liberia in quarters provided by her Liberian pastor. Fifteen Liberian staff workers for World Relief also remained in the country and were reportedly safe. Even as fighting continued, the group secured 2.2 metric tons of grain to distribute to many

of the more than 60,000 left homeless and and hungry by this round of fighting. But at least half of it was looted.

"As soon as security allows we will be getting food and medical supplies out to those who need it," World Relief spokesman Linda Keys told WORLD.

Not every aid worker is eager to get back into the Liberian fray, however. World Vision agriculture specialist Joe DeVries made a harrowing 16-hour journey overland to the Ivory Coast border after trying to locate two fellow workers who disappeared just north of Monrovia.

"I've done Liberia. There is nothing left," he told the Associated Press upon his arrival in Sierra Leone, where he was taken to await the arrival of the two Filipino World Vision workers. He hoped they would be rescued by U.S. forces and brought there. But by last week they had failed to reappear. Meanwhile, Mr. DeVries doubts anything remains of his organization's Monrovia office. The last message he received from his Liberian radio operator described the approach of looters.

"The operator was saying, 'They are getting closer, I can't stay here much longer, there's no food in the office,'" Mr. DeVries explained.

"I just told him he'd done a great job and ordered him to get out of there. I think he knew when he shut down and left the place the looters would come in and destroy the office. I understand they already have."

Mindy Belz

Mindy Belz

Mindy wrote WORLD Magazine's first cover story in 1986 and went on to serve as international editor, editor, and now senior editor. She has covered wars in Syria, Afganistan, Africa, and the Balkans, and she recounts some of her experiences in They Say We Are Infidels: On the Run from ISIS with Persecuted Christians in the Middle East. Mindy resides with her husband, Nat, in Asheville, N.C. Follow her on Twitter @mcbelz.