Should I Stay or Should I Go? Evacuating Liberia, 1990
Being caught up in violent political upheaval and forced to evacuate is among the risks of diplomatic service, as at the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia in 1990 in what the Marines called Operation Sharp Edge. The problems started a decade before when a group led by Master Sergeant Samuel Doe staged a military coup in Liberia, toppling the government established over a century before by freed American slaves, and beginning a ten-year rule characterized by corruption, economic mismanagement and repression of political opponents. In 1983, Liberian government official Charles Taylor, charged with embezzlement, fled to the US, was arrested and imprisoned. He escaped, underwent military training and raised an army, the National Patriotic Front of Liberia. It surged into Liberia in December 1989.
Taylor’s forces quickly gained control of most of the country, but then other rebel factions entered the conflict, not only because of ideological and ethnic differences but also the desire to control natural resources such as gold and diamonds. Civil war ensued and the U.S. Embassy began an evacuation. Liberia suffered massive infrastructure damage and as many as 220,000 casualties. The war ended in 1997, official elections were held the following year and Charles Taylor was formally declared president. Within two years, the country was engulfed in a second civil war.
Dennis C. Jett was the Deputy Chief of Mission in Liberia during the outbreak of the first war and was among those who helped evacuate the embassy, then stayed behind. He recalled his experiences in an interview with Charles Stuart Kennedy in March 2011.
“In the midst of the party we get this call that the embassy warehouse was on fire”
Dennis C. Jett, Deputy Chief of Mission, Monrovia, 1989-1991
At first, at Christmas 1989 when this incursion happened up on the border, it seemed like a minor incident. Then it became like a cancer and started spreading. There were reports from upcountry that there had been a clash, a battle had happened and there were casualties, but the details were always hazy. Then it would be quiet for a time. The government really did not want people to know what was happening since it would affect morale and support for the regime…
It was becoming clear that the rebels were increasing the territory under their control and that the government was being pushed back and that this was going to be far more serious than previous attempts to overthrow Doe. After he put down the uprising in 1985, the situation returned to normal pretty quickly at least in Monrovia. While there was an evacuation of embassy personnel within a month or so they were back.
This time, however, it was unclear how long it was going to last or how bad it was going to get. We decided in April to start sending out dependents and non-essential personnel and any Americans who wanted to leave. So we started with an airlift using chartered aircraft that we flew in, loaded people up and then flew out because by that time all scheduled airlines had ceased to operate. We continued that until eventually we drew down from an official community of about 600 people to 30 or 35 people in the embassy at the end; just the essential personnel and some security people and that was it.
All the time tensions were increasing in Monrovia. There were headless bodies turning up in the street, there were clear tribal elements to the conflict, it was increasingly nasty and adding to the violence and the tension. By sometime in May the city was surrounded and totally cut off and the only part of Liberia that Doe still controlled was the capital, Monrovia, and not much of that.
It was all the more difficult for the embassy due to the large, nonofficial, American community. Because of the historical relationship with Liberia there were a lot of people with dual citizenship and a lot of missionaries there. Despite our warnings urging people to leave the country there were many who stayed. We advised people to get out and our warnings because progressively stronger as the situation worsened and the possibilities for getting out became fewer and fewer. Road travel became impossible and air travel more difficult as no air carrier would land any longer…
I remember vividly we were having a going away party for [Ambassador Jim Bishop] and in the midst of the party we get this call on the radio that the embassy warehouse was on fire. Because we had a community of 600, and due to the need to import almost everything in terms of furniture, appliances and other stuff, we had a very large warehouse.
What had happened was that Wackenhut, the company that had the security contract for the local guards, was getting paid in dollars and was paying the guards in local currency. The inflation rate at the time was about 100 percent a year or so. The guards were seeing the purchasing power of their salaries steadily diminishing; Wackenhut was more than happy to pocket the dollars and pay in local currency and laugh all the way to the bank. Eventually the guards got so angry that they torched the warehouse.
In the midst of this party we were called to the warehouse to see what was happening. In the warehouse was Jim Bishop’s airfreight; his sea freight was outside the warehouse because it was all crated up. His airfreight, which is the stuff that gets shipped via air to meet your most immediate needs when arriving at a new post, that was all inside the warehouse and it went up in smoke ….
“I’ve been your good friend all these years and this is how you repay me”
While I was still Chargé, about June 1, 1990, I got an instruction to go seek an appointment with the president [of Liberia, Samuel Doe, seen left]. Because of the growing crisis and the inability of the Liberian army to do anything other than attack civilians, there was deepening concern in Washington about the embassy and the situation of the remaining Americans and others in Monrovia.
