16 February 2008

Appearances can be deceiving

Perhaps we have been travelling too long. We finally made it into downtown Monrovia today. Sometimes seeing too many things makes you stop paying attention to the details. The city looked poor, but not war torn. Yes, there was trash lying in the gutters, people selling things out of baskets, and potholes determined to rattle your teeth. But at least the roads are paved. There was also a store selling Dell computers, another one called "Radio Shack," and the "Heineken store" selling Frosted Flakes, Lipton Peach Iced tea, and Splenda. Really, if you ignored the occasional UN vehicle and the abundance of barbed wire, how was this different from another third world country such as India?

On closer examination, however, I realized that there was not a traffic light in sight. There is no running water, and so people were washing, cooking, and chopping with big plastic jugs next to them. There's no clear sewage system, nor garbage collection. Once you wandered off the main streets, you saw narrow alleys being co-opted as trash collection grounds. Most buildings were 1 or 2 storied, and the taller ones were abandoned and missing panes of glass. And if you read the billboards carefully you would find, amongst the ones advertising KLIM milk powder and Lonestar Cell, others proclaiming, "Woman is not your enemy, she is your friend," and "Raped? Get free treatment now!" Several posts on the island between incoming and outbound traffic still stand riddled with bullet holes.

In this all we met Liberians who were playing spirited games of checkers, some friendly enough to say hello, and all polite enough to leave you alone if you did not want to buy their wares. This is a testament to the ability of the Liberians to endure, but it also is giving us a false sense of security. Yesterday, Dr. Gary Parker gave us his take on the situation. Imagine, he said, that you are the father of a 5-year-old girl whose legs have been amputated by the rebels during the war. Imagine that you know, through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia, that the man who did this to your daughter lives just down the street. Now you need to keep smiling at him every day because if you don't and chaos erupts, the Western NGOs will pull out, and the faucet of aid will be turned off. So every day you grit your teeth and continue to greet your neighbor civilly, but deep down inside every time you see him you want to kill this man. How many of the people we met today have this story? How do you move forward from this history? Would it take just one riot to make being Americo-Liberian or local, Krahn or Mandigo, mean the difference between life or death, able-bodied or a one-armed amputee?

I cannot imagine how forgiveness can occur in this country if it is to be done by human intervention alone.

The rest of the pictures are here.

No comments: