Web Development

Sierra Leone Journal

The Intrepid Traveler

In the fall of 2003, Baseline magazine assigned me to visit Sierra Leone and Liberia for a story about the United Nations Peacekeepers and how they use information technology under harsh conditions, in a region where much of the telecommunications, power, and other infrastructure has been damaged by years of war. (PDF of the story)

The point of this journal was to give me an outlet for bits and pieces that wouldn’t fit into the magazine article, along with giving me a place to share photos and a place to keep friends and family up to date during the journey. I’ve reorganized and reformatted this account, which I originally published using blogging software of my own design, posting the entries from a United Nations office or, on one occasion, a rudimentary cyber cafe down the street from my hotel.

Getting ready
Sunday 19 October 2003 10:00 PM

I was originally supposed to be in London today, preparing to go to Africa on Monday, but my United Nations contacts changed the schedule. Anyway, I’ve got all my shots. I’ve read enough about Sierra Leone and Liberia to be scared out of my wits. But they tell me it’s better there now. Really.

What I’ve learned over the past few weeks
Thursday 23 October 2003 07:59 PM

Until I got this assignment, I knew very little about these countries, other than that the U.S. had been asked to provide some sort of military support in Liberia. I knew nothing at all about Sierra Leone.

The history of these two countries is fascinating, yet rather depressing. Both were founded as sanctuaries for liberated slaves.

First, the British gave slaves their freedom in return for fighting on their side in the American Revolutionary War, and some of them were eventually resettled in Freetown, now the capital of Sierra Leone. After outlawing slavery, the British also used Sierra Leone as a base from which to intercept slave ships bound for America, and many of the blacks aboard those ships resettled in Sierra Leone.

Later, United States slaves who had been freed by their masters were sent to live in Liberia by an unlikely coalition of abolitionists and slave owners — with the slave owners participating because they feared the freed slaves stirring up trouble if they stayed in America. This is why many Liberians consider their country an unofficial and, now, largely forgotten U.S. colony.

Many of the tensions in both nations arise from the division between the descendents of the Westernized, Christianized ex-slaves, who for many years functioned as a ruling class, and the indigenous people, who were treated as second-class citizens.

In Liberia, many years of relatively peaceful rule by Americo-Liberians, as the ex-slaves there were known, were interrupted by a coup in 1980. A young army officer, Samuel Doe, seized charge and ran the country until he in turn was captured and killed by rebels in 1990.

After seven more years of civil war, one of the rebel commanders, Charles Taylor, became president of Liberia in what international observers judged to be a free and fair election. But while the ballot counting may have been fair, many citizens of Liberia say Taylor was elected because war-weary voters believed he would never stop fighting if he was not allowed to take power.

Unfortunately, Taylor’s election did not bring true peace to the country, and in fact he is believed to have sponsored a rebel insurgency in Sierra Leone that was designed less to accomplish any political purpose than to capture control of the diamond mines there.

Taylor is also infamous for his use of child soldiers. His Small Boys Unit took children of 8 to 10, armed them with AK-47s, and turned them into drugged and merciless killers. The Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone, which Taylor is alleged to have sponsored, used similar tactics.

For more on the conflict in Sierra Leone, read Greg Campbell’s excellent and terrifying book “Blood Diamonds.” He describes in harrowing detail how the rebel groups terrorized anyone who got in their way. When one government official suggest the people “join hands” for the sake of their country, the rebels took to using axes to chop off people’s hands as a symbol of contempt.

If there is any good news to be found in all of this is that the UN Peacekeeping mission in Sierra Leone has been relatively successful in bringing peace to the country, allowing citizens to elect a new president earlier this year, and starting the process of rebuilding the country.

In Liberia, Taylor has been forced into exile and the Peacekeepers have begun to make progress at restoring calm within the capital city of Monrovia, although a lot more work remains to be done in the countryside. The U.S. sent a ship to the region while the UN was getting things organized, but the ship and the Marines aboard only stopped by on their way home from Iraq, and they’ve gone home now. So it’s up to the UN, in combination with an African peacekeeping force, to keep the peace.

