Liberians at U hope to return home, help their country rebuild

by Nathan Hall

By the time Allen Gbatu fled Liberia at age 14, the whine of missiles and machine-gun fire from warring rebel factions kept him up at night.

Now an electric engineering student, Gbatu said he yearns for the day he can permanently return to his homeland and aid in its lengthy rebuilding process.

Other Liberian-born students and professors agreed.

A successful peace accord in the country and West African peacekeeping troops backed by approximately 200 U.S. Marines have helped calm Monrovia, the country’s capital.

However, rival tribal warlords still control a majority of the country, and brutal fighting continues outside areas under the forces’ watch.

Andrew Tehmeh, a University sophomore and General College teaching assistant, went to school in Monrovia before coming to the United States in April 2000.

“I always knew Charles (Taylor) leaving wouldn’t solve the problem,” Tehmeh said. “The reality is those fighting him wanted the same thing he wanted and act no different than he would have.”

African studies professor Wynfred Russell said a majority of Liberians he knows crave an end to the bloodshed that has killed approximately 300,000 – the majority civilians – according to The Associated Press.

However, Russell joined other Liberians in publicly accusing some more visible and wealthy members of the Liberian community in the Twin Cities raising money for Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy.

According to Amnesty International, the group is one of many fighting for a foothold after Taylor’s regime ended this year.

Through flyers, e-mails and public discussions to expose donations to the militia, Russell said he and others are facilitating dialogue on the subject.

“We’re doing our best to put across the message that a blueprint for sustained multi-party democracy is the smartest route to power … not through AK-47s,” Russell said.

Human rights agencies have accused soldiers for the militia of mass rape, looting and murder.

“This is a very vicious cycle, and we need to cut through this perpetual violence,” Russell said. “The easiest way to be constructive rather than destructive is to quit financing bloody armed rebellions.”

Russell and Tehmeh said they are strongly dissatisfied with the U.S media for what they saw as ignoring Liberia’s myriad of infrastructure and security problems when Taylor stepped down.

“There’s a lot going on that hardly anyone is seeing,” Tehmeh said.

Yet Gbatu, Russell and Tehmeh said they remain hopeful that cooler heads will eventually prevail in Liberia, and all plan to return as soon as their safety is assured.

Tehmeh said his degree will be more valuable in his home country.

Russell agreed with Tehmeh, describing a “great Liberian brain drain” during the 1990s which saw virtually all of Liberia’s educated class emigrate en masse to more stable countries.

Gbatu said his goal is to complete graduate school, perhaps at Virginia Tech or the University of Michigan, and then return to Liberia to repair its largely demolished power grid.

“I’d make 20 times more money doing this here, so it would definitely be a sacrifice,” Gbatu said. “But all the work in the world won’t mean a thing if we can’t achieve one basic thing: long-term political stability.”