As it is in Heaven. As it is in Heaven.

A Robertsport local demonstrates that new paths can help one forget about the past, if only for a moment. Photos by Ethan Baron

By Ethan Baron

A decade ago, the coastal African nation of Liberia was considered by the United Nations to be the world’s most dangerous place. Today, delivered from the nightmare of a Third World war few cared about, its countrymen find themselves dazed but beyond doom. The devil has gone, the tides of terror have retreated, and heaven now rests just beneath the waves

At the end of 30 miles of potholed red-dirt road, over the western spur of a low, jungle-covered mountain on Liberia’s coast, the earthen track gives way to paved boulevards leading to palatial villas and expansive hotels overlooking miles of palm-fringed beach and crashing Atlantic surf. But weeds grow up through these rolling upland drives. The once-luxurious homes and lodges of Robertsport are empty, stripped to bare concrete, abandoned in the face of a howling terror that consumed this West African country for nearly 15 years.

Between 1990 and 2003, while rebel groups surged in and out of Robertsport killing, raping and plundering, the earth kept turning, the moon maintained its pull, winds swept over land and sea. Wave after wave after wave broke along this coastline in perfect emerald tubes. During this war—a ferocious scramble for land, power and vast mineral and timber resources that shattered the country along tribal, ethnic and class lines—Robertsport was a nightmare. In peace, it’s a surfer’s wildest dream come true.

A few days into 2013, Sean Brody is running down the beach on the edge of town, a surfboard under one arm. A surfer since age 10, the San Diego man has ridden waves all over the world, but when overhead barrels start rolling into Robertsport, he can’t get into the water fast enough. He hits the water and a minute later, dropping in on an eight-foot left, Brody starts to shred, slashing the wave’s green face into white froth, whipping the crest into spray with a pirouetting cutback, arcing down, then disappearing into surfing’s moveable mecca, the “green room” inside the tube.

Amid the humid tropical torpor of Robertsport, a sense of latency pervades. The villas and hotels are uninhabited but unruined; their owners are holding jungle growth at bay, awaiting a return to better times. And Brody, with business partner and San Diego surfing pal Daniel Hopkins, is on the leading edge of Robertsport’s budding resurgence, building Liberia’s first post-war tourism operation, with world-class surfing as the prime attraction.

Conflict ended a decade ago in this English-speaking nation of four million, founded and colonized by freed American slaves after the US Civil War. Still, nearly everywhere, marks of combat remain: bullet holes clustered around windows of roadside homes and shops, concrete-block walls in rubble from rockets and shells. As Liberia slowly rebuilds after a 2003 peace accord, these physical reminders are being erased, holes plastered over, bricks and blocks replaced. The lasting scars lie within the Liberians left alive after nearly a quarter million died.

Reminders of a recent and violent past still loom everywhere.

Reminders of a recent and violent past still loom everywhere.

Stacked up and empty.

Stacked up and empty.

A 2008 American Medical Association study found 44 per cent of Liberia’s adults suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.  “People were tortured. People were raped. People have been traumatized,” says Daniel Achireko, a human-rights officer for the United Nations mission in Liberia, a project with an annual budget of half a billion dollars that supports 9,000 uniformed peacekeepers and 1,700 development workers. “People lost all their livelihoods so they had to start from zero. People lost loved ones, and some of them don’t even know where they were buried,” he says. “There are people who grew up without a family, without family guidance. That has disturbed the normal functioning in society.”

Robertsport’s coastal location beside a large estuary had in peacetime enabled its 2,500 or so inhabitants to live decently from seafood and the fishing economy. War turned blessing into curse: the Atlantic and the estuary, reaching 15 miles inland, offered armies a food source and water routes for fighters and weapons.

