Fearful Liberians mourn slain nuns


Mark Huband in Monrovia

The Guardian, 3 November 1992


ARCHBISHOP Michael Francis used a large straw fan to cool himself. He had wiped away sweat, now he was wiping away tears. Monrovia’s packed cathedral was silent yesterday as he spoke.

Five American nuns were being remembered for their work in Liberia. One had been 70. They were all slaughtered last week by killers loyal to Liberia’s liberator-turned-warlord, Charles Taylor. In the hot cathedral, fear was rising.

“We are prisoners,” the archbishop told the congregation. All yesterday morning and throughout the previous night exploding artillery shells boomed across the mangrove swamp alongside Monrovia. Periodic gunfire came from the swamp throughout the day.

Five miles from the city, smoke was rising from the burning tanks of an oil refinery. The West African peacekeeping force, which is fighting Mr Taylor’s advancing troops at points around the city, issued orders yesterday for its soldiers to shoot on sight any members of the numerous armed factions found in the city during the 6 pm to 8 am curfew. This, the force commander said, was aimed at ending looting by the militias.

At least 60,000 people have been killed or died of starvation during Liberia’s civil war, which started when Mr Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia invaded in December 1989. Since November 1990 there has been a shaky ceasefire.

Fighting between factions was replaced by a cold war between Mr Taylor and the various West African countries which sent troops to the peacekeeping force, particularly Nigeria. Mr Taylor launched the siege of Monrovia on October 15, hoping to break the peacekeeping force and clear his path to the city.

In Monrovia cathedral yesterday morning, the people expressed outrage: “The slaughter of the five sisters was the diabolic, wicked, inhumane and satanic action of criminals,” said a representative of the Catholic Women’s Association of Liberia. The congregation cried out its agreement.

“In this deceitful and ungrateful land of Liberia, they were murdered by animals posing as human beings,” the secretary of the Catholic Education Association said.

In Monrovia, hatred of Mr Taylor is as intense as hatred of the late president Samuel Doe, who was murdered in 1990. Doe came to power on a tide of popular support when he seized power in 1980. Mr Taylor’s invasion was greeted as the only way of toppling Doe’s criminal regime, until he began slaughtering even his own supporters who might stand in his way to the presidency.

The killing of the nuns – for which the non-drinking non-smoking Mr Taylor has denied responsibility – has heightened despair of ever finding a negotiated solution to the conflict.

The Nigerian field commander of the peacekeeping force, Major-General Adetunji Olurin, has spent the past two weeks arranging reinforcements and extra equipment. Nigerian aircraft have been bringing in up to 250 extra troops a day. Yesterday three people were killed when the NPFL launched a rocket attack on the airstrip it is using near Monrovia, the second such attack in two days.

Peacekeeping force officials began talking about a big push against Mr Taylor, refusing to say when it might happen, though hinting that it would be within weeks.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited