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The sound of gunfire and rocket-propelled grenade ferociously sliced through the air, shattering the calm of the humdrum morning. It was August 1990 and the town of Tubmanburg, Bomi County, one of Liberia’s provincial districts, was under attack from the invading rebel forces of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), the defunct rebel army headed by Charles Taylor, who was recently convicted and sentenced to a 50-year jail term for “aiding and abetting” the commission of war crimes during the civil war in neighboring Sierra Leone.

Morlee Gugu Zawoo, Sr., who was just 15 years old at the time, along with his twin brother, Alex, and the rest of his family were hunkered down in their house as bullets and rocket-propelled grenades flew helter-skelter over their heads. Fearful and gasping from the suffocating uncertainty about the fate that awaited them, they stayed indoors all day and night, waiting for the fighting to subside.

Early the next morning, with sporadic gunfire still punctuating the air, Morlee and his family heard the rebels kicking down their neighbors’ doors and shouting for them to come out.

“Everybody come out! Come out right now! We are looking for our enemies!” the rebels commanded, striking fear in the hearts of Morlee and his family. They waited helplessly until their turn came.

As Morlee and his family were commanded out of their house, they saw their neighbors already standing outside, looking fearful and dejected as the motley gang of rebels, some wearing female wigs, masks and various kinds of talisman, menacingly threatened to kill anyone they deemed to be their enemy.

The rebels then commanded the civilians to lie down on their stomachs, and with guns at the ready, they hovered over their quivering victims, searching and asking them questions, to sifter out those they deemed to be enemies who would be set aside to suffer a fate of summary execution.

Abduction and Conscription

After several minutes of this, the rebels then started selecting young men who they commanded to stand up. Morlee and his twin brother, Alex, were also selected and they obeyed the rebels’ orders and stood up. As they did, the rebels began to herd them into a waiting truck. Some of the boys were crying out for their parents, while others were pleading with the rebels to release them.

“When I was hit, I was dazed by the excruciating pain, and as I tried to move my arm, it was limp and I saw chumps of my flesh.”

While their parents looked on helplessly, Morlee and his twin brother, Alex, along with the other boys, were loaded onto the waiting truck. Slumping on the truck’s hard metal floor, Morlee sat dejectedly beside his twin brother, fearful about the unknown fate that awaited them, but resigned to the fact that he and his brother’s lives were about to be transformed in a most dramatic way and they were helpless to do anything about it.

Alex had other ideas though.

“Right after the truck’s engine was turned on, and as it began to slowly pull away, Alex jumped out of the truck and, on hitting the ground, he tried to run, but he was shot in the back,” Morlee said, recalling a most painful incident from a memory lane littered with far too much brutality and death, at far too early an age.

As the truck surged forward and Morlee watched his brother slump to the ground and expire, he became even more resigned to the uncertain fate that awaited him and the other boys. They were being transported to a world that would heartlessly blaspheme the sanctity of their innocence. And, notwithstanding the misery that enveloped them, their limping bodies danced involuntary to the truck’s uncannily perverse rhythm, as the tires filled the potholes in the road.

The world that he was about to encounter was most certainly not the world that Morlee’s parents, William Z. Johnson and Gbolu Y. Johnson, had envisioned for him when they held their bouncing baby boy in their arms on April 2, 1975. They had done what they could to prepare their son for a bright future, sending him to the St. Dominic Catholic School, up to the 9th grade before the war interrupted his studies.

But now, they could do nothing to protect him, as their beloved nation of Liberia was overrun by one of the most unrestrained manifestations of violence ever experienced anywhere in the world.

Trained to Kill

Arriving at the former base of the 6th Infantry Battalion of the Armed Forces of Liberia, which had fled in retreat when the invading NPFL rebel force overran Tubmanburg, the truck came to a screeching halt. Morlee and the other boys were then ordered to disembark. And, herded together, they were told to wait their turn as their heads were clean-shaven before being thrown into a tight cell.

“About 50 of us were locked up in a tight cell, where, as we awaited our fate, we saw other prisoners being taken out, apparently to be executed because they never returned,” Morlee said.

The next morning, around 4 am, as they cowered together in their tight cell, their rebel abductors returned with buckets full of water, which they splashed on Morlee and the other boys.

“Everybody get up! Come out and line up in a single file!” they ordered.

Morlee and the other boys obeyed. They were then marched to an open field within the military barracks which the rebels used to train their recruits. And, as they were put into formation and made to stand at attention, the commanding general of the rebel forces stood before them and made a rousing speech.

“Today is a great day,” the general’s voice echoed throughout the open field.

“We have come to liberate the people. But this war cannot be fought if you are not a part of it!”

Morlee listened as the general tried to inspire them and make them feel that their contribution was of utmost importance for the liberation struggle that they professed to be engaged in.

“Commandoes!” the general called out.

“Brave, strong and intelligent!” Morlee and the other boys replied as they had been taught.

“Commandoes!” the general shouted again, this time with much more vigor. Morlee and the other boys repeated the refrain, trying to match the general’s vigor.

Fired up or not, a convert to the cause or not, they had no choice but to conform to the biddings of their rebel recruiters. After that, their grueling training commenced. They learned how to dismantle and reassemble an AK-47 machine gun. And, they were taught the various parts of the gun, like they had been taught their ABC.

“During the training exercises, we were made to crawl and told not to lift our heads above a certain height. And, as we tried to crawl as low as we could, the trainers would use live bullets and begin to shoot at that level where we were told not to raise our heads and some unfortunate boys ended up being killed this way,” Morlee said.

