Monday, December 5, 2011

Compounds Part II

So I have a follow-up post for you which is a bit of a reflection on the previous post about the prevalence of compounds in Liberia. I'm home safe and sound in San Francisco, but have a list of topics to blog about and am going to do my best to get through them while everything is still fresh in my mind.

Some of my lovely readers offered interesting insight into the world of compound living, the effects it can have on the psyche of those living both inside and outside its tall walls. They also mentioned other places in the world where such things have happened, where people foreign to the environment arrived and built walls to protect themselves from nature/people/animals/the unknown. It fascinates me that people move away from their homes and across the globe only to wall themselves off into places that keep out everything that is different about the place they live.

HOWEVER, I think I neglected to appropriately explain why all these walls exist in Liberia in particular, but rather simply pointed the finger at the expat community for being paranoid and isolationist. I know many of you know a lot more about the civil wars in Liberia than I do (like did you know Charles Taylor escaped from a Massachusetts prison?!), but I'm learning and I welcome your input here. But during the wars, almost back to back, 1989 - 2003, with a one year reprieve in 1996, Monrovia was often the center of conflict. Unlike in many civil wars where most conflict takes place outside the capitol, Monrovia was often at the heart of the violence and fighting (in addition to border areas, and areas with diamond mines etc). And while I can't think of a civil war that didn't involve unnecessary loss of life, this war was particularly brutal for a variety of reasons. 

There were many factions fighting so, for example, one group of young men with guns arrives in a village and demands shelter and food, which the people have no choice but to provide. Then a rival faction arrives, calling all the people in the village supporters of the first faction. Then they take all the young men and (this is one example I heard), first teach them how to shoot a gun, then tell them they need to know how to shoot it blindfolded, so the men practice firing again blindfolded. Then the blindfolds are removed and the boys find that they have killed their parents and brothers and sisters. Then the entire village is burned to the ground and young boys, and often girls as well, become associated with the fighting forces. Or as various factions would try to enter Monrovia to take over the national mansion and kill whoever was the leader at the time, local people would often take refuge in 'neutral' locations. I was informed that the church near the apartment where I stayed had been one of those places. Until one faction decided not to respect the sanctity of the church, locked the doors, and burned it down with everyone inside.

I apologize for the graphic nature of the stories, but I think that they bear sharing, partially because I think the effect of that sort of indiscriminate violence on the psyche of individuals and a nation is both important to remember, and also impossible to forget. Additionally, many of the young people who were associated with fighting forces are unemployed or underemployed, and spent their youth using violence to get what they want. The vast majority of people I met in Monrovia were incredibly friendly and polite and helpful and kind. But the prevalence of petty crime as well as robbery, assault, and sexual assault is astounding and apparently increasing. So while one could look at living in compounds as a way to isolate oneself from reality and maintain a distance from the local population, it also allows international experts in post-conflict redevelopment to remain in the country and continue working "Lift Liberia" as the UNMIL slogan says.

I think that some crime will always exist, as it does in any city, but I also hope that some day violent crime is low enough to decrease the security focused feeling that exists in many parts of Monrovia due to high walls, razor wire, guards, and barred windows. But on the other hand it's always easier to put up walls than to pull them down.

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