What does any of this have to do with computer systems? Because basic infrastructure, including telecommunications and electric power, have been devastated by war, the UN has to be prepared to bring its own self-contained resources when they go into one of these countries. Like any military force, the Peacekeepers have to maintain a command and control structure, and these days much of that is computerized.

It’s going to be interesting to see how they do it.

In Africa
Tuesday 28 October 2003 9:03 AM

Left London’s Gatwick airport at about 1:30 PM Monday, which was about an hour late. I’m flying to Freetown on Sierra National Airlines, a charter service that only flies on Mondays and Fridays. The plane is respectable, a Boeing 757, and is actually operated by Icelandair, which sounds about as non-African as you can get.

My fellow travelers appear to be about 75% Sierra Leoneans returning from vacation or business in the U.K., and the remainder seem to be mostly workers for various humanitarian aid organizations. President Kabbah was also on board, dressed in a quasi-military outfit — which stuck me as odd because I know he’s been the victim of several military coups. Not that I really understand the local politics all that well.

Arrival was fairly chaotic. Lungi Airport is actually across a bay from Freetown, so I had to buy passage on a helicopter tax. The system, if you can call it that, for getting passengers and their luggage on the old Russian choppers they use involved giving out little wooden “boarding sticks” that say which group you’re part of and at first I didn’t get one of those, only a receipt, so I had to go back and wait in more lines. Once on board, I was one of probably 18 passengers crowded around the perimeter of what looked like the cargo hold, with our luggage piled up in the middle. Near the end of the flight, the helicopter sounded like it might rattle apart. I noticed some of the other passengers crossing themselves. Several times.

My main UN contact, Dept. of Peacekeeping Operations IT Chief Jason Mayordomo, was waiting for me at the heliport, and I was thankful to have a guide to get me to the hotel. I’d thought, looking at the map in my guidebook, that the hotel might be a short walk down the street, but it became pretty clear looking at this place at night that would have been Not A Good Idea.

Got into hotel about 11:30 PM.

Wednesday 29 October 2003 6:01 PM

Spent most of the morning doing U.N. paperwork, trying to get myself accredited as press. No real obstacle, just a lot of different forms, plus a requirement for a passport-sized photo (I hadn’t thought to bring an extra, but the IT guys took my picture with a digital camera and eventually produced a picture the public information guy was satisfied with). Still, the actual ID card wasn’t ready by the end of the day, so they had to write me a letter vouching for me in the iterim.

Thursday 30 October 2003 4:56 PM

There’s a bridge over a courtyard that I have to cross to get to my room at the hotel, and when I’ve come in late at night there will be a prostitute or two yelling up to me from below. Or, my second night here, there were a couple tapping at the window of a door at the end of the hall, trying to get in. Another was apparently coming back from somebody else’s room and approached me not wanting to take “no” for an answer. “Come on, I just want to give you a little massage. I like you, I want to make you feel good.” And so on.

So far, I’ve been largely insulated from the desperation, the street hustlers and thieves that I was warned about by my guidebook and other things I had read and heard about Sierra Leone’s cities. Since picking me up that first night at the airport, my main UN contact, Jason, has either picked me up and dropped me off at the hotel or arranged for one of his subordinates to do it. Still, even driving through, I see the open ditches, the broken down buildings, the idle men.

Me and Jason on the way to Koidu

Wednesday, we took one of the old Russian helicopters the UN uses here to Koidu, a base staffed by the Pakistani Army that has been reporting lots of network problems. In addition to showing me the field conditions, he wanted to check up on the service his people were providing. As a former mining engineer, he was also curious about the diamond mining in the region, over which there has been some inter-tribal fighting recently. By most accounts, various factions seeking control over the diamond mines was the main cause of the Civil War in Sierra Leone — no great political agenda, just greed.

Jason was educated as a mining engineer in the Philippines before writing some mine optimization software that attracted the attention of a UN development program, which got him involved with the UN and with information technology and eventually with IT to support Peacekeeping. So he’s curious to see the diamond mines and having a journalist along allows him to say we’re going to see for my sake.

In addition to couple of other IT folks, other passengers on the helicopter included Pakistani soldiers, a photojournalist, and a TV crew from Britain’s Channel 4 working on a documentary about the UN-backed Special Court investigating war crimes from the Sierra Leone Civil War (I assume they were looking for background footage on war damage or the diamond mines).

Ambrose Takes a Nap

This was another Russian chopper, but in somewhat better condition than the one I took from the airport. There’s still luggage piled by our feet, but at least it’s strapped down by a cargo net. The pilot, a Ukranian, gives us a carefully rehearsed speech about life vests and no smoking in slow English. When we take off, conversation becomes impossible. The photojournalist and the Channel 4 camerawoman kept busy for a while shooting pictures of the green countryside out an open porthole. I got a photo of Ambrose Majongwe, a communications specialist from Zimbabwe, napping with his head down on the Cisco router he holds balanced on his lap. Dozing off turns out to be one of the more popular things to do during one of these flights. The trip took something over an hour.

Lookout in Koidu

Koidu is in the Eastern region of Sierra Leone, closer to the border with Liberia. We landed in an field of dirt and grass and took a white UN Range Rover to the regional command post.

Jason was ushered into the office of Lt. Col. Sohail Hamid, commanding officer for the signal battalion, which means he is in charge of military communications, including networking. The Pakistanis were fasting for Ramadan but quite insistent about offering us juice and food.

While very polite at all times, the signal commander had a list of complaints: equipment for the wireless local area network has been failing, particularly after thunderstorms — and it’s often not possible to get everything unplugged before a storm hits. Email to a neighboring post is slow going through and sometimes gets bounced for no good reason. Jason also had issues to discuss, like cutting down on unauthorized computers, users, and traffic on the network, which is really supposed to be there to support Peacekeeping logistics. He would like to get the Pakistanis to call home using Sierratel, the local phone company, rather than using the phone connections provided by his network. Sierratel has promised to offer a lower rate; all it needs to do is get its network out here.

So we got a ride to the mountaintop site of the microwave tower used for the UN’s frame relay connection so Jason can advise Sierratel on where they might be able to locate a tower of their own. On the way, we passed concrete block schools full of children, women walking by the side of the street with baskets balanced on their heads, people sitting idly on the porches of broken-down houses with little children balanced in their laps. The Land Rover bounced crazily on the dirt road. Most of the roads in this country are awful, which is one of the big obstacles to development.

The tower was fenced in and guarded. Past the gate, we hiked past the equipment shack at the base of the tower to the summit, where the Pakistanis have planted a garden dominated by a bush with pink flowers (no one can tell me what it’s called, although one of the officers says he’s sure they brought it with them from Pakistan). There’s a big rock balanced on its end at the summit, brightly painted with messages of peace, and a picnic table that looks like it hasn’t been used in a long time. Another message painted on the side of the rock, below its improbably balanced curve, warns “Don’t Push Here: May Tip.”

Jason took pictures of the site, and I took pictures of Jason.

Back at the camp, Jason caught up on the progress of his technicians (about which I won’t go into detail here) and learned the helicopter back was going to be later than we thought, leaving just enough time for us to sneak off for a look at the diamond mining operation.

This outing takes us through downtown Koidu. I see a lot of what look like bombed-out buildings, but I don’t really know what’s war damage and what’s the result of some other calamity. We see school children in clean, brightly colored uniforms, and shirtless boys walking with shovels over their shoulders, perhaps coming back from digging for diamonds. We pass two mosques, and the driver informs us that some 60% of the population are Muslims. I had been under the impression that Christianity was more dominant, but maybe that’s only in Freetown.

Mining for Diamonds

What I’ve been calling a mine is really more of a panning operation; some of the diamonds here are so close to the surface that they wash away in the rain and turn up on the banks of the river, where they can be recovered with a little digging. Or so I understand. When we came to the place, we could see hundreds of people out on the mud flats looking for buried treasure. “Can we stop and look around. Is it safe?” Jason asked.

“No,” said the driver crisply and kept driving.

