Hundreds of battled-hardened Liberian fighters are adding to a messy ethnic conflict brewing in western Ivory Coast that security experts warn could spread across the region's porous borders.
Liberian mercenaries returning from western Ivory Coast tell the Monitor that they recently fought for both sides in Ivory Coast's civil war, killing civilians, raping women, and destroying villages as they went.
One commander of a unit of more than 30 Liberian mercenaries who returned days ago from Ivory Coast, Karmo Watson, says he was approached by a go-between for forces loyal to Ivory Coast President-elect Alassane Ouattara called "Colonel Mark" in December with an offer of $1,500 to fight for Mr. Ouattara.
When he wasn't paid after arriving in Ivory Coast months ago and fighting in another nation's battle, he and his men went on a rampage.
“I killed people. I burned villages. After that I got wounded," says Mr. Watson. "I did it because [recruiters] lied to me. $1,500 US. They said they would pay me when we got there. I came back with nothing. I came back with sickness. I came back screaming, cold, crying.”
Watson – who fought as a soldier for former Liberian President Charles Taylor, now on trial at the International Criminal Court for war crimes – is just one of hundreds of battled-hardened Liberian fighters adding to a messy ethnic conflict brewing in western Ivory Coast that security experts warn could spread across the region's porous borders.
“The situation in the west has always been particularly explosive," says Yabi, "because of the proximity with Liberia, the fact that mercenaries were recruited by both sides in 2002 and 2003, and because of the ethnic mix in the western region.”
Watson says he returned to Liberia after a rocket-propelled grenade ripped through a pick-up truck, burning his feet and legs.
He bears a jagged scar across his left cheek. A bullet blew off the top knuckle of his left pointer finger.
A veteran of Ivory Coast’s last major conflict in 2003, he said he spent most of the interim years working on a cocoa farm to support his wife and four children in Monrovia.
Prince Dennis, a goldsmith and fellow former fighter for Mr. Taylor, says high-ranking members of the forces supporting Ouattara sent an emissary to Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, in December to recruit fighters with the promise of $1,000.
Mr. Dennis says he was transported to Ivory Coast, where he received camouflage clothing and a new AK-47. They were only ever paid $100, Dennis says, and survived on food and money they pillaged from villages along the border, raping and killing along the way.
“I killed so many people," says Dennis. "You know, it’s a war, so a bullet can’t pick and choose. I even killed civilians because you don’t know who you’re firing at.”
He said he slipped across the border back into Liberia among the throngs of Ivorians seeking refuge from the violence in Ivory Coast.
Path to a better life?
Like Watson and Dennis, many of the mercenaries now returning to Liberia from Ivory Coast are former fighters from the country’s long civil conflict who fought for Taylor.
“These guys see war as an opportunity, access to a better life,” says Morle Gugu Zawoo, a former child soldier and the executive director of the National Ex-combatant Peace Building Initiative in Monrovia. Mr. Zawoo estimates more than 2,000 ex-combatants have crossed the border to fight in Ivory Coast.
“In this country, some Liberians cannot afford fifty Liberian dollars [70 US cents] a day to eat, and next door, the people are giving $1,500 to fight. What do you think he would do when all he knows is to fight?” says a former commander in Taylor’s notorious Anti-Terrorist Unit, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“Some of us did not want to fight but poverty made us do it,” says "Commander Solution," another mercenary who returned to Liberia from Ivory Coast this week.
Liberia launched a massive disarmament campaign in 2003, but many former combatants say it was a failure. They are out of work and hungry, Zawoo says. Former combatants remain loyal to former generals and are easily swayed to action.
“I was called a few days ago to recruit men to go fight in Ivory Coast, because I have the power to mobilize over three hundred men within one hour,” says a former commander in the Armed Forces of Liberia, who also spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of eventual prosecution. “All I have to do is show some money to a few men and the news will go like wild fire.”
Now that the fighting appears to be winding down in Ivory Coast, the fighters are returning to Liberia – with guns – and many fear they will pose a threat to the fragile country in the lead up to elections later this year.
Liberia’s Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization Commissioner Chris Massaquoi declined to comment on the situation.
Meanwhile, United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Simonovic arrived in Ivory Coast this past week to look at the situation in the west.
On Wednesday, the International Criminal Court posted a statement on its Web site saying that its chief prosecutor had been conducting a “preliminary examination” in Ivory Coast into “alleged crimes committed there by different parties to the conflict.”