Book Excerpt: The Embassy: A Story of War and Diplomacy

Book Excerpt: The Embassy: A Story of War and Diplomacy

The Embassy is a graphic, cinematic retelling of the harrowing climax of the Liberian civil war and the U.S. and West African role in ending it. Through interviews with the Ambassador and key members of the country team, as well as with peacekeepers, U.S. troops, relief workers, foreign correspondents, senior Liberian officials and rebel leaders, Dante Paradiso reconstructs the violence and chaos of those times to create an enduring portrait of a U.S. embassy under fire and the kind of daring frontline diplomacy that can change the fate of a nation. harrowing climax of the Liberian civil war.

A Tense Ceasefire

Liberia had dogs that did not bark. Basenjis, as they were called, supposedly had a noble lineage as Pharaoh’s hunters, but in the clearings on the roadside they looked like nothing more than tawny, flop-eared curs passed out in the hot shade. Colonel Sue Ann Sandusky said she did not know much about basenjis, but she had her own theory that all the dogs in West Africa were bred from a single mother. To build her case, the Defense Attachécounted dogs with white-tipped tails. Admittedly, there were many.

“Twenty-six, Ma’am,” said Fergy, at the wheel.

They were on their way to Gbarnga, a ruined town a hundred and twenty miles east of Monrovia, about a four-hour drive on a dry day. As a rebel, Charles Taylor had based there for a time and still kept a farm in the area. The word was that the rebels overran the farm a couple weeks back but it had been recaptured. If the rebels ever did seize Gbarnga, they could attack Monrovia from two directions. But they did not see any rebels. They did not see anyone at all. An eerie, abandoned land floated past. In the bright, steaming light, vegetation was piled along the road like compost, burying the past. Rubber plantations were overgrown. The grey, scarred trees staggered beneath shawls of vines and moss. Weeds blanketed the fields like fresh thatch. Here and there, concrete pads and crumbled walls told of a lost home. Mustard plants and grasses reclaimed the yards from the dust.

The Colonel said, “This is how I remember it.”

The Colonel had flown in from Abidjan the day after the HAST showed up but spent the first forty-eight hours in country wrapped in a wool blanket on the leather couch in her office, laid low by malaria. She was reprising a role as U.S. Embassy Monrovia Defense Attaché that she first had in the late nineties. At that time, Charles Taylor had just been elected and the national disarmament campaign was underway that, in theory, would pave the way for reconciliation. The soldiers practiced for the big day in the shade of the mango trees, with broomsticks for rifles. The campaign didn’t work. Everyone wrapped their good weapons in plastic and buried them, then turned in rusted, useless pieces for a bag or two of rice.

The war resumed soon afterward.

Sandusky once vowed she would never serve in a country at peace and she was on track. She had a thin, taut face and wore drooping aviator frames that lent her a doleful look, but she was most easily recognized for her shock of white hair that poked out from beneath her weather beaten Army Ranger cap and cut a jagged line at her nape, the same hue as the lamb’s fleeces they used to sell on bamboo racks by the roadside before the war got too hot. To the Liberian street she was known far and wide as “that white-haired lady,” or, to the more theatrically inclined, “Silver Bullet.”

A basenji loped across the road. “Look,” she exclaimed, “twenty-seven!” She jotted something in a green, coaster-sized pad. Colonel Sandusky’s notes, which she turned into lengthy reports, were legendary for their detail. Throughout the day she recorded everything in sequence, salient facts and observations from the road, or the name and contact for anyone she met. Even, it seemed, her running count of the basenjis. As she hunched over to write, her thin shoulders did not fill out her fatigues and her patches bent on her arms like creased baseball cards under a car seat.

“I didn’t see the white tip,” Fergy said.

“That can’t be—are you sure?”

“Yes Ma’am.”

The Colonel shook her head.

“Well you may have missed it!”

“Ah, okay,” Fergy rolled his eyes.

The purpose of the trip was to let Ed Birgells and Captain Coldiron assess what was left of USAID-funded assistance projects and to check on the security situation upcountry. It was always different, Fergy knew, outside the capital. At a makeshift clinic at Salala, they looked in on a nine-year-old boy who lay limp in a cot at the back of the tent, behind the older patients, staring at the patterns of shadow and mold on the sagging canvas. Thick gauze covered the length of his arms and the bandages were damp and discolored and reeked of sepsis. He breathed in short, shallow rasps and, when you looked closer, his eyes appeared to be covered with a white film, like a fish that had been left in the bottom of a boat too long. The nurse said the boy’s name was David and that he had lost his family at Gbarnga.

The militia had captured the child with some others and carried them to Gbartala. The kids got hungry and went to the forest to look for food but the militia accused them of trying to run away. David was tied to a pipe and left overnight. The cord was too tight. When the militia saw the gangrene they cut him loose and let him wander off. He walked through the bush for two days to reach Salala. As the embassy officers stood there, a fly landed on the boy’s face and picked at the crust from his eyes. The nurse brushed it away and it settled on a rack of empty pill jars. The boy’s mouth twitched but his eyes were vacant. Even if he lived, he would not have use of his arms, all for the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Conditions at the clinic had deteriorated since the last time an embassy team visited, three weeks before the first attack. The shelves were bare, the cots were mostly empty, and anyone who could be moved had been, carried closer to town. Two huge IDP camps just to the north of Salala had emptied, leaving behind a ghostly grid of sticks and trenches. Further on, outside Gbarnga, they found the charred ruins of the Phebe hospital, which USAID had poured tens of thousands of dollars into over the past several years as the only viable surgical hospital in the area. Everything was blackened, lost, burnt in some attack or counterattack. This was empty land now, fighting land, where the militia did what they wanted and what they wanted was never good.

