Liberia: Tales of War and Peace

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The author, right, shown with the book reviewer

[Book Review]

Harrowing December

by Momoh Sekou Dudu

Outskirt Press, 210pp. $26.95

Book Reviewed by Nvasekie N. Konneh

The author begins his narrative with a picturesque description of his current home and environment in the Mid-Western state of Minnesota but clearly Minnesota is not the beginning of the whole story narrated in the book, "Harrowing December."

This picturesque description of the scenic landscape of Otsego, Minnesota only shows how far the author has come from the village of Gordorlahun located in his native Lofa County, Liberia West Africa.

This indicates the triumphant moment of a long and difficult journey that began in the early 1990s when Charles Taylor's rebellion started against the government of President Samuel Doe. When many of us left, seeking refuge in neighboring countries, we thought it was going to be a passing moment and we would go back to our normal routine of life in our villages, towns and cities.

But that was not to be the case. The result is that many of us have become wanderers in the wilderness, too far away from where we call "home." For Momoh Dudu, while he may be a well accomplished man today as a university professor in the U.S., his nostalgic feeling for the village of his nativity, indeed the country of his nativity, is ever so strong, proving the adage that no matter how far we go, "home will always be home." The imprint of "home" is ever lasting whether we go back or stay away forever.

In Liberia, a nation of strong Christian influence, the month of December, just like in many parts of the world, is a time of celebration and it was anticipated by many Liberians to be the usual pomp and pageantry. While majority of Liberians were planning to partake in the Christmas and new year festivities, there were others lurking in the dark ready to wreak havoc on the nation and its people. So instead of the usual month of festivity, what we got on Christmas eve in 1989 was a "Harrowing December," the title of Prof. Momoh Dudu's memoir.

War is not a picnic, nor a tea party and some are much more brutal than others; that was the case with the Liberian civil war. Not only was the government targeted, it was a war that went after ordinary people either on account of ethnicity, religion, or even for merely being a government employee.

Nothing has affected my generation of Liberians more than the war that made us take up guns, killing our own people; many of us were forced into exile in all parts of the world.  Going back home has become a challenge in itself for those who have settled in those places where we sought refuge. Yet, the nagging feeling about, and the pull for home, never abates.

The end of a prolonged devastating war such as Liberia's, with massive deaths and destruction of properties, exodus of tens of thousands of people across the borders as refugees should be followed by a period of creativity in many shapes or forms. In other words, the aftermath of a war should be a period of renaissance because we are bringing home the fusion of old and new ideas and experiences.

Though there may be new political order, no group embodies the sense of renaissance than the artists and writers. Through their creative efforts we may find nuggets of wisdom, courage and the strength to remake the country far better than what it was before. These creative ideas and efforts may be showcased in novels, poetry, memoirs, short stories, songs, movies or dramas. Professor Dudu's memoir is one of such efforts. It chronicles sweet and bitter memories of what life used to be before, during and after the war and where we are today as a people and nation. Though the country has put the war behind her for more than 10 years now, it's a good thing to refresh our memory of the past as we pass it along as lessons for future generations.

Though "Harrowing December" is about 15 chapters, Prof. Dudu's memoir can be divided into three parts: his trial and tribulation in the war which drove him and his family first to Sierra Leone and then to Guinea as refugee; his journey to the U.S. through the philanthropic efforts of Mary Anne Schwalbe who according to the author, "plucked  me out of despair and pointed me to the rays of hope"; and, the new family he created in the U.S.

Through the philanthropic woman, Mary Anne Schwalbe, a prominent Jewish New Yorker, Momoh came to the U.S. on scholarship to pursue university education after the war had aborted his studies in Liberia.

Having taken advantage of Ms. Schwalbe's generosity, today he's a university professor and a Phd candidate in the state Minnesota. For a man who had to run for his dear life from the marauding gun totting rebels, who had to sell fire wood for survival as a refugee, and later on became a school administrator in the refugee school system in Guinea's forest region, to be where he is today is indeed testament to sheer determination. His benefactor's generosity went beyond color, religion and ethnicity. So while "Harrowing December" is about the horror of the Liberian civil war, it's also about the triumph of the man who is standing today at the cusp of academic success in the U.S.

While Momoh may have written the book about his own experience in the war, in essence he's telling the story of his generation of Liberians who either perished or survived the war.

Those of us who have the capacity and the opportunity must tell our stories because the more we write the better the future generation will be educated about what we went through as a people and nation.

The Liberian war can be explained and understood from different perspectives, all depending on where each one of us were. Indeed, the author explains that "Harrowing December" was written in "this honest spirit. It is my candid attempt at contributing to the recording of, for posterity's sake, the disturbing circumstances that caused our nation pain, tears, untold suffering, and ultimately the life of many fellow citizens."

He recounts atrocities that were being committed in Monrovia, the capital, by the government soldiers. Who can forget the pictures and stories of beheaded civilians suspected of being rebel sympathizers? Those people were mostly Nimbaians of the Mano and Gio ethnicity.

While the atrocities committed by the government soldiers were well documented in the newspapers, reports of the rebels' "destructive exploits" in the interior were scanty or at best ignored by many until they entered Monrovia.

The ethnic factor of the war may be kind of complex for many people. It was largely a power struggle between the Krahn ethnic group which was in power and the Gio and the Mano dominated rebel NPFL.

The Krahn-dominated government army would kill because they wanted to maintain power and the Gio and Mano dominated rebels killed because they wanted to wrestle control from their rivals.

Most Liberians don't want to talk about the Mandingo/Muslim factor in the conflict. From the outset Mandingoes were killed everywhere. Even a mentally deranged Mandingo person would not be spared. The first Mandingo casualty of the war in Hambeh Clan were four persons trying to escape the war to Sierra Leone. They were arrested by the rebels and slaughtered like cows.

Around the same time period, Moivabah Bawoh, known as the town's "crazy man", who did not bother anyone or comprehend the conflict transpiring around him, was killed. 

For all those who want to further enrich their understanding of the brutal Liberian civil war,  this book is highly recommended.


About the Reviewer: Nvasekie Konneh is a Liberian writer and cultural activist. He's the author of the book, "The Land of My Father's Birth," memoir of the Liberian civil war and a collection of poems, "Going to War for America." He's a nine year veteran of the US Navy.

He's currently working on a documentary ethnic and cultural diversity in Liberia. He can be reached at 267-206-8909 or [email protected] or [email protected].


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