Firestone & Brimstone
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A former Plymouth corrections supervisor recalled shooting the shit with the stranded ex-finance minister on a regular basis.
“He was outgoing, charismatic, very sharp, the executive type, you know, not like a Rambo.”
Instead of embodying an all-American action hero, Charles Taylor was more akin to Mr. Kurtz, the vicious and enigmatic antagonist from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
Upon arrival in West Africa, sometime between 1985 and 1986, Taylor is said to have slipped a pair of arrests in Ghana and Sierra Leone, respectively.
Then, he resurfaced in Libya.
There, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi provided his newfound fugitive friend a former-US military base to train his loathsome militia, the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL).
The 1979 Monrovia Rice Riots galvanized a young rebel’s resolve, and marked the harbinger of impending havoc in West Africa.
Following his coup, President Samuel Doe did little to quell the public unrest.
By the end of the master sergeant’s eight-year regime, Liberia became the largest recipient per capita of US assistance in Africa. Officials estimate about $500 million went to the Executive Mansion, most of which found its way into the pockets of the president and his cronies.
The wanton corruption provided insurgents with ample momentum.
According to the Liberian Observer, the Doe regime was rife with “gross abuse of human rights including false imprisonment, repression of the media,” as “torture and extrajudicial killings became the normal order of business.”
Nelson Taylor said by the time his brother led the National Patriotic Front of Liberia across the Côte d’Ivoire border on Christmas Eve 1989, the republic rallied for revolution.
“Liberians are a peaceful people,” he told the Providence Journal in 1990.
“It takes Hell and all to get a Liberian to move. So from the beginning, when we knew it wasn’t [just] Charles fighting, it was the people fighting. We knew eventually we had to succeed.”
The warlord first took to the airwaves with the BBC’s Focus on Africa on New Year’s Day 1990. The NPFL were bound for Monrovia to “get that boy Doe off the backs of the Liberian people.”
The murderous and meteoric front seemingly suckerpunched the international intelligence community.
“Taylor came out of nowhere,” an unnamed US Senate committee adviser told the Patriot Ledger in 1990.
“He just sort of emerged. It’s not that people are flocking to him, it’s just that they are so disgusted with the way things have been run into the ground under Doe that they will try almost anything. Doe was a disaster.”
The First Liberian Civil War claimed between 60,000 and 80,000 lives before culminating in a sham election in 1997. The carnage also created more than 700,000 refugees, and displaced an estimated 1.4 million residents in a country of roughly 2.1 million people.
“We just couldn’t take it any more,” ex-wife Tupee Taylor told the Providence Journal.
“Someone had to make the move, and Charles had the guts.”
Back in Plymouth County, the turnkeys who had little interaction with him told Newsweek “he made no waves,” while “one jailer described him as an ‘accountant type.’”
Those who knew him well enough were impressed with his tenacity and poise during his nebulous internment.
“He was a pretty interesting guy,” David Agnew, a Plymouth corrections officer who recalled conversations with Taylor, told SouthCoast Today.
“He did what he said he was going to do, and that was to overthrow [the government] and supposedly give the country back to its people.”
As time passed, the guys on the other side of the bars also realized that their buddy—“Charlie”—was no bullshit.
Former-fellow prisoner Michael Hogan told the Patriot Ledger in 1990 that he was initially skeptical when Taylor claimed to be a government official.
“When you’re dealing with inmates, some of them tend to tell some real tall tales. You always question when someone gives you a story like that,” Hogan said.
“He started showing us articles, transcripts from his lawyer about the extradition and the money and everything else. We became more and more interested because it was real.”
While the National Patriotic Front of Liberia’s campaign across the countryside slowed to sporadic skirmishes in the face of the impending siege of Monrovia, Charles Taylor threw his full support behind the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), and offered his bloodsoaked blessings to their Night of Long Knives in neighboring Sierra Leone.
After several failed attempts to secure sovereignty, the RUF dug in along the eastern and southern mountain ranges, where enslaved locals mined 7,700 square miles of diamond-rich terrain.
“We told him that when he goes back there, he’s got to use force, to use whatever it takes,” Michael Hogan told the Patriot Ledger.
Hogan had completed Army basic training, and said that after he became convinced that Taylor was for real, they would sometimes strategize in their cells.
“We were all going to fly down to the Ivory Coast and help him train the troops,” Hogan said.
The Sierra Leone Civil War left more than 50,000 dead, displaced half-a-million more, and subsequently brought the term “blood diamond,” or “conflict diamond” to the world stage.
On the battlefield, scores of rival West African factions are said to have engaged in a variety of barbaric tactics. For their signature, the NPFL and the RUF recruited and kidnapped teenage insurgents.
The ranks of the NPFL’s Small Boys Unit was comprised of kids fueled by a mix of combat trauma, amphetamines, and a heroin-gunpowder cocktail called “brown-brown”—all of it synonymous with the war’s signature atrocity: forced amputation.
“Many of these boys are orphans of the war,” Taylor said in a 1991 interview.
“Some of them saw their mothers wrapped in blankets, tied up, poured with kerosene, and burned alive. We keep them armed as a means of keeping them out of trouble. It’s a means of control.”
Stateside, Taylor’s prison pals were appalled by their buddy’s brutality.
“I could not believe what I heard about him later on when all the wars were said and done,” Hogan said.
“It seemed impossible that could be the same guy I knew.”
Established in 1926, the Firestone Rubber and Tire Company’s plantation was the largest single natural rubber harvesting operation in the world, and produced about 40% of the latex and rubber products sold in the United States in the 1980s.
As the war broke out in Liberia, the Firestone upper brass initially abandoned the acreage. But they soon returned, knuckled under, and resumed production after officially recognizing the blood-diamond chieftain’s authority.
Throughout the siege, the Small Boys Unit ravaged Monrovia and the surrounding suburban areas. Experts estimate about 3,000 people were killed, while thousands more were wounded or displaced.
“In 1992, Bridgestone/Firestone’s agreement to do business with Liberian warlord Charles Taylor indirectly and perhaps directly contributed to mass death and destruction in Liberia, and prolonged the civil war by providing Taylor with badly needed revenue and a base of operations,” according to a 1996 United Steelworkers of America Labor Union report.
“Firestone’s collaboration with Taylor included logistical support for his National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) army. This alliance was sanctioned at the highest levels of Bridgestone/Firestone, for reasons of greed, pure and simple.”
Rough estimates suggest that anywhere between two to four-thousand people survived having limbs lopped off by machete.
“It was a ruthless, calculated system of getting these kids on board and perpetrating acts of violence, sometimes in their own communities. It put them beyond the pale,” former head of the US Embassy in Liberia, William H. Twaddell, told the Providence Journal.
“That was the thing about Taylor: he really shattered the fabric of that country. By getting these kids to do what was beyond the imaginable.”
The head of the NPFL’s “death squad,” Joseph “Zigzag” Marzah, told the International Criminal Court NPFL soldiers were ordered to cannibalize their victims—“to set an example for people to be afraid.”
“It’s not difficult to kill a baby,” Marzah told the Special Court.
“Sometimes you just knock them on the head, sometimes you throw them in a pit, sometimes you throw them in the river and they are dead. Then you give the report to Charles Taylor.”