Liberia, Charles Taylor, Naomi Campbell and me

(Naomi Campbell testifying at the Hague war crimes trial. Photo courtesy of

With the testimony of supermodel Naomi Campbell at the war crimes trial of former Liberian leader Charles Taylor, I’ve been remembering my time in Liberia, when I covered the civil war there.
Campbell admits she received diamonds as a gift from Taylor, who is thought to have supplied Sierra Leonian rebels with weapons to carry out their brutal war, in exchange for so called blood diamonds.

In 1991, I was a freelance journalist based in Rome. On assignment for the World Food Programme, they’d asked me to travel to West Africa and write about how their relief food aid was reaching between 600,000 and 900,000 people around Monrovia, and tens of thousands more Liberian refugees in neighbouring Sierra Leone and Cote D’Ivoire.

Landing in Freetown, Sierra Leone, for my first stop, in early June 2001, I remember stepping off the plane and feeling like I had stepped into an oven. It was my first experience with African heat and I wasn’t prepared for it. Oh sure, I had the khaki jacket and I had all my tropical travel shots and carried the pills to ward off malaria. But I wasn’t ready for the mosquitoes and other bugs at the Freetown hotel where my UN guide dropped me, and pledged to collect me the next morning to take me to tour the refugee camp.

I’ll always remember that hotel for two things: the huge cockroach in the bathtub which scared me to death when I turned the lights on, and tossing and turning all night without a mosquito net, listening to Radio Canada International on my shortwave radio, and feeling so incredibly lonely.

The next day, with my face swollen from the mosquitoes, I must have looked a fright for my interviews. But my living conditions were better then in the camp.

A local UN office employee, James Legge, drove me out to see the Waterloo Refugee camp on the outskirts of Freetown, where thousands of Liberian refugees were living outside the capital. At the time, Sierra Leone hadn’t itself been torn apart by its own civil war, which would begin soon enough.

Liberian refugees at the Waterloo Camp selling at makeshift market site. Ellin Bessner photo.

James Legge, WFP worker at Waterloo, Sierra Leone. Photo: Ellin Bessner

In Waterloo, now known as Kissy, I remember snapping this photo of a group of men who were in the midst of slaughtering a cow to supplement their UN rations.

Food distribution at Waterloo Refugee Camp/Ellin Bessner photo.

Before leaving Sierra Leone, I must have eaten dinner at restaurant which I think they called the White House. I was so careful not to drink local water, but I ate rice and chicken. The next morning, Imodium was the name of the game on the small, bathroom-less Red Cross relief flight from Freetown to the Liberian capital, Monrovia.


I arrived in Monrovia in June 1991, during a cease fire, a relatively calm period of what’s now known as Liberia’s first civil war, which started in 1989, when then-rebel leader Charles Taylor launched his uprising (supported by Libya and, some say, by the United States) against Liberia’s unpopular president Samuel Doe. By 1990, Taylor’s forces, the NPFL (National Patriotic Front of Liberia) had conquered most of the country except for Monrovia, which was held by an Interim Government of National Unity.

See a 1990 ABC News report about the beginnings of the rebellion fought mainly by teenaged soldiers loyal to Charles Taylor:

A siege of Monrovia during the previous summer of 1990 had forced internally displaced Liberians and local residents to eat all the dogs, and all the animals in the zoo, then they cut down coconut palms and ate the hearts, and then they ate grass. With the cease fire, a relief corridor around the city was set up and reinforced by no-nonsense peacekeeping troops from several west African states, especially Nigeria, known as ECOMOG. This allowed NGOs and UN agencies in to the city, including Medecins Sans Frontieres, Catholic Relief Services, USAID and others.

Bullet holes in facades of buildings/Ellin Bessner photo.

There was no fighting when I arrived. But the Monrovia airport was just barely functioning. You could see the destruction of the city that had been carried out during the siege and the fighting: there were bullet holes everywhere, especially the hospitals and schools and government buildings.

There was garbage everywhere, abandoned cars, and while I didn’t see this, some journalists reported seeing human bones lying in fields. The UN estimates that some 200,000 Liberians were killed in the fighting by the time the first war ended in 1996 and a further 700,000 fled the country to Sierra Leone, Guinea, Ivory Coast and Ghana.

All international food aid to Monrovia had to come through the city’s port, because Taylor’s forces still controlled the rest of the country. So, UN officials asked a well-known local woman Dorothea Diggs, to find a way to distribute the rice and other commodities.

Dorothea Diggs, photo/Ellin Bessner

She created a group known as SELF, Special Emergency Life Food.

“We had to do something or we’d starve,” Diggs told me in Monrovia during an interview.

She recruited local men to unload food shipments. They were paid in extra rice rations. But it wasn’t enough for some: at first, in the warehouses, some men would wear two pairs of trousers and stuff their pockets and shoes with rice.

There were other troubles: early lists of residents eligible for food aid turned up “ghost houses” of imaginary clients, until SELF tightened up its procedures and began using computerized lists.

With rice worth $1 per cup in the local markets, the UN also used rice to encourage city wide clean ups.

“The city runs on rice,” Richard Snellen told me at the time, in a story I wrote for “Africa Recovery”, a publication of the United Nations Public Information department. Snellen was the WFP’s emergency coordinator in Monrovia.

There was a sense of hope in the air then. Headlines in UN magazines included “Rebuilding after the war”. Remembering my visit, I pulled out my old passport today.

It had its Sierra Leone and Cote D’Ivoire immigration stamps. I did find an old black and green Liberian $5 dollar bill I’d pocketed as a souvenir.

It bears the face of J.J Roberts, Liberia’s American-born first and founding president, a free black man who’d emigrated from Virginia to build a democratic Liberia in 1829. Wonder what he would have made of the supermodel’s testimony?

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