He turned around in an intersection a little farther up the road and agreed to stop for a moment, just before the bridge that crosses the river, so we could take pictures.

Kids Looking Out from a Broken Down Building
Town Scene
Koidu Town

Thursday 30 October 2003 06:43 PM

I originally thought I’d be visiting sunny Monrovia today, but for paperwork reasons the trip got pushed back to Saturday, which means I have to rearrange my flights, etc. again. Spent most of today typing up my notes and waiting for an update on whether the trip would happen at all, but now it’s official.

Saturday 1 November 2003 6:25 PM

This trip into Liberia was plagued with problems from the start, which I guess is only to be expected. By the time we got cleared to make the visit on Saturday, it looked like we might get only an hour on the ground in which we would be able to see the communications and information technology setup to support the new Peacekeeping mission. I’d learned a lot in my time in Sierra Leone, but this was to top it off.

We’d been told the flight in was at 10 AM, arriving at 11, and the return flight would be at 2 PM, so budgeting an hour to drive from the airport to the city and another hour for a return to the airport, there wouldn’t be much left. Jason, the IT chief who’d encouraged me to come here, thought he could buy us more time by having us come back on a 4 PM cargo flight instead of the 2 PM passenger one.

Saturday: The plan starts unraveling as soon as we learn that the flight to Monrovia will be at 11, not 10. The flight coordinators have us on the manifest for the 2 PM return and don’t think we’d be allowed on the 4 PM flight. Following the helicopter flight from the Sierra Leone mission headquarters to the airport, Jason gets on the phone with various people he hopes can get us on that 4 PM flight, and he seems to think he is making progress by the time we got on the plane.

Only problem, when we arrive in Monrovia, we learn there is no 4 PM flight back, it’s been canceled. In fact, if we miss the 2 PM one, we won’t be able to return until Monday. But the man who delivers this news thinks we can still pay a quick visit. “My drivers are very fast,” he promises.

So we jump into a white UN minivan and pretty soon are roaring down a long, reasonably straight two-lane road. The first time I peek at the speedometer, it reads 110 km/hour. A little later, it’s up to 120. The roads here are good, better than in Sierra Leone. Still, we zoom over a pothole deep and wide enough that I can’t help think hitting it at this speed would have been fatal. We pass cars, getting back into the right lane just in time to miss oncoming vehicles.

As in Sierra Leone, I keep seeing women with baskets balanced on their heads, that traditional image of Africa, but also boxes, sacks, plastic buckets all sorts of things balanced there as well. When pedestrians don’t stay clear of the road, the driver honks but doesn’t slow down.

We pass a girl of maybe 9 or 10 standing by the side of the road, trying to sell fish, black fish on strings that she holds dangling from each hand. We pass two white horses tied up by the side of the road. There are simple thatch huts and concrete buildings with their roofs and windows missing. The driver slows slightly as we go through a more populated area, but soon has us back up to 110.

Signs by the side of the road: Love a Child Orphanage; Baptist Seminary; Refresh Your Stay With Coca-Cola; Mobil: One Oil Fits All.

One of the other passengers points out the camp for IDPs, UN jargon for internationally displaced persons — refugees. A cluster of tents behind a fence.

Slowing now as we come into the city, we make a left turn at a rotary that’s clogged with pedestrians, dodging young men pushing wheelbarrows. A little farther and we turn left into the former German embassy, which the U.N. has taken over for the time being. It’s now 1 PM, our flight back is at 2, and it’s taken us a half hour to get here and should properly take more like 45 minutes.

“Let’s see about the ride back first,” Jason says, leading the way to a table set up outside behind which sits the guy in charge of arranging transportation. He tells us we really ought to start back now, but Jason haggles for 15 minutes to look around.

His contribution to the rapid deployment to Liberia, before the Liberia mission got assigned its own IT personnel, was to have his people prepare a mobile data and telecommunications van — actually a modified TV news van with racks for servers and communications equipment — so that it could be flown in, driven to a location where computing and communications could be set up, and link in by satellite. The van was originally brought in to a different location, then taken here — and now it’s gone, which we didn’t expect. But the van is really only meant to get things up and running for the first 30-90 days, and the UN is now starting to settle in to more permanent quarters.

