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INSIGHT

INSIGHT

Aired February 19, 2003 - 17:00:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

JONATHAN MANN, CNN ANCHOR: "Jungle Book," one journalist's trip through a dirty war that much of the world ignored (AUDIO GAP) and West Africa can't escape.
Hello and welcome.

People and leaders around the world are outraged these days, and for good reason. Iraq has been defying the United Nations for more than a decade, and may be hiding weapons of mass destruction.

The United States may defy the United Nations too, to lead a war against Iraq. That infuriates millions of people and frightens their governments.

Try to keep track of the debate and the details and the big picture -- it's easy to lose sight of some of the other outrages of our time, like the war that's being fought for control of Liberia.

We're aiming for the big picture today. On our program, weapons of mass destruction: Liberia's forgotten war.

(NEWSBREAK)

Liberia is a small West African country suffering through what by world standards is a small West African war. Both sides are accused of rape, torture, looting and random murder.

President Charles Taylor is a former warlord who seized power and then was elected to it. The current rebels, a group that calls itself Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, or LURD for short, want to replace Taylor, but don't clearly express what they would do after that.

Journalist James Brabazon was granted permission to film the LURD rebels from behind their frontlines. He spent three months traveling with the group. He takes us now on the journey to what was the rebel frontline, a strategic town called Tubmanburg. We should warn you first, though, that some of what you're about to see will be disturbing.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JAMES BRABAZON, JOURNALIST (voice-over): In the heart of Liberia's civil war this government soldier has been captured by rebel troops. He has just seconds to live.

The rebels drag one of their own back from the front, and moments later exact their revenge on the captive man.

My journey into the war begins by crossing the Guinea border into northern Liberia with the rebels.

They call themselves the LURD, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy. For three years now they've fought to remove Liberian President Charles Taylor, a former warlord, from power.

Taylor describes the LURD as terrorists.

The outside world knows little about the LURD. It's the first time the rebels have allowed a journalist to film them. I wanted to see if Liberia was at war with itself again and what this would mean for its traumatized citizens.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have no life. We never smile. We are always crying, tears running down.

BRABAZON: Our first stop is the rebel stronghold of Vionjama, where the LURD has build a school and their only hospital.

War has devastated Liberia. 20 percent of the population live in refugee camps and the economy is in ruins. There is no running water, no electricity and no healthcare. Refugees are pouring into the town.

(on camera): Why were you afraid of the government soldiers? What were they doing that made you afraid.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They would come and take your (UNINTELLIGIBLE). They come. They rape your wife, the women, the girls (UNINTELLIGIBLE). They take your trousers. They take everything from you. They beat you over and that's why we're afraid (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

BRABAZON: The war in Liberia is notoriously brutal. Human rights groups accuse the LURD of human rights abuses although they say they are far less widespread and systematic than those committed by Charles Taylor's army.

Five days into the journey, we reached Zolowo.

It is a derelict place. There are no schools here. Women scavenge for food in the ruins of their homes. Children's education is mainly in the horror of war.

This is where the rebels collect ammunition for the front. They claim only to use weapons captured from Taylor's army. These brand new weapons captured from government soldiers are proof that President Taylor is violating a U.N. arms embargo.

Yet these newly packaged rebels arms from New Guinea, including surface-to-air missiles, tell their own story. Although I will see no weapons cross the Guinea border, outside help is also reaching the LURD.

I experience the rebels anticipation of the battles to come.

We then setout towards the front. These local people have been hiding from Charles Taylor's army. They'll carry the LURD's weapons to the front. They have little choice.

Human rights groups have accused the LURD of forcing civilians to join their ranks, a charge the rebels deny.

We passed wounded men caught in an ambush ahead of us. Some of us will also make the return journey on a stretcher.

(on camera): How many people were wounded and how many were killed?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We lost seven men on the spot who were killed, and four wounded.

BRABAZON (voice-over): Supplies are evidently scarce at the front. It's clear that the rebels may soon run short of ammunition.

We spent 15 days in the village of Fassama. The village welcomed the rebels at first, but as time goes on, it becomes clear that the relationship can be strained.

(on camera): Do you have enough food for your family?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't have (UNINTELLIGIBLE) eat everything.

BRABAZON: The soldiers eat everything? Which soldiers?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE)

BRABAZON: The LURD soldiers?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes.

BRABAZON (voice-over): Despite food shortages, more and more new troops are drilled and lectured by LURD commanders. There are no answers as to where the food will come from to feed them.

Preparations are then made for leaving. Rebel commanders assemble troops while a looted U.N. ambulance is loaded with arms.

Our journey to the southern front becomes increasingly tense.

We've been traveling for four weeks now. I am exhausted and apprehensive about what lies ahead, but it's time to celebrate. We are now in the town of Tubmanburg, just 50 kilometers outside the capital, Monrovia.

The LURD have been in control of this strategic town for just over a month, but Charles Taylor's troops have almost completely surrounded it.

Drenched by heavy rains, festivities soon dissolve into the realities and anxieties of war. Soon we're plunged into the battle for Tubmanburg.

