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Priest in killing fields of Liberia defies the odds

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Buchanan, Liberia

I spent just one night in Buchanan -- sleepless and scared, clutching a flashlight all night, wondering who was creeping about outside the straw walls of the compound. If my host, Fr. John Kilcoyne, was also scared, he certainly didn't show it. He has lived and worked in Buchanan throughout seven years of gruesome civil war and I'd lay odds he doesn't lie awake at night visualizing cutthroats outside his walls. He'll be planning the day's work ahead.

I'd come to Buchanan, Liberia's second largest city, to see Catholic Relief Services' projects in the war-weary area. Despite the best efforts of a West African peacekeeping force, Buchanan, once a thriving port, enjoys all the law and order of Dodge City circa 1880. Around the country, kids as young as 8 years old are veterans of a dozen battles. Rape and murder are acts they boast about.

Little is left of Buchanan now. Bombed-out buildings line streets and Catholic Relief Services (the overseas aid agency of U.S. Catholics) distributes emergency food relief in the area: to the tent cities, to refugee camps outside town, to small communities of resettled Liberians and to clinics.

Kilcoyne, assisted by a small staff of risk-takers, coordinates these relief services in addition to his duties as a priest of the Society of the African Missions. He also heads the diocese's own emergency relief committee.

Liberia's bloody civil war started on Christmas Eve of 1989. Since then it has claimed some 200,000 lives and left more than one million people homeless. Nearly a year after it began, three members of Catholic Relief Services' staff were beaten and detained by fighters from one of the warring factions but escaped with their lives. Two years later the agency's offices at the port were bombed. Five nuns, all of them Americans, have been slain since the war began.

At present, Buchanan and its environs are controlled by the West African peacekeeping force, ECOMOG, and one of the half dozen warring factions in Liberia, the National Patriotic Front of Liberia. ECOMOG polices the port, the center of town and the road to the west, which leads to the capital, Monrovia. The Patriotic Front patrols a region to the north. Members of that group tend to be teenagers with AK-47s, Chicago Bulls T-shirts and the ambition of retaking the port itself.

Kilcoyne gave me an example of justice, Buchanan style, as we bumped along the potholed road from Monrovia, negotiating more than 30 check points along the way. A teenage fighter had raped and murdered a young girl in Buchanan in broad daylight in front of witnesses. He admitted his crime, even boasted about it. The girl's family denounced the murder to a local faction commander, a teenage "general" who had the young man shot on the spot.

"Of course, it hasn't always been like this," Kilcoyne said in his Irish brogue. "Buchanan was beautiful and can be again." Picturing the buildings as they once were, it was easy to see what he meant. American-style ranch houses stand among groves of palm trees, homes that in their day wouldn't have been out of place in suburban Miami or San Diego. Though little more than shells now, families still cling to these homes. They have nowhere else to go.

Kilcoyne explained that the people are being kept alive by U.S. government food aid, a sad situation repeated over much of Liberia. "But it doesn't need to be this way," he said. "With peace we could get people off relief dependency in one year. Liberia is a very productive country."

Liberia, founded by the American Colonization Society in 1822 as a haven for black Americans, has all the ingredients of a tropical paradise. The country is blessed with fertile land, abundant timber, rubber, iron ore, diamonds and gold. Yet the war makes this land hell on earth. Half a dozen warring factions are battling for supremacy -- for control of gold and diamond mining areas, timber and ports. By exporting these resources, the warlords can buy weapons from unscrupulous arms dealers, line their own pockets and keep their fighters happy.

It has been six years since Liberia has had anything resembling a government. The last president, Samuel Doe, was tortured to death by a warlord, Prince Johnson, who was filmed swigging Budweiser as he sliced off Doe's ears. The only force for order is ECOMOG, and that is limited to a few areas. "Thank God for ECOMOG" is a common slogan painted on the dilapidated buses that sputter about Monrovia's shattered streets.

Kilcoyne jokes with smiling Ghanaian ECOMOG soldiers who look in on the Catholic mission every evening.

Under an agreement struck last August by the warlords, all factions were to disarm by the end of January. Elections are scheduled for May. "Welcome! We need you home without a gun," proclaimed a giant billboard poster in Monrovia in December. The poster showed a prodigal son returning to his village and the outstretched arms of his father. Not far away, another sign invited, "Disarm here."

Despite warlords' promises, disarmament is faltering. Few fighters were turning up at disarmament centers and, according to news reports, surrendered weapons were often little more than rusted relics.

Lacking basics like manpower and weapons, ECOMOG is underequipped for the task at hand. The annual shoestring budget for peacekeeping, disarmament and rehabilitation is $110 million, the amount the Los Angeles Lakers paid for Shaquille O'Neal.

"What bothers me," Kilcoyne said, "is the gap between what the fighters are promised if they disarm and what they get." Along with food and vouchers for health care, disarmed fighters are promised education and/or vocational training. But lines at retraining centers are long, even at a time when disarmament is proceeding slowly.

"These are people not used to waiting," Kilcoyne said. "They want instant gratification, which they usually get if they have a gun."

Kilcoyne wanted to show me the town of Gorblee. "You must see what the fighters have done to the place," he said. I wondered what could be worse than the mess they have made of Buchanan and Monrovia. We passed through a heavily armored ECOMOG checkpoint and entered territory controlled by the National Patriotic Front. After hours jarring over what can only loosely be described as a road, our Land Cruiser pulled into Gorblee.

I was astounded by what I saw. The town looked like it had been a target for a week of blitzkrieg. Amid the wreckage of burned-out vehicles and buildings, war graffiti dotted the scene -- slogans and pictures of fighters with rocket-propelled grenades. Clearly Elvis-fans, the young fighters even labeled one building "Graceland Center."

Kilcoyne warned me against taking pictures before getting permission. On the veranda of a semi-intact building with a Liberian flag outside (the same as the U.S. flag except that there is only one, large star), eight or nine Patriotic Front fighters, all teens, sat about. Just inside the door, near where they were listening to a radio and smoking, was an arms cache a Michigan militia would have been proud of.

The leader, a boy of 16 or so, and sporting a National Basketball Association hat, gave me the once-over, then dismissed us. They seemed to know who Kilcoyne was. "Just don't take any photos of them or their building, and let's be quick," Kilcoyne advised.

Remarkably, a few people still lived in Gorblee -- among the poorest I had seen. Women and children were dressed in rags. For entertainment, children crawled through rusted, twisted metal. As we drove back to Buchanan, Fr. John told me that a survey in August had found 47 percent of the people in the Buchanan area to be malnourished. After that, Catholic Relief Services set up new food distribution points.

We stopped at one. U.S. bulgur wheat and vegetable oil were being passed out to villagers who were rebuilding their homes in the area. Catholic Relief Services had also distributed agricultural tools and rice seed so they could resume growing crops. The villagers had put in months of backbreaking labor to clear the dirt road so a food truck could pass through.

Along this road north of Buchanan, where there had been total destruction for 60 miles, villagers had returned to build new homes of straw and other materials available locally. Kilcoyne worried that some of the new houses -- replacing former dwellings of brick and concrete -- wouldn't withstand the rainy season.

These war-weary people were friendly but more sober than others I'd met in Africa, less ready to smile and laugh. Many expressed open hatred of the warring factions. The cruelly misnamed Liberian Peace Council, or LPC, was nicknamed the Lost Property Collector because of their habit of looting homes.

Life has become very cheap in Liberia. After a shaky cease-fire, heavy fighting erupted again last April. Along with more deaths and destruction, a massive epidemic of cholera broke out in overcrowded refugee camps and urban centers. A Catholic Relief Services' staff member had died in that epidemic, and another staff member's wife had died in childbirth the night before I arrived in Buchanan. The area lacks equipment and medicine for cesarean births.

Despite mass evacuations of foreign nationals out of Liberia by the United Nations and United States, Kilcoyne chose to stay. He witnessed the Patriotic Front take Buchanan from the Liberian Peace Council and its ally, the Armed Forces of Liberia. After 13 years in Liberia, Kilcoyne knows the country, its people and its politics well, and he mixes this knowledge with typical Irish skepticism. He realizes that if disarmament fails, Buchanan is likely to be taken again.

When he arrived in Liberia, he had been struck, as I was, by the huge American influence on the country. Americana is everywhere: U.S.-style buildings and license plates and the use of American English rather than British. Monrovia is named after James Monroe; Buchanan after the 16th president of the United States. Gbarnga, power base of Charles Taylor -- who was educated at Bentley College in Boston -- is twinned with Baltimore, Md. There is a Maryland County. The list is endless.

Kilcoyne and I discussed the country's future over a Liberian beer at the Catholic mission that night. Even if disarmament succeeded, the work of rebuilding would take years and require assistance from Western nations and humanitarian aid organizations. Child fighters would have to be reintegrated into their communities.

Though not an optimist, Kilcoyne has hope. He told me of little acts that have made a difference. His own parish back home in County Mayo, Ireland, had organized a clothing collection for people of Buchanan. The school at the mission was about to reopen. Villagers outside Buchanan were rebuilding homes and planting crops.

I thought about Fr. John a few days later as I boarded the decrepit Russian Antonov propeller plane that would take me from Liberia to Abidjan in Ivory Coast, "the Paris of West Africa." There I would sleep safely in a comfortable hotel bed with electricity, clean water, carpets and air conditioning. Buchanan would be inking into another long, dark, uncertain night. Blackness would be clinging to the mission house that Kilcoyne will continue to call home. He's got work to do.

National Catholic Reporter, March 21, 1997