However, the trailer-mounted satellite dish that the van works with is still here, and I get a few pictures of Jason standing in front of it.

We go inside and poke our noses into the communications and information technology office, but no one’s around to talk to. We find the servers and communications equipment in the next room, piled on the floor. A UN official pokes his nose in, probably trying to make sure we’re not here to do any damage. “Gentlemen, how’s our Comms and IT setup?” he asks, puffing on a big cigar.

Jason explains his work on the mobile setup. “Now, we need to get some racks in here. It’s not good to have this stuff lying on the floor.”

“All I know is when you punch ‘9’ you get a New York dial tone,” says the cigar smoker. “I think that’s pretty good.”

(Update: Two days later, I recognized the cigar smoker in a video documentary that was playing in the lobby of the Peacekeeping headquarters at the Mammy Yoko Hotel: Jacques Klein, a retired U.S. Air Force Major General retired and former Defense Department and State Department official, now serving as the Secretary General’s Special Representative to Liberia. He’s best known for playing a similar role in Bosnia and Herzegovina. But we didn’t recognize him at the time, and if we’d stopped to chat we would have missed our plane for sure).

Time to run now. This driver gets the pickup we’re riding in up to 130 km/hour, but we can’t complain because we have a plane to catch. He’s a Liberian, and Jason asks him a little bit about exiled president Charles Taylor, who left as a condition of the Peacekeepers coming in to restore order here. “Do you want him back?” Jason asks.


“How’s security in the city?” Jason asks.

“It’s okay for now.”

We arrive just in time to race across the tarmac and board the plane by running up the ramp in back, climbing over suitcases and squeezing around a cargo net to get to our seats.

Liberia peace sign
Liberian kids with wheelbarrow

What’s Wrong with the UN …
Monday 03 November 2003 02:16 PM

Belated entry for Saturday night:

I had dinner with two U.N. workers who, for convenience, I’ll call Amadou and Jane because they didn’t agree that I could use their names. Everyone I talk to seems to agree the Peacekeeping is messed up to some extent, although they may disagree about the details, and that’s what we spent a lot of time talking about.

Amadou is an African, but not from here. “This is your first time in Africa?” he asks. “And you’re starting here?” He laughs at me.

We talk about Sierra Leone and how slowly it is rebuilding. “What will happen when the U.N. pulls out?” I ask. It’s supposed to happen next year.

“There will be another war. Not this war, but there will be another one,” he predicted, basing this on the poverty, the resentment of the people here. The U.N. bought the peace by offering money (I think he said $200) for each gun collected during the disarmament process. It was a rich enough reward that young rebel soldiers started not only turning their guns in but stealing from their units to get more. “Suddenly, the commanders had a problem controlling the boys,” he says. Some commanders started realizing they could make out better by turning in weapons by the truckload themselves before they were all gone.

But since that influx of money, the country has had little going for it economically. Diamond wealth still tends to slip out of the country tax free. Today, it’s one of the top two poorest countries in the world, according to U.N. statistics, only recently overtaken by neighboring Liberia.

Jane says the dirt roads I’ve seen everywhere outside of the capital are actually a recent phenomenon in many cases — they used to be paved, but warring factions tore them up to make travel more difficult.

Freetown is largely living off the U.N. personnel who rent hotel rooms and houses, fill the restaurants and bars. This used to be a seaside resort, but it will need to be spruced up considerably before many tourists will want to come back.

Amadou says this country needs its own Marshall Plan or “Mandella Plan” to get the economy going again and prevent another collapse. “That’s the mistake we’re making. We think we can disarm everyone, and that’s the end, without dealing with the underlying causes.” He thinks the U.S. should be doing more to promote a more stable world.

We talk about the United States as it’s seen abroad, the blundering, bullying giant of the world. “My impression of America is that intentions are often very good, but the means are often terrible,” he says. So much American foreign policy seems to be driven by ignorance, almost by lack of curiousity about the rest of the world. The U.S. should be educating its people better, he says.