At that point Monrovia was completely cut off and there was no way in or out by air, land or sea. In response, Washington put four ships off the Liberian coast: a task force consisting of a destroyer, a small aircraft carrier, the Saipan, and two supply ships. I get this instruction to go tell President Doe there will be 2,000 marines and 2,000 sailors just over the horizon, but they are only there in case some sort of emergency required a full evacuation of American personnel.
I requested an appointment to see him and the appointment didn’t come through until late at night. By that time the electricity had been cut off; the power plant was outside of town and was now in rebel hands. The only place with any lights in town was the American embassy and the presidential mansion with a few other assorted places with generators, but basically the city was completely blacked out. It was filled with soldiers who were walking around afraid rebels were going to infiltrate, and there was constant gunfire and rounds being squeezed off in the dead of night.
So I go see him and he receives me on the top floor of the presidential mansion, a kind of terrace, one side overlooking the darkened city and the other side with a view of the ocean. So I explain to him about the 2,000 marines and 2,000 sailors.
He erupts in anger and says, “You know, I’ve been your good friend all these years and this is how you repay me.”
I said, “No, no. It is not any threat to you; it is only in a dire emergency that they would come ashore. They will be over the horizon and you won’t even see them. Again, we don’t want to bring them ashore, it is only a contingency….”
“You all need to think about whether it’s worth risking your lives to stay”
[Evacuating} the official community was relatively straightforward. We were able to get down pretty quickly to that number [30 people remaining] and, of course, by the time you get down to that number you are trying to decrease the size of the embassy but you have these security people saying, “Oh, we have to send in more security people to protect the embassy.”
But you are trying to keep people who can do political reporting or carrying out humanitarian aid programs and just run the embassy and keep it open. So, on the one hand, you are getting pressure to push down the number carrying out embassy functions and on the other you’re under pressure to increase the number of security people protecting them.
On the unofficial side you had all these people who refused to understand how bad the situation was and that it was not going to get better anytime soon. I remember having a meeting with some of those left in the American community, to the extent there was one, and telling them we don’t know how this is going to come out, if it is going to end tomorrow or when, but the trend is not in a good direction.
So I think you all need to think about whether it’s worth risking your lives to stay. Whatever it is you have here whether it is church, or a missionary role or business involvement think about the possibility of risking your life to maintain your presence here. I think a lot of people left after that, but others just stayed.
There was a Firestone rubber plantation outside of town. Despite all the services being cut off there was a radio link out to the plantation. There was a guy out there who was a British citizen who was married to an American woman and when the rebels got to the plantation and surrounded him he calls up and says, “Okay, can you send a marine helicopter to pick me up?”
I said, “Well we to
ld you weeks ago to leave and so good luck.”
He didn’t appreciate that, but there wasn’t anything I could do in terms of putting a helicopter and troops at risk landing in the middle of an area controlled by some of the worst soldiers in the world. They didn’t even deserve to be called soldiers. He wasn’t too happy about that, but I believe he got out somehow.
There was a missionary who decided to stay and some looters, I don’t know whether they were Doe’s army or whether they were rebels, decided to come in the middle of the night and loot his place; he came out to the gate and refused to open it. They tried to shoot the lock off the gate and a bullet ricocheted and killed him. There were some sad cases but most of the expatriates got out. Thousands and thousands of Liberians were not so lucky. The figure of 200,000 deaths is often used, but really no one has the slightest idea how many died.
“We had to decide who was going to be included and who was not”
In early August things had gotten so bad and because of the lack of supplies to keep the embassy open we finally brought some of the marines ashore from the task force that had been steaming in circles off the coast all this time. We were running out of food and water and a number of other things. We had Americans not only in the embassy compound, but also at two communications facilities about ten miles outside of town. One was a communications facility that received communications and the other transmitted communications; there were some technicians at each of both but no real protection for them other than a fence. They were really way out there in no man’s land.
Charles Taylor, who was leading one rebel group, had a lieutenant named Prince Johnson. Johnson split off from when Taylor began to see him as a rival and tried to have him killed. So Johnson took a couple hundred troops and went off and started his own revolution. He was coming into the city from the north and Taylor was coming in from the East and we had the sea to the south and the west.