But Morlee was one of those lucky to survive the training. He even showed some promise and was consequently, appointed as a squad leader and assigned 10 men after completing his training. He and his men were then sent to the battlefront where they experienced the raw brutalities war. Death was everywhere as they felled their enemies and witnessed some of their own men being killed in battle.

Morlee would survive his first battlefront experience and other battlefront experiences after that to become a seasoned fighter. After sometime though, when another rebel group overran Tubmanburg, Morlee escaped with his family to the capital city, Monrovia, where he turned in his gun to ECOMOG, the West African peacekeepers, and briefly returned to civilian life. But fearful that someone might point him out as a former rebel, which could result in him suffering the vigilante retribution of the civilian population, Morlee left Monrovia and returned to the NPFL-controlled area, where he rejoined the rebel group.

Mortally Wounded

In October 1992, after an interim cease fire period, there was a buzz in NPFL-controlled territory about a new plan to attack Monrovia, the capital city. Preparations for the infamous Operation Octopus, in which the NPFL almost successfully overran Monrovia was in full swing. Brand new AK-47s and cash were being distributed to the rebels to motivate them for the impending battle.

Initially reluctant to return to the battlefront, Morlee and some friends accepted the US$300 that was being distributed to the rebels to encourage them for the fight, but they would not go with the first batch of rebels who commenced the attack on Monrovia.

However, after seeing some of rebel fighters returning with new cars and other looted goods, Morlee and some of his friends decided to join the fight. But the battle was fierce and the West African Peacekeeping troops, ECOMOG, along with other groups, put up stiff resistance to prevent Monrovia from falling to the attacking NPFL forces.

Outgunned and suffering serious casualties, Morlee and some of the other NPFL fighters decided to retreat. But, as they retreated, they were stopped at a checkpoint called The No Retreat Gate, which was manned by some notorious NPFL commanders. And, with treats of summary execution, Morlee and the others were prevented from retreating further and commanded to return to the battlefront or else.

Left with no choice, Morlee, along with some other men returned to the battlefront. They would set an ambush several miles off the main highway, where they waited to snarl their enemies into a death trap. While they waited, they could hear the sound of trucks zooming by in the distance on the highway. And, during the night, as they tried to shield themselves under the cover of darkness, the more equipped peacekeeping troops shot up flares to illuminate the night, forcing them to catch glimpses of each other’s bloodshot eyes.

“Early the next morning, around 4 am, the general gave the order for us to attack. We were only a handful of fighters and when the attack commenced, we realized that we were in the midst of the more equipped ECOMOG troops. And they responded viciously, firing heavy machine guns and rocket propelled grenades on our position,” Morlee recalled.

One of the rocket-propelled grenades landed right in the middle of the rebel fighters, killing many and mortally wounding Morlee as a piece of shrapnel from the rocket-propelled grenade hit him in the arm, shredding his flesh and bone.

“When I was hit, I was dazed by the excruciating pain, and as I tried to move my arm, it was limp and I saw chumps of my flesh. I was bleeding profusely and thinking I was going to die, I fell unconscious,” Morlee said.

When Morlee regained consciousness about 2 hours later, he saw the bodies of some of his friends and could also hear sporadic shooting in the distance but there was no other sign of life around him.

Dazed and in pain, Morlee struggled to his feet. And, with his injured arm limping, he used his other arm to strap his gun across his shoulder, as he staggered away from the bodies of his friends. Fearful of encountering enemy troops, he took off-the-track paths to find his way back to safety.

Luckily, he did not encounter any enemy fighters along the way and was able to make his way back to the NPFL-controlled area where he was picked

up and taken to hospital.

Morlee (r) and I at NEPI's office in Monrovia

Morlee (r) and I at NEPI’s office in Monrovia

With no good medical care, Morlee moved from hospital to hospital until a friend took him to the Yekepa Hospital in Nimba County where he was able to undergo surgery and a metal plate was placed in his arm.

After about a year of recuperation, and during another period of ceasefire, Morlee’s girlfriend, whom he had left in Monrovia with his mother, was able to cross over into NPFL territory and successfully find him through the assistance of other rebel fighters who knew him.

Telling him that his mother was ill and that it was time for him to rejoin his family, Morlee decided to return with his girlfriend to Monrovia to be with his family. But making the journey to Monrovia, especially for an NPFL fighter, was not an easy one because combatants who were caught were accused of defection, a charge that could result in summary execution.

Narrow Escape to Forge a New Life

But, that notwithstanding, Morlee was determined to rejoin his family and put his rebel past behind him.

And, after finally making some arrangements, Morlee boarded a truck with his girlfriend to return to Monrovia. To avoid detection, Morlee rubbed his whole body with a medicated ointment and then dressing in warm clothing, he wore a skull cap, and pulled it over his eyes.

Sweating from the sweltering heat, Morlee pretended to be extremely sick. And, at each checkpoint, on their way to Monrovia, while everyone was asked to disembark to be interrogated, he was allowed to remain in the truck when the rebels saw him coiled up and shivering.

However, as they neared one last checkpoint, which was manned by rebels who were also from Tubmanburg, Morlee worried that he would be made out.

“I knew Captain Quaqua, the commander at that checkpoint, who also knew me very well. And, as we arrived, they ordered everyone to get out of the truck, but I stayed in and when someone told Capt. Quaqua that there was a sick