The news that former Liberian President Charles Taylor was convicted by a tribunal at The Hague on Thursday, April 26, on 11 counts of planning, aiding, and abetting war crimes in Sierra Leone is undoubtedly a victory for international law and hopefully some solace for his victims in two long-suffering African countries. But I also find myself thinking back to an afternoon 10 years ago, a memory featuring a crumbling mansion, a lawn filled with ostriches, and some of the most anxious men I've ever encountered.
In July 2002, I was working for the International Crisis Group (ICG), researching the ongoing conflict in Liberia. A colleague and I were aware we had been under close scrutiny from Taylor's government as we conducted our research over the course of two weeks in the country; there was little that went on in the capital, Monrovia, without Taylor's knowledge. Tensions were high as a rebel group, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), was gaining steam in the countryside and pushing toward the capital. Staying in the only lodging that served expats throughout the war, the Mamba Point Hotel, we were frankly relieved that our research was nearly completed, and we were ready to depart for neighboring Sierra Leone.
It was then that we got word that we were to be granted our request to have an audience with Taylor, one of the most feared leaders in Africa -- a man rumored to have threatened to burn down his high school after losing a student council election and whose brutality had only grown as he made a bloody climb to the presidency. Taylor ran his army as a virtual cult of personality and had directed the killings of too many people to count.
Our meeting was to take place at the executive mansion, a gloomy concrete monstrosity built in the 1960s. It had not aged well. A broad reflecting pool and fountain in front of the building were stagnant with moss and weeds. Mildew stained the exterior walls. I assumed the meeting would be little more than a courtesy call.
After a cursory security check, an aide escorted us out to the back lawn of the mansion. Walking down the broad concrete steps that looked out to the Atlantic, I tried to act nonchalant, but given my surroundings, it was a struggle. Muscular young men in T-shirts toting automatic weapons patrolled the grounds. A workman lazily pushed a lawn mower in the far corner of the yard. Several ostriches, remarkably large birds when viewed up close, grazed on the patchy grass between the bodyguards.
We were escorted to a large gazebo where Taylor was holding court. The president had assembled much of his senior cabinet for the meeting, including his national security advisor, foreign minister, and chief of staff. Several local reporters clicked photos of us being greeted by the president, to use later as propaganda. Taylor quickly dismissed them with a wave of his hand.
Taylor was dressed in a cream-colored sports jacket. His gold watch and ring were conspicuously large. He yelled at an assistant, who in turn yelled at the worker in the yard, and the lawn-mowing ceased.