All over Liberia, the human fallout of one of history’s most gruesome wars surrounds you: killers and survivors, torturers and the tortured, rapists and the raped, cannibals and the unwilling eaters of the dead. Unlike countries where the parties to civil conflict were more clearly defined, Liberia’s internal warfare was a shape-shifting maelstrom of violence that left virtually every community in the country populated by victims and perpetrators of horrendous deeds. Mass movement of armed groups and of a million fleeing civilians led to intermarriage between Liberians from different regions and tribes, and blended more than 100,000 combatants into the population. Add in the severity and duration of wartime suffering, and the result is a widespread desire to look anywhere but back.

Between 1990 and 2003, while rebel groups surged in and out of robertsport killing, raping and plundering, the earth kept turning, the moon maintained its pull, winds swept over land and sea. Wave after wave after wave broke along this coastline in perfect emerald tubes.

“It is difficult to talk about—people do not even try,” says Isaac Minten, a 54-year-old Robertsport maker of ocean-going dugout canoes. “We just believe that time will heal. What is past must be forgotten.”

In 2009, Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), after a three-year probe, recommended 121 people be charged with war-related crimes including massacres, sexual slavery, rape and cannibalism. The commission collected 22,000 written statements and heard more than 500 public testimonies.

Rebecca Marker testified in 2008 that she and her brother fled Robertsport when rebels captured the town in 1993, but en route to the capital Monrovia were stopped at a rebel checkpoint. “The fighters ordered my brother to have sex with me,” Marker said. “They told him that if he refused they will kill him.” He refused. The rebels made him lie between his sister’s legs, and one sawed his head off with a knife. “The blood splashed all over my body,” Marker testified. Released, she fled into the hands of other rebels who cut her with machetes then gang-raped her and penetrated her with sticks.

Another woman testified that rebels based near Robertsport forced her uncle to cook and eat cassava-leaf stew made with flesh from an executed man. The rebels routinely cooked and ate victims’ hearts, Yassah Koweh testified. Fighters sometimes showed sympathy for the starving Koweh and her mother by giving them cooked hearts, but the women would later throw them out, Koweh said.

Up to 25,000 children are estimated to have fought. Happy-go-lucky boys transformed by rebel commanders into dead-eyed killers are now young men. Many live jobless in the capital, hustling and stealing. Some are back in school. In Robertsport, as elsewhere, many drive motorcycle-taxis. “Horrible things happened in this country and they saw it and took part in it,” Minten says. “Even the ones you see in school, they still have the war inside them.”

The TRC stated in its final report that key players in the conflict lied to the commission about their wartime activities and remained wealthy and powerful. Given the widely held wish to forget the horrors, and with accountability for war crimes touching too close to home for Liberians from all walks of life, it’s no surprise the TRC’s prosecution list is gathering dust.

Liberian surfers Elijah Browne, 10, and Morris Gross, 16.

Liberian surfers Elijah Browne, 10, and Morris Gross, 16.

Yet there is a brighter side to the darkness within Liberia’s collective soul. After years of living hell, every moment of peace is a chance to embrace life, to enjoy simple pleasures so long denied. Laughter and smiles come easily. Robertsport’s townsfolk spend their free time chatting with friends and family in the shade of spreading trees or covered patios. Loved ones and strangers alike are welcomed in classic Liberian pidgin-English: “How de body?” and “How de day?” Boys and young men play soccer on the beach in the afternoon. Everywhere here, there is beauty. The waves sweep in, palm leaves rustle in a gentle seaside breeze, golden-sand beaches stretch to apparent eternity. Iridescent blue and red sunbirds sip nectar from flowering shrubs and trees, electric-green bee-eaters swoop from branches to snap butterflies from the air. Out on the ocean, terns plunge into the water to snatch up small fish, and fishermen’s pattern-painted canoes move across the surface under power of muscle and paddles or a single square sail.

It was in 2009 that Robertsport’s rumored perfect surf first brought Sean Brody to the country as part of a National Geographic TV team. “We got amazing waves,” recalls Brody, 28. Immaculate barrels forming from swells up to 12 feet high and a point break that at three-quarters of a mile is one of the planet’s longest, drew him back the next year, and the next. But there was more than seawater at work on Brody.