Jane is an American but with an expat’s chagrin about her country. During visits to the U.S., she is astonished by how little world news makes it into our newspapers and newscasts.

In defense of the media, I say there’s a natural human limit on how many things people can pay attention to at once, which is something editors must contend with. “It’s a big world; it’s hard to understand all of it,” I say. Maybe not a moral excuse, but a practical one.

Thinking about it later, it also occurs to me how difficult it is in a newspaper story to reduce to a few paragraphs all the background readers need to make sense of the latest development. If they had been following the story all along, it would be different, but you pretty much have to assume they haven’t. As a reader, I had that problem with the newspaper stories I read about Liberia before I knew I would be coming to this region. I skimmed the articles because of the possibility of U.S. military involvement, coming on top of the war in Iraq. But I didn’t really understand the context and often gave up on these articles before the jump, skipping to the Business or Lifestyle sections of the paper instead. If that makes me an Ugly American, I’m sorry.

Still, just before we get up to leave, Amadou suggests, “You should come join us.”

Lumley Beach

Monday 3 November 2003 11:22 AM

Lumley Beach

The U.N. workers I had dinner with on Saturday night assured me that Freetown was quite safe, contrary to my fears, so Sunday I tried to get out to see a little of it. Still, I was nervous Sunday morning when I took a walk along Lumley Beach. I was carrying my passport, plus the better part of the $1,000 in cash I’d brought with me in a moneybelt. Walking around with large amounts of cash was one of the things that made me nervous about coming here in the first place, but almost nobody accepts credit cards or travelers checks. I was also cautious about pulling out a camera to take pictures, figuring the camera would make me look even more like an easy mark, as if my white skin and my clothes didn’t make me look like enough of a foreigner.

For a while, I thought I was the only non-local out and about, but then I started seeing U.N. personnel out jogging or walking the beach. A black guy, a soldier I guessed, was doing pushups by the water’s edge.

About half an hour into my walk, I saw a big commotion ahead where two boats had been pulled up on the sand and a crowd of young men was pulling in the fishing nets. As I got closer, I could see a big fish flopping wildly, trying to escape the net. One of the U.N. joggers stopped to admire the catch, offering compliments in his approximation of the local pidgin English (Krio). As he started to jog away, one of the boys called, “Hey, rich man, what you got in you pocket?”

“No, no, look at these,” the jogger called back, pointing to where the soles of his running shoes were starting to peel off. “No, no, poor man.”

The same boy gave me a look but apparently decided I wasn’t worth the sport. Not enough of a challenge, maybe. I walked a little farter before deciding to turn back. Finished for now bringing in the catch, the fishing crew heckles me on the way past, but I have no idea what they’re saying.

There are a few other people who call out to me trying to get my attention, probably trying to rope me into some scam or other. The Lonely Planet guidebook I read before coming here warned me about common street hustler tactics, most of which are pursued with a “it couldn’t hurt to try” attitude, most boiling down to figuring out some way to get money for nothing. The young man who caught up with me just before I reached my hotel was a textbook case.

“Hi! Hi there.” He started walking beside me. “What you’re name?”

“David.” Honesty was probably not the best policy, but my hotel was in sight and I was curious to hear what would come next.

“My name is David, too.” What a coincidence. The full name he gave sounds unnervingly like “David Carr” but I think what he really said was “David Cool.”

“I’m a Christian,” he offered, though I had to ask him to repeat the word several times before I understand.

“Are you a Christian?”

“I go to church,” I said, not telling him that I’m actually a reluctant churchgoer. I thought then he might be out to evangelize me. But instead he told me a little about his family and explains, “I tell you my name, you tell me your name, now we friends.”

He wanted me to go somewhere with him, but I begged off and made for my hotel.

“Can I get your address or phone number?” he asked, but I called back “sorry and slipped through the gate.

I had felt guilty for not getting out more, but now I’ve at least gotten a taste for Africa in all her glory.

Shot of the Mammy Yoko Hotel, where the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations has its headquarters in Sierra Leone, from the window of the U.N. helicopter taking me to the airport

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