Attacked on two sides by government forces, the rebels run to repel the ambush from the outskirts of town. Strengthened with new supplies, they seem easily capable of holding the town.

(on camera): What was the battle here this morning?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The government troops (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and we are prepared in Bomi more than before. So we don't see no force that can move us from in Bomi and we'll make sure we enter Monrovia. Pretty soon, we'll be in Monrovia.

BRABAZON (voice-over): A week later, the government launches Operation Envelope, a massive three-front offensive. For the first time, I question whether the rebels would leave Tubmanburg alive.

The government's objective is to get the rebels out of the town in 48 hours. It will take them another 10 days.

I witness an interrogation by rebel commanders. The prisoner provides details of forthcoming attacks.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If you don't (UNINTELLIGIBLE), I'm going to kill your ass. I don't care. But you see, the truth, the truth can set you free. You can't tell me (UNINTELLIGIBLE). You just came yesterday.

BRABAZON: But the truth does not set him free. The prisoner is jailed briefly and then shot at dawn.

All about us there is chaos and violence.

Panicky and scared, the town's population are prepared to flee at a moments notice. These pictures show one of the many false alarms that sent civilians running from their homes.

Now almost completely out of ammunition, the rebels decide to withdraw from Tubmanburg. I follow them out along with 400 civilians.

Over the next 10 days, we'll walk 300 kilometers, narrowly surviving constant ambushes. I no longer have any interest in filming the horrors of this war. I only want to escape the country alive.

Finally, crossing into Guinea, I walk out of the war, a journey Liberia seems unable to make itself.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MANN: We take a break now. When we come back, the man behind the camera.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MANN: Liberia's rebels have stepped up their campaign over the past to weeks. The country's defense minister says government troops are not battling against LURD on four different fronts.

Earlier this month, they came within 15 kilometers of the capital, Monrovia.

Welcome back.

Journalist James Brabazon filmed the LURD rebels in the middle of last year. Towns and villages may have changed hands, but Liberia is still a case study in chaos.

Brabazon spoke to us about his experience with the rebels a short time ago.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BRABAZON: I think that the picture of Liberia that is portrayed in the film is a very accurate one in terms of the physical representation of the country.

Essentially, Liberia has fallen apart. It was very, very badly damaged during the civil war in the 1990's, and what the renewed fighting has done over the last three years is basically made it impossible for any headway to be made to rebuild the previous damage. And also, there's been a lot of additional collateral damage added to that.

So -- there is no running water. There is no electricity. There is a very poor infrastructure in terms of healthcare and road system. So, really, I mean, Liberia is a failing state in that respect.

MANN: You spent three months with the guerillas of LURD and your film shows us only really a portion of that time, and then it ends. What's happened since what you photographed and experienced?

BRABAZON: When I was with the LURD in June and July of 2002, that was really -- they were on sort of their military hiatus, if you like, at that period.

What happened subsequent to my departure, and why I left, was the LURD suffered very heavy military defeats and were pushed back from their forward position, which was about 50 to 60 kilometers outside the capital, Monrovia, and they were driven over the next two months right back to their bases near the Guinea border, at Zaza (ph) and Vionjama.

Now what's happened subsequent to that is that their forces have regrouped, they've re-supplied themselves with ammunition, and they've pushed forward in a series of offenses in the east and also in the southwest, and they've now reoccupied those positions that they were in when I was with them, and they've subsequently moved even further forward to essentially start to surround the capital properly.

MANN: At one point, it seemed they almost got into Monrovia.

BRABAZON: They were very close indeed. In July last year, 2002, there were probing attacks into the suburbs itself. Gunfire, rocket fire, was very clearly audible in Monrovia itself.

And now I understand that the rebels are once again in a position to start to engage, at least in a limited way, the outskirts of Monrovia itself, though I understand that they are currently really solidifying their logistical position outside of the capital before considering an assault.

MANN: Let me ask you more about the time you spent with them. One of the things that's so striking when we watch the film is that there was no shyness, apparently no timidity, about the brutality that LURD allowed you to witness. Does that surprise you?

BRABAZON: It surprised me up to a certain extent, but you have to remember that in the heat of very brutal battle, people are not thinking and the are not considering what they're doing. They're often just acting and sort of doing what seems appropriate, or normal or natural, to them at the time.

Now, you have to remember the vast majority of these soldiers, even the very young ones, have been exposed to very intense and long periods of combat. Very many of them display signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. Very many of them show signs of battle fatigue.

So the way in which they behave is kind of commensurate with their collective experience. And me being there filming in the middle of the battles with them, really, in the end, I became an observer. I was filming whatever happened. They were not even conscious that I was there some of the time.

MANN: One last quick question. They seemed badly organized. They seemed badly disciplined. Why does LURD seem to be winning?

BRABAZON: That's a complicated question. They are disorganized. However, in comparison to other rebel insurgencies in West Africa, they are actually a very coherent, unified organization and they display a surprising degree of internal coherent discipline.

I think the real answer to your question lies in the nature of the government forces who, frankly, are not significantly better organized than the rebels, and it is a fairly even fight in that respect.

MANN: James Brabazon, thanks so much for this.

