The civil war in Liberia translated into a veritable nightmare for me and three other Nigerian reporters, with two of my colleagues killed in cold blood.
Anietie Usen in his new book remembers Tayo Awotosin and Krees Imodibe killed by Charles Taylor.
The civil war in Liberia translated into a veritable nightmare for me and three other Nigerian reporters, with two of my colleagues killed in cold blood. I was just returning from Cotonou, capital of Benin Republic, to cover the country’s presidential elections when Ray Ekpu, now my editor-in-chief, called me into his office and said: “Anietie, I think you have to proceed to Liberia immediately.”
Just as Newswatch ordered me to proceed to Liberia, The Guardian also dispatched my bosom friend Krees Imodibe for the same assignment. Along with Krees and me was Tayo Awotosin of the Daily Champion, and Frank Nwabueze of National Concord. The four of us were the first Nigerian reporters to cover the Liberian civil war from the onset, unprotected by a peacekeeping force, which was in any case not in existence at that time. I had known Frank casually in one or two assignments, but I had never met Tayo until that assignment in Liberia. He was a tall, lanky and gentle fellow, the direct opposite of my friend Krees who was short, robust and swift. While the three of them were lucky to fly directly into Monrovia, I got stuck in Conakry, the capital of Guinea, as Air Guinea, the only Airline that was still braving the Liberian route, was no longer willing to risk the trip.
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The only option left for me was to go to Freetown, capital of Sierra Leone by road and find my way to Monrovia via Kenema, the Sierra Leonean border town with Liberia. This was a 700-kilometers journey through tortuous and treacherous Nigerian-like roads, but I was determined to be in Liberia. My unscheduled trip to Sierra Leone became a blessing. I turned up in Freetown about the same time peace talks between the Liberian warring factions were being hurriedly put together. I made contacts with both factions to the peace talks, checked into the same hotel with them and interviewed key delegates. They told me it was not safe for me to travel to Monrovia when virtually anyone who had the means was hurrying out of the country. But I was desperate to be in Monrovia. Newswatch must report this war from the theatre of war itself, I kept telling myself. I found my way by taxis and buses to Kenema by night, and spent the night in a rebel-infested dingy hotel. Here, I began for the first time to feel and smell the danger lurking ahead. I couldn’t sleep at all that night because of the rampant gunshots in the area and violent squabbles by the marijuana-smoking and drunken rebels. The thought of returning to Nigeria flooded my heart all night, but in the morning, I met a Liberian Muslim leader who was at the peace talks. He was desperate to go to Monrovia to evacuate his family and nothing would deter him. I was desperate to go into Monrovia for my professional duty and nothing would deter me. With his driver and me in the front seat of a new car, we took off on one of the most dangerous journeys that I have ever undertaken.
The frantic man who brought me from Sierra Leone dropped me suddenly as we approached the city center and pointed hurriedly at a certain direction where I could possibly find a hotel, as he turned right obviously in the direction of his neighbourhood. In the middle of nowhere I choked for divine help. Within minutes two soldiers emerged from their trenches and seized me. They were troops loyal to President Doe. One yanked my bag off me immediately while the other pushed and kicked me as he barked orders for me to move in the direction of a nearby storey building. A senior officer in mufti who sat partially hidden by the half wall took over from his untamed boys and grilled me. Confirming that I was a Nigerian journalist just arriving from Sierra Leone, he kept me for safety and later detailed two other untamed soldiers to help me locate the nearest available hotel. The first two hotels we went refused to open their gates. At the third hotel, they shot into the air in anger, forced their way in. I was handed over to the panicking hotel manager, with a warning to ensure my safety, if he loved his life.
The next day when a bit of life returned slowly to some parts of the dying city, I ventured out to the ministry of information, where I met and reunited with Krees, Frank, Tayo and other foreign journalists, including Elizabeth Blunt of the BBC. That evening, I moved over to the small hotel where Krees, Frank and Tayo were staying right in the heart of Monrovia. The owners and workers in the hotel had virtually deserted the place. Electricity had since stopped. Water was in short supply. Toilets were unsightly. Marijuana-puffing ruffians and other suspicious faces made up the bulk of the remaining guests. We hardly spent time in the hotel, until nightfall when we returned from the embassies, government and aid agencies to ferret and confirm information we pick from some sources including deserting soldiers.
After a fierce gun fight broke out on a Saturday night around our hotel, we became restless and decided that we should find our way home the next morning. I barely slept that night. It was clear the warfront was shifting dangerously nearer and a street by street fight to control Monrovia would have begun. By six in the morning, I was banging on the doors of my Nigerian colleagues to dress up and flee with me to Sierra Leone. My first port of call was Krees’ room. He was already up, too, but surprisingly said he wanted to wait for a few more days. As I entered his room, he was writing a letter, hurriedly, which he said I should help deliver to his Managing Director, Mr. Lade Bonuola. I dashed to Frank’s room and he came out with me to Krees’ room where we argued again about the exact situation on ground and the right time to escape. I left Frank with Krees and rushed to Tayo’s room. He was brushing his teeth. We spoke hastily with the toothbrush in his mouth. He, too, said he would want to wait a bit more. That was the last time I saw him. Krees and Frank escorted me in a somewhat jolly mood to the nearby waterfront that Sunday morning where I boarded a Sierra-Leone bound bus laden with refugees. They stood back and waved at me as the clumsy vehicle struggled to make its way to the main road. That was the last time I saw my bosom friend Krees. When I got to my Paramount Hotel room in Freetown that Sunday night and tuned to the BBC, I was shocked to hear that the road I had just passed had been captured and taken over by rebels, cutting off Monrovia from the rest of the world.
With Monrovia cut off and the city center besieged and bombarded by rebel forces, Krees, Tayo and Frank decided to find their way to the Nigerian embassy outside the city centre. The only trouble according to my investigations and interview with several refugees was that Frank was suddenly struck down with severe diarrhea and could not move one inch out of the hotel. Out of sympathy for Frank, Krees and Tayo could not flee the city center in time in spite of the bombardments. Krees and Tayo did everything they could to help Frank take flight with them, but Frank was virtually dying in their hands. At a point, Krees and Tayo decided to carry Frank on their shoulders, with one of Frank’s hands hanged on Krees shoulder and other hand on Tayo’s shoulder. It was an impossible task for the sick man more so because Krees was nearly half the height of Tayo. At a point, Frank himself, certain that he would die, encouraged Krees and Tayo to abandon him for their safety. That was the last time the dying Frank saw his ill-fated colleagues.
Frank was later picked up on the road by some Burkinabe soldiers, who fought on the sides of Charles Taylor. His saving grace was his fluency in French language. When the Burkinabe soldiers verified he was a sick Nigerian journalist, he was given medical attention and put in a refugee ship to Freetown. But Krees and Tayo were not so lucky. They were seized directly by Charles Taylor’s invading troops and executed on the allegation of being spies. Covering the political crises in Sierra Leone and Liberia, as well as in Pakistan and Afghanistan was the first audacious assignment I undertook in a profession I literally gate-crashed. (For enquiries on ‘Audacious Journalism’: 08154582178)