Prince Johnson (seen left) was a really colorful character. All three of them — Doe, Johnson and Taylor — were psychotic killers. One day Johnson was interviewed on the BBC and said, “Well, I’m not getting enough attention from the international community so I’m going to start taking foreigners hostage, because I am not getting support.”
At that point the station chief and I sat down with Ambassador De Vos [Peter De Vos, Ambassador to Liberia], who had arrived a month earlier. We had been holding off bringing the marines ashore, not doing anything with these four ships that were just over the horizon.
The station chief and I basically said to Pete “We have no choice now. This guy is threatening to take hostages and we have a half dozen security officers with pistols, and that’s not enough to defend this place against any kind of real threat. And the technicians at the two communications facilities have no protection.”
He agreed and we asked for the Marines to come ashore.
“She was in the midst of a crowd of Liberians fighting to get a seat on the plane”
So the next day we had 278 Marines land on the embassy compound while helicopters landed at the two communications facilities and scooped up the technicians at each site and whisked them off to safety. We knocked down the posts on the Embassy basketball court and made it into a helo pad so the helicopters would come in and land, off load food and whatever else was needed.
That began a new phase in the evacuation. People would make their way to the embassy and were evacuated to the Saipan (seen right) and then on to Freetown by helicopter. That was also very difficult. As with the evacuation by charter air that we had arranged months earlier, we had to decide who was going to be included and who was not.
In the end, that meant most expatriates were accepted and most Liberians were on their own. That made for some difficult decisions and dramatic moments. Decisions like if a child had been born in the States, and was therefore an American citizen, the child was included but what about the Liberian parents and siblings. Moments like when my wife, Lynda Schuster, took one of the last charter flights out in May. As she is going up the stairs to board, she was in the midst of a crowd of Liberians fighting to get a seat on the plane.
When we brought the Marines ashore, they were strictly limited to protecting the embassy compound; I remember looking at the faces of the local Liberian employees at the embassy as the Marines landed. At first they were elated as they thought that we were going to insert ourselves into the civil war and end it. Then they realized the Marines were not going outside the embassy compound and their expressions changed to ones of disappointment and despair.
The orders from Washington were clear however — we are not going to get in the middle of this; we will keep the embassy open as long as we can to continue humanitarian aid, but we are not going to get into the middle of a civil war between a cast of such reprehensible characters.
When the Marines were about to land, De Vos called Doe on the radio and told him and explained why. Doe offered to send his soldiers over to the embassy to protect the operation and De Vos had to delicately talk him out of that since it would have only drawn a response from the rebels and probably provoked a firefight just outside the embassy compound as the helicopters were landing. Those helicopters became our only link to the outside world for a while. They came in, off-loaded supplies and went out empty.
Because everyone was evacuated in such a hurry there were many pets left behind. We asked if they could be taken out. The Marines refused I think mainly because they were mad at us for keeping them steaming in circles for two months just off the coast. A communications technician came to me one day and asked if I wanted to get the pets out. I said sure and asked how. He had the solution.
On the next supply flight, instead of going out empty there were ten large canvas diplomatic pouch bags put on board. Because the helicopter wanted to minimize its time on the ground the engines were never turned off and it was impossible to hear. So that is how nine dogs and a cat survived the Liberian civil war. Embassy Freetown met them at the airport and put them on commercial airliners to Washington. In the best of times, dogs were part of the Liberian menu so their fate would have been different had we not done that. There were lots of other pets since this was a community of about 600 people, but I’m sure most of them died.
Along with pets people had to leave behind all their possessions that wouldn’t fit into a suitcase. If a person’s house was more than a block from the embassy compound, everything in it was either looted or covered in mold once the air conditioners stopped running and keeping the humidity down. I went through my house, which was about a block away, with a tape recorder trying to record a description of everything we had so we had some idea of what to claim for insurance purposes if it all was lost. It came through without a problem, but that was mostly luck as the place could have been looted anytime anyone decided to do it.
During the time when the Marines were on the compound they were eating a ton of Meals Ready to Eat. The MREs come in very sturdy cardboard boxes so I began packing up our library and sending it via military mail to my wife who was by then back in Washington. We had a lot of books but the Marines were providing a large supply of empty boxes and I just marked them “Postage and fees paid by the State Department” and sent them off. Not too far into this process our postman in D.C. asked my wife what kind of business she was running out of her house that required delivery of so many heavy boxes.
“The embassy was the only thing that continued to function”
That was the situation in the summer of 1990. The war continued and in late August of 1990 ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States, sent a peacekeeping force into Monrovia called ECOMOG [Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group]; it was supposed to stand for the economic community military observer group.
They landed in the port of Monrovia, but didn’t leave the port; all they did was essentially freeze the military situation. They were in the middle of it as Taylor was pushing in from the east. He got within a couple blocks of the presidential mansion, but didn’t have the strength to end it because Doe’s army literally had its back to the sea and finally had to defend itself.
Then you had Prince Johnson pushing in from the north where the port of Monrovia was, but again he lacked the military strength to defeat Doe’s army or Taylor’s. All three groups had almost no weapons heavier than a man could carry, so they didn’t have the fire power to end it…
It had become a very tribal kind of conflict and ethnic killings were something all sides did. Taylor’s people had checkpoints and people trying to pass through those checkpoints to escape the fighting were asked what tribe they were from. If they gave the wrong answer or were even suspected of being part of Doe’s government they were taken aside and shot. The army did the same. That was the kind of place it was and that situation basically persisted until I left in August of ’91…
Why did we hang on? We had this long-standing relationship with Liberia and significant assets there. We hoped that, as in the past, the situation would eventually stabilize before too long. The embassy (seen left) was the only thing that continued to function and by trying to provide humanitarian relief, we hoped to prevent an even bigger humanitarian disaster. Once ECOMOG arrived it stabilized militarily, but the political situation didn’t improve.
Eventually it seemed possible to continue with a reduced force of Marines; so we cut back to about 50 of them guarding the embassy. The four-ship task force went away toward the end of August and then eventually the 50 Marines pulled out. Because we still had some helicopter support from Freetown, it was still possible to continue a presence there. I supposed there would be a greater inclination to evacuate and walk away from a situation like that today, but at the time the thinking was that this can’t go on too much longer and our presence allows us to monitor the political situation and at least prevent humanitarian disaster from becoming worse….
“There we are, just sitting in the waiting room waiting for the artillery fire to stop”
Everyone who was needed to stay, stayed and did their duty. I remember once there was a lot of lead flying around and [Assistant Secretary for Africa] Hank Cohen and Karl Hofmann [Cohen’s assistant] came to visit and they flew in on a helicopter. They got off the helicopter wearing their helmets, flak jackets and toured the embassy compound with this constant gunfire in the background. It freaked them out, but by that time for us it was like the weather report — light to scattered small arms with occasional artillery
Fortunately, we [the U.S. Embassy] were situated at the end of the peninsula on the down slope of a hill as if fell into the ocean. We also had a couple of tall apartments on the other side of the street from the embassy compound. We were somewhat shielded from stuff going on just over the hill and downtown in terms of being in the line of fire, but we still got occasional stray rounds bouncing off trees and buildings. One 50-caliber round smashed the front door of the embassy.
I was sitting at my desk one day. I had just a couple of days before decided that even though there were these heavy cement louvers in front of the window, I needed to take precautions. My window faced the street and the cement louvers had space between them. So I moved my safe between my desk and my window. A couple days later an M-16 round comes zinging through the window and hits the safe and bounces off and comes to rest. Had the safe not been there it would have come zipping across my desk. I still have the slug somewhere…
One day, Prince Johnson’s people were in the port, which was to the north of us, and the presidential mansion was still in Doe’s hands where they had a small artillery piece. So they started firing this artillery piece and you could hear the cannon booming and the rounds zinging over the embassy as they headed randomly in the general direction toward where Johnson’s troops were.
It was more disconcerting than the usual small arms, because if they had a short round or didn’t aim properly, we could have had a round drop in the embassy compound. So we moved everybody onto the first floor into the consular waiting room as far from the exterior walls as possible. There we are just sitting in the waiting room waiting for the artillery fire to stop.
There were some partitions in that room where the bottom five feet was paneling and then there were two feet of glass on the top part of these partitions. Somebody said, “Well if we take a round nearby there is the possibility there is going to be this glass flying all over the place.” Somebody else said, “Yeah, you’re right.”
So we got up and started putting big pieces of duct tape in various patterns across the glass so it would hold together rather than shatter and spray everywhere. We then resumed sitting there — secretaries, political and CIA officers, economic and consular officers, and the security people, and the ambassador.
At that particular moment I was really struck by the fact that all these people were doing their duty and accepting the risk without question. Everybody knew we were there to do what we could and that there was considerable danger regardless of the precautions we could take.
But nobody came and said, “I’ve got to get out of here; I’m afraid.” Everyone continued to soldier on. It really struck me how brave and dedicated the people were that were there and how that usually goes unnoticed by the media and by the average American.