Originally July 19, 2003
by Susan Ives
It’s the rainy season in West Africa and the half million Liberians who fled their homes to escape the crossfire of the 14-year-long civil war are living in roofless shacks with muddy floors.
“Imagine living in a pig pen,” said Debar Allen.
I was introduced to Debar through friends at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Gaithersburg, MD. In the Washington suburbs they call Ascension “the Liberian church” because so many of its members – about a third of the 1,200-member parish – are Liberian exiles.
When I visited last month cardboard boxes clogged the hallways. The congregation was collecting food to send to Liberia.
I asked why — this was just a few days before Liberia’s desperate situation captured the headlines — and was told, “Ask Debar.” We spoke on the phone for an hour.
Debar, 39, is a chemist, head of research and development for a paint company. Debar, his wife Shirley and daughter Paynudeh, now 13, returned to Liberia in 1990. After a few months they turned back. A son, also called Debar, is nine.
It was 1991, and the civil war had erupted. Between 1990 and 1996, 200,000 died. The Allens are among the one million Liberians who have fled, mostly to other West African countries and to the United States. There is an acute food shortage. Typhoid, malaria and cholera run rampant. It is a disaster unmatched by any other place on earth, Debar told me.
“Humanitarian needs are genuine and need to be met now, no matter how they started,” Debar said. The Allens are in frequent contact with their siblings back home and Debar last visited in February.
The United Nations has proposed that the U.S. send a small force to work alongside a larger contingent of African peacekeepers. I admitted to Debar that Americans are wary. Our military is already overextended. Somalia, our last African expedition, ended in disaster. What makes Liberia worth the risk?
The Liberian people identify with America, Debar said.
He gave two examples:
In the early 1980’s, at our request, Liberia agreed to stay away from an Organization of African Unity summit where Libya’s Gaddafi was slated to become chairman, an act that denied him the post.
Again aligning itself with the U.S. and breaking ranks with its African brothers and sisters, Liberia cast the tie-breaking vote in the United Nations that established the state of Israel.
The closeness is woven into their flag: red and white stripes, a field of blue and, where we have fifty stars, they have but one. The last stanza of their anthem exclaims:
The Lone Star forever, the Lone Star forever Oh, long may it flow over land and o’er sea
Our Texan president should be singing that song. While we are tolerated in some places, despised in others, in Liberia the people would welcome us with jubilation.
Debar spoke with sadness of America’s reluctance to come to Liberia’s aid.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld dismissed the idea of intervention in Liberia, saying “we have no vital interests there.”
Just as many Americans were distressed by France’s refusal to join the United States in the assault on Iraq – after all we’ve done for them! – Liberians are disappointed that more than 150 years of loyalty and devotion counts for so little.
Debar suggests that the violence would cease and the competing factions unite if President Charles Taylor were to leave, as promised, and peace was evenhandedly restored. Liberians are by nature a peaceful people, Debar said, and the current violence is a reaction to Taylor’s corrupt mismanagement, not a chronic state of affairs.
Debar believes that American presence is critical to ensure the integrity of the peacekeeping mission. Americans are held in such tremendous respect that there would be no attempts to subvert and suborn them, as there would be with an inexperienced African force, he said. The African troops would bear the brunt of any danger, he emphasized.
This is a righteous mission, a small slice of Africa where we are wanted and needed and where we can have a profound impact with minimal exposure.
Debar reflected that he had never considered public service but would return if needed to help form an interim government under U.S. protection.
“If young professionals do not step forward, our children will never know Liberia. That would be a tragedy,” he said.