The last time anyone Fergy knew had been up that way, David Parker drove some journalists upcountry in the short window between the first and second attacks. Parker told him that they had come upon a checkpoint somewhere along the way where the militia kids lolled around a picnic table, upon which lay a human head. A BBC cameraman leapt out to catch the image, but one of the boys, startled into some small sense of propriety, jumped up and knocked the head into a ditch in a puff of dust.

It was like he knew it was wrong, but not exactly why.

They arrived in Gbarnga as the light mellowed, to a crescendo of cicadas. The effects of war are often worst away from the action. Even in its glory days Gbarnga looked to have been a one-horse hitching post, and the horse, Fergy thought, was long gone. It was a place, among many, that would have no chance to join the rest of the world so long as the war raged. Most of the block buildings along the main drag had been crippled with rocket propelled grenades. The scent of ash and charred wood hung in the air. The small convoy crested a low hill that led to a market clearing. Liberian General Francis Dolo stepped out of the lead car. Defense Minister Chea insisted they travel upcountry with a government escort. Dolo was from the Armed Forces of Liberia, Liberia’s constitutional army that Taylor defeated then sidelined in favor of the militia and the paramilitary. Many of the old AFL soldiers served under Doe, or even Tolbert, but still put on the uniform in the hopes of collecting worthless pensions and to reminisce about the days when America trained them.

A few, like Dolo, still held a bit of respect in the capital.

Colonel Sandusky stepped out and joined General Dolo and Captain Coldiron in a huddle with local staff from the Phebe clinic. Fergy sauntered off for a smoke. It was a bit strange for him to return to his regular Operations Coordinator job, to a strictly support role. For five or six weeks he was in every meeting with the Ambassador and the Regional Security Officer, being asked his opinion, asked for input, and then suddenly the Defense Attaché did all those things. He was okay with it though. With the HAST and the FAST and all the other requests from European Command and the Defense Intelligence Agency, he had his hands full as it was. And he liked her, though best he could tell, she was going to drive him crazy trying to keep her from getting herself killed.

Nearby, a few young men and women loitered on the dusty periphery of a barren lot strewn with bottle caps and cigarette wrappers and bits of plastic. Hardly any stalls were open. The women spread their meager offerings on gunny cloth on wooden benches. Pinch-sized clusters of peppers. Lean, gnarled yams rusty with dirt. Soft and stinking papayas. A few cloudy jars of palm oil and a string of small, blue and white detergent packages.The presence of U.S. military drew little interest. Sullen gazes followed their movements. The men might have been militia, the women perhaps camp followers, who trailed the fighters through the bush as cooks and lovers and slaves. Or they could all just be survivors who refused to flee: tired, bitter, and stubborn.

Corn roasted over a charcoal stove, the sweet, charred scent filling the air. Dressed in a soiled white tee and Capris the color of sunflowers, a woman squatted by the stove on a low stool with her arms draped over her knees. She chatted with another woman in a local patois as she swished away the smoke. From the corner of his eye, Fergy caught a bearded man glaring from the recesses of a timber shack. He wore a red mesh football jersey, jeans, and high-tops. A bike messenger bag was slung over his shoulders.

The corn seller frowned.

Colonel Sandusky’s voice cut through the heavy air.

“Load up—time to move.”

They had stopped five minutes at most. Overhead, cumulus rolled in and the low sun intensified in the narrow band between the forest and the clouds. Heavy doors slammed shut and the white cars wheeled out of the lot in a billow of dust. The convoy headed back to the cracked strip of tarmac that pointed toward Monrovia. The Colonel poked her finger at the window. Strange shadows flickered along the stucco walls. In among the ruins, a shirtless boy in sagging blue jeans carried a rifle with a rusty bayonet. Behind him, another, and another. Grim-faced, they trotted toward the road with inscrutable intent. The convoy was more than three hours from the embassy.

“Not good,” the Colonel muttered.

It was clear that chain of command ran directly to White Flower and General Dolo did not have much authority in Gbarnga. If the course of the war was hard to predict from Monrovia, it was murkier still deep in the bush. It was hard to see how the Liberian peace talks in Ghana, or all the discussions in foreign capitals of international peacekeepers, had any connection to this reality. Far from their Papay, left to their own devices, the militia would shoot anyone or anything if the mood struck them, maybe even a convoy of Americans. Fergy hit the gas. The other drivers followed suit and the swell of the engines wiped out the sound of the bush. The militia boys shrank in the mirrors and disappeared. Storm light cut through the clouds and the town behind briefly glowed like the treasure of forgotten kings. A light rain began to fall. The jungle closed in.  They were safe again in the darkening land.

Excerpted from “The Embassy: A Story of War and Diplomacy” © 2016 by Dante Paradiso, published by Beaufort Books (New York).  The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the United States Department of State or the United States Government.