“I had an epiphany that it wasn’t just the waves bringing me here every year,” Brody says. “It was the community, and the people, and the vibes, and the relationships I’d been able to harness. It’s really laid back. People wear their hearts on their sleeve. It feels like home, being able to stop and say hello to everybody.”
During the third trip, with surfer friend Hopkins, the two San Diego men made plans to move to Robertsport and pioneer a tourism business on the warm-water surfing, gorgeous beaches and friendly locals.

“It is difficult to talk about — people do not even try,” says Isaac Minten, a 54-year-old Robertsport maker of ocean-going dugout canoes. “We just believe that time will heal. What is past must be forgotten.”

Brody had already founded the Surf Resource Network, funding health and social projects in surfing hot spots in the developing world. “I was sick of travelling to destinations stepping over sanitation and poverty and health issues,” Brody says. Hopkins, too, had a well-developed social conscience. He and Brody included community development in their business plan. In mid-2012, Kwepunha Retreat was born.

By year’s end, Brody and Hopkins were hosting mostly expatriate aid workers desperate for a couple days in paradise out of Monrovia’s clamour, chaos and asphyxiating exhaust. The 12-room, beachfront Kwepunha Surf Retreat is clean, quiet, comfortable and a little rough around the edges: bucket showers, nighttime-only electricity, duct tape not always sticking over the hole in a communal-bathroom sink. The Liberian cook prepares delicious traditional dishes including roasted barracuda, pumpkin and chicken soup with coconut milk, and cassava-leaf stew, all served with her zesty homemade chili sauce at a large table in a dining room overlooking the ocean. A more upscale Kwepunha annex, plus a scattering of bungalow-huts on a nearby point beneath huge mango trees, was scheduled to open in early 2013. Brody and Hopkins are diverting 15 per cent of their profits into a five-year health-and-sanitation project drawn up by a New Zealand community-health specialist.

Lying in a hammock with a cold beer on the balcony of Kwepunha at sunset watching fishermen and their dugout canoes turn to silhouettes against a backdrop of pastel fire, it’s easy to forget that this region was roiling with violence not long ago. But in the balcony’s steel-tube railing are two holes from assault-rifle slugs. The building was used in the 90s as a weapons bunker by the rebels of Charles Taylor, the now-imprisoned warlord notorious for his “Small Boys Units” of kids as young as eight zonked into savagery on speed, cocaine and opium, and for funding his armies and lavish lifestyle through “blood diamonds” mined under his fighters’ guns in Sierra Leone next door.

Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) was the first rebel group to take Robertsport. Arriving in 1990, they looted homes and terrorized the populace with indiscriminate shooting. “They killed my mother with a bullet. She was in the house. They shot into the house,” says Sam Browne, 43. “They raped girls. They raped women.”

In the three years Taylor’s rebels held Robertsport, they killed more than 50 people, estimates Browne, a fisherman and father of 11. Most victims came from the Krahn and Mandingo tribes, considered by the NPFL to be government supporters.

The rebels at first recruited Robertsport’s boys and young men on a voluntary basis, then turned to force, says Dixon Willie, 58. New fighters were taught little more than how to shoot before being sent to the front lines, Willie says. “They were not trained to a high standard. Most of them died through the war,” Willie says.
After Taylor’s soldiers largely withdrew from Robertsport to build up outside Monrovia, the United Liberation Movement for Democracy in Liberia (ULIMO) moved in. “They were shooting at the civilians and they were launching rockets,” remembers Browne. ULIMO murdered two or three dozen innocents during the three years they occupied Robertsport, Browne says.

“I had an epiphany that it wasn’t just the waves bringing me here every year,” Brody says. “It was the community, and the people, and the vibes, and the relationships I’d been able to harness. It’s really laid back. People wear their hearts on their sleeve. It feels like home, being able to stop and say hello to everybody.”