BRABAZON: Thank you.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MANN: We take another break now. When we return, a troubled region: Liberia's civil war beyond its borders.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MANN: Some of the events James Brabazon filmed were too graphic for us to broadcast. We mention that because some of them involve soldiers from Sierra Leone fighting against other soldiers, also from Sierra Leone. This in a war, we remind you, inside of Liberia.

Welcome back.

The war in Liberia is linked to the war that was being fought in Sierra Leone. It's linked to the war that is now being fought in Ivory Coast. It may be linked to Guinea as well.

Part of the reason the war in Liberia drags on is that it has dragged in other countries and other interests.

Joining us now from Washington is James Butty. He's the Washington correspondent for "West Africa" magazine.

Thank you much for being with us.

I wonder if we could start there -- start with the links, confusing as they are to people from other parts of the world, but the links between the fighting in Liberia and what was happening in Sierra Leone, what's going on now in Ivory Coast, and different kinds of interests or events inside of Guinea. Can you make it all simple for us?

JAMES BUTTY, "WEST AFRICA" MAGAZINE: Thank you. I will try.

Well, in Sierra Leone, the REU (ph) rebels in Sierra Leone, Liberia -- in the Ivory Coast right now, the fighting taking place in the Ivory Coast, it is alleged that the rebels in the Ivory Coast have some support from Liberia.

As a result, Liberians in the Ivory Coast are targeted. And just as a result, I guess the, because the Ivorians feel that their country is supporting the rebels in the Ivory Coast who are trying to overthrow the government there.

So the connection -- we are not quite sure what is the connection, but it is true that one group of the LURD rebels are coming out of the southeastern part of Liberia, and they're coming into Liberia.

MANN: Now, Sierra Leone has been a source of funding for the war in Liberia. Can you tell us about that?

BUTTY: Well, it is believed, during the RUF (ph), which is the Sierra Leonean rebels in Sierra Leone, when they were fighting the government of Sierra Leone, it was believed that the war was about diamonds and that President Taylor was being used as a conduit to funnel the diamonds from Sierra Leone.

As a result, the United Nations imposed sanctions on Liberia just to stop them from helping the RUF (ph) rebels in Sierra Leone.

But now there is some peace in Sierra Leone. The efforts now are turning towards how to end the Liberian civil war.

Just a week ago, the Liberian government and the LURD rebels, LURD, met in Freetown, Sierra Leone, and they agreed on some kind of principle to stop the fighting. But everything has to do with President Taylor. He must be willing to allow a political process to take place.

If a political process can take place, then the politicians can tell the rebels, look, there is no need for you to continue fighting. We can go to elections, and if the Liberian people do not like President Taylor, they can vote him out.

But President Taylor, it seems to me, is doing everything to stifle a political process.

MANN: Well, let me stop you right there, because the president has scheduled elections for October. Why do you say he's stifling the process?

BUTTY: Well, yes, that is true. The election commission in Liberia has announced that elections will take place in October, but I know that a couple of politicians, opposition for example, who have decided yes, maybe this is the best way to go, they have returned home. Some are in the country. And some have left the United States and elsewhere around the world to return home to participate.

But just talking to one of them yesterday out of Monrovia, the decision now is that they don't think that President Charles Taylor is serious about having transparent elections, because now they is continuing harassment of the opposition. I know of one, Charles Bromskin (ph), left the United States to go back to Liberia. He announced his candidacy last week. While he was supposed to travel to his hometown of Babiana (ph), the government people there threatened his supporters there. If they turnout to welcome him, they will be doing so at their own peril. So he cannot do anything.

MANN: Let me jump in and ask you a question, because Charles Taylor is admittedly, by most people's estimate, a pretty rough character, but he has a handicap that most leaders don't, which is that there is a civil war against his government that's being fought, and in legal ways he can't get guns. The United Nations has imposed an arms embargo against Liberia, in part because of what was going on in Sierra Leone. But it's still binding on Charles Taylor and on the Liberian government. To you think that's a fair handicap to give to what is a recognized government?

BUTTY: You are absolutely right. President Taylor's choices are limited, although he will not admit it. His choices are limited. On the one hand, you have the United Nations sanctions. You have the United States sanctions against him. You have a rebel on two fronts who are trying to overthrow him.

That's why everybody is saying he must as a leader show good faith by saving the country from yet another bloody, bloody civil war by agreeing to go to elections. Even if it means that he is going to lose his position as head of state of Liberia.

(CROSSTALK)

MANN: Let me jump in and ask you just one last question then. We just saw some of the fighters of LURD making their way through the jungles of Liberia. They didn't really look like a political party to me.

BUTTY: No, no, no.

MANN: If there are free elections in Liberia, does the civil war just go away?

BUTTY: People hope so, and that's right. The rebels themselves are as disorganized as anything else. But the rebels also have supporters, political support, so the suggestion is that if there is free and fair elections, these rebels, they are just young people, they can listen to the politicians and decide to put down their weapons.

MANN: On that hopeful note, James Butty, of "West African" magazine. Thanks so much for talking with us.

BUTTY: My pleasure.

MANN: That's INSIGHT for this day. I'm Jonathan Mann. The news continues.

END

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