This blog may be longer than most and more difficult to read, but for those who want to understand what happened in Nimba County and to the Liberians in my village of Zorgowee including the surrounding areas in 1990, I give you the courage to read on.
Do you ever make assumptions from what you’ve read or heard? Without a first-hand account of the outcome of my village of Zorgowee, Liberia, where I lived for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer, I made some assumptions of what transpired when President Samuel Doe went on a retaliating rampage in the villages inhabited by the Mano and Gio ethnic groups. Zorgowee was predominately Gio and President Doe was out to massacre them in 1990 after his former Gio Commander General, Thomas Quiwonkpa, failed to overthrow him in a coup attempt.
After completing my service in the Peace Corps in 1973, I had only read in the US news reports about the atrocities that Doe had committed to the Mano and Gio people in the 80s and 90s. I drafted my conclusions in my memoir epilogue of In Search of Pink Flamingos. On page 244 it read, “Entire [Gio] villages were emptied, including Zorgowee, as people fled for safety. I have lost all contact with those who lived there.” That was all I knew back then.
In July of 2022, on my way back from the East Coast attending the Book Launch for Never the Same Again: Life, Service and Friendship in Liberia, I reunited with a Liberian, Gabriel Mongrue. I had only met him once in my village in 1972 when I was 20. He was 16 at the time and the Gio houseboy of Mark and Sally, volunteers from the nearby village of Karnplay.
Gabriel was attending the University of Liberia (UL) in the capitol of Monrovia when political tensions came to a head in 1990. President Doe’s soldiers began killing Mano and Gio men throughout the capitol. Gabriel’s life was in imminent danger and he went into hiding. (Read this entire story of his escape written by Mark Zelonis called “My Resilient Son” in our Anthology, Never the Same Again.) When the battle of power in Liberia escalated, Gabriel was able to call Sally and Mark back in the US to explain his situation. They generously sent him money for a plane ticket. He barely escaped with his life to the US with a new passport and a Liberian visitor visa. He arrived in Amsterdam with only a shirt on his back and 22 Liberian cents. Gabriel was given a Dutch Guilder from a stranger at Amsterdam airport to call Sally and Mark and the following day they picked him up at JFK Airport.
By sheer coincidence, over 50 years later, Gabriel, at age 67, and I met again in Rhode Island. We hugged, laughed and his Liberian English was so welcoming to my ears. He invited me for dinner, making a special trip to the African grocery for a full Liberian feast of fried eddo, sweet potato, cassava and plantain followed by palm butter with chicken over rice and his homemade Liberian hot pepper sauce. OMG. I was in heaven and immediately transported to Liberia with his warm welcome.
Because his village was also Gio, I asked him if he knew what had happened in our villages in Nimba County during the turbulent years after my departure.
Gabriel explained that in January of 1990 Doe had learned that the Gio rebels who had failed an earlier coup attempt had been trained in Libya and Burkina Faso. They were now well-armed and they were crossing the border from Ivory Coast into Karnplay. Doe announced on the radio that his army was heading up the road from Monrovia to Nimba County toward Zorgowee and Karnplay to stop the invasion and kill every Gio and Mano in its path. Gabriel remembered Doe announcing on the radio that same week that there will be “No Nimba County”.
Doe’s army arrived first in Zorgowee and as villagers tried to flee, they were shot dead. Some were beheaded. Homes were torched. The army then moved to Karnplay and a major battle ensued. More killings and homes burned. Doe’s soldier then returned to Monrovia killing more on the way. Villagers who lived on the perimeter were able to escape into the bush, but were too afraid to return. “No time to bury their loved ones,” Gabriel said. News traveled to Monrovia via eye witnesses of Gabriel’s family and later photo images and reports in the newspaper that Zorgowee and Karnplay were littered with smoldering homes and the stench of corpses lying where they fell. Gabriel shared with me the brutal newspaper photos that he brought back with him the day he escaped.
As I listened to Gabriel, my stomach seized. I had thought from my previous research that most Zorgowee villagers fled across the nearby borders to Ivory Coast. I was wrong. I felt an urge to let my tears flow as I thought of my Liberian friends, but held back as I watched Gabriel’s head hung low. I refrained from asking any other questions as our pain was already more than we both could bare.
I changed the subject and spoke of lighter memories. We talked about the anthology, Never the Same Again just published. He held a copy in his hand. In it is a story that Mark wrote about Gabriel coming to America, “My Resilient Son”. Thinking I could give him a positive image after war, I wanted to read him my poem I wrote for the book, “Beyond War”. I wanted him to hear how my Peace Corps memories and our impact on Liberia hoped to foster peace beyond the warlords of destruction. Halfway through the poem I read…
“Then the bullets came.
For two decades
Two civil wars
Stories tell of the destructive scars
The wars left behind.”
As I read that stanza to Gabriel, I soon realized my imagination had created words that rang so true…so real. How did I know about the bullets? I thought they had all fled. My poem became Gabriel’s words…the dead beheaded corpses lying in Zorgowee. Oh God, I wish I had been wrong. I paused, took deep breaths. Tears rolled down my cheeks as I thought of Martha, Rita, Clara, Jacob, Peter, Duo and so many others. What about all the mothers that had come in for antenatal care. What about the twins that were born and all the other babies that we had successfully vaccinated to improve their care and quality of life? I took more deep breaths as I struggled to continue. Thirty long seconds passed. Gabriel’s eyes cast downward. I must read on for Gabriel to hear the reason for my poem. I must for the sake of hope and a future. The very next stanza read…
“But Liberians remember
Those of us who served
In times of Peace
…before the bullets.
They hold us close
In their hearts
And so do we.
A bridge of human connection.
An everlasting bond.”
Thirty years later after Gabriel escaped Liberia with his life, and fifty years since our last meeting, we sat together and ate a Liberian meal, listened to African music, laughed, cried and shared Liberian stories and photos. This is exactly what my poem, “Beyond War,” meant. We both remembered. This was, in fact, the everlasting bond of human connection in the flesh.
Post Note I: Gabriel informed me that his deceased grandfather and uncle were the Gio village chiefs in Karnplay – a chiefdom lineage. Had Liberia’s future been different, I sat sharing a meal with the would-be Gio chief of Karnplay.
Post Note II: It was during that same East Coast visit that I learned that Clara (Sarah), my house girl, had escaped Liberia across the border to Ivory Coast during the Zorgowee massacre. After spending time in the US, she had gone back to Zorgowee. She fled with her husband and children during the attack. After 2 years as refugees in Ivory Coast they returned back to the US. I tell of her passing in my most recent blog. They were the few from my village who were saved.
Post Note III: These last three photos taken in 1969 in Karnplay by Mike Hohl are described in his coments to my blog below.
Feel free to leave a reply or tell us your story of this tragic time in Liberia.