Friday, March 19, 2010

Yaron Deskalo Liberia Journal Day 6


There’s always a great story in a red light district. Like the time I was penniless in Bangkok and had to walk 45 minutes back to a hotel just 24 hours after landing in Thailand. Or the time I spent all night in Amsterdam and should have missed my flight.

So when Friday’s agenda called for a visit to Monrovia’s red light district, my crew and I were amped. Over coffee, our Sierra Leone-based, Lebanese born security detail advised us on the trip I planned that morning. “I can’t be held completely responsible for what happens inside there,” he told us. Didn’t he know that those exact words fuel producers? Anything was possible.

This red light district is like any third world capital’s main market – crowded with people, impossible to navigate, and unquestionably dangerous. It is here, as we were told, where thieves live by day and mass murderers crawl through night.

Two of our main characters live there. We didn’t know what to expect. We had strict orders from security: stay in the car until they surveyed the scene, never stray far, bring smaller cameras, and leave on their command.

Our first stop was with Richard. After navigating through the streets – curious eyes scoping our intentions – we finally made it to a mud shack without water and electricity. This was where Richard grew up with his sister. He doesn’t see her much anymore; the scene is pretty desperate. It’s a converted swamp that in the rainy season can pose awfully difficult challenges for houses that aren’t built to sustain Mother Nature’s wrath. But like everybody in Monrovia, they somehow survive with what they have.

A mile away, which seemed like an eternity through the crowded foot traffic at red light, we visited Richard’s current home. He now lives with his guardian, Howard Napoleon, and his family. Richard doesn’t remember meeting Napoleon in 1990, but Napoleon will never forget it.
The time was 1990. Liberia’s civil conflict was less than a year old. Then-President Samuel Doe was slowly losing power to rival tribes both in the east and in the north and west. He was eager to flex his muscles at the expense of hundreds of civilians from rival tribes hiding at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church. Doe led his troops into the church. His thirty men opened fire and wielded their butcher knives. Twenty minutes later, 600 were dead. From a Reuters reporter on the scene: “The entire floor of the church was thick with bloodstains and bodies were huddled under pews where the victims tried to hide. Bodies of boys 7 or 8 years old were draped on the altar and a pile of bodies was half-hidden in a dark corner.”

One of those lifeless bodies was Richard’s father. Another was his uncle. Richard was slashed in the leg. He lost it completely. Napoleon arrived on the scene to take those wounded to the hospital, including two-year-old Richard. During our interview with Napoleon at his home in the red light district, in front of a group of forty children – an audience we seem to have everywhere we go in Liberia – Napoleon told us how awful that day was. When I asked him to describe Richard’s condition in detail, he wouldn’t do it with our young audience present. So after the interview, we moved away and set up for a second interview look. There, he told me that Richard’s intestines were falling out of his body from the knife wound. Napoleon thought there was no way Richard would survive. He also figured he would never find out because he fled to Ghana weeks later.

When Napoleon returned in 1997, he asked those he knew if ‘Baby Duo’ – Richard’s name to those who cared for him as a child – was still alive. Miraculously, he was. Napoleon tracked him down and introduced himself to Richard, who obviously had no memory of Napoleon’s heroic efforts. They instantly connected. And in 2002, Napoleon officially adopted Richard. Now Richard has his own family – a two-year-old daughter.

Tomorrow morning, we interview Richard at St. Peter's Lutheran.

See, there’s always a good story in the red light district.


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