With a shaky peace deal in 1995 leading to Taylor’s 1997 election as president, Robertsport saw a slackening of violence. ULIMO laid down arms. Government troops took control of the town. The worst was to come.

While Taylor ruled, another rebel group was gathering force. Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) hit Robertsport in 2003, seizing it in fierce fighting from government soldiers then commencing to rape, loot and slaughter. Fighters accused Browne of having fought for Taylor, threatened to cut his throat then sunk him waist-deep in an outhouse for almost three hours, until two LURD recruits he knew rescued him in a shootout with their comrades, Browne says. He kept his saviors supplied with fish to help ensure his continued survival, and kept his wife and children in the coastal jungle where townspeople hid, living on small beach crabs and dying from contaminated water. Within a few months LURD, having overrun two-thirds of Liberia and killed, Browne says, more than 100 Robertsport civilians, fought to the outskirts of Monrovia. Taylor, under international pressure to end hostilities, agreed to a truce. He stepped down in 2003.

Today in Robertsport, fishing provides sustenance for the 4,000 residents, and drives a local economy that allows for a comfortable but basic lifestyle. The sea, full of barracuda, bream, bass, croaker, mackerel, herring, sardine, shad, tuna, grouper, gives sustenance to the 4,000 people now living here and drives a local economy that allows for a comfortable but basic lifestyle. Micro-business abounds, residents setting up shop in front of their rusting tin shacks, selling dried and fresh fish, meals of rice and stew, fried dough, bananas, papayas, pineapples, mangos, eggs, bread, soft drinks, beer, cookies, soap, cooking oil and pay-as-you-go cell phone cards, while foraging chickens and ducks make tracks on dusty roadsides and grass-lined paths. Schools, shut during the war, are open, and attendance is rising, says the UN’s Achireko. Although the hospital is often short of drugs, it offers free medical care 24 hours a day. Meanwhile, the waves that never stopped breaking are starting to draw adventurous surfers to Kwepunha. The upland hotels and villas are still empty, but the day appears ever nearer when people will visit them once again.

 

In post-war Liberia, progress is slow and tensions remain. Economic growth benefits few: the bellies of the well-connected grow fat against the steering wheels of their SUVs, while the toiling masses hunger. Infrastructure is abysmal, unemployment high, corruption all consuming. The government of Africa’s first female head of state, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, is engaged in a wholesale sell-off of Liberia’s natural resources to foreign corporations, with dozens of deals now under investigation by the national corruption watchdog. With an ongoing UN military drawdown and the spectre of future war-crimes prosecutions provoking the powerful, fears of a return to bloodshed are returning.

In Robertsport, arguably surfing’s last frontier, most waves go unridden, a rare bounty made possible by Liberia’s out-of-date reputation for violence. The only people surfing here are a handful of Liberian youths, Brody, Hopkins and the occasional expat. Townsfolk are still taken aback to see a foreigner sitting on the atmospheric patio of O.J.’s bar and restaurant, where the sign above the door promises “No Bad Day” and the view of sand, estuary and jungle is sublime.

Tourism in Liberia is mostly non-existent, and access to out-of-the-way places such as Robertsport is difficult, but the founders of Kwepunha have made visiting easy. They’ll transport guests by Land Cruiser to and from the international airport outside Monrovia, a beautiful three-and-a-half-hour drive each way. They’ll provide a room and three meals a day for a reasonable price. They’ll rent out surfboards and arrange lessons with local surfers.

In this 21st-century world, few truly enchanting places remain essentially undiscovered by travellers. Robertsport is one of them./

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Ethan Baron is an American-Canadian journalist and photojournalist living in Monrovia where he’s training Liberian newspaper reporters on behalf of the Canadian- and UK-funded organization Journalists for Human Rights. Every chance he gets, he jumps on his TVS “Star” motorbike—100ccs of raw lawnmower-grade power—and escapes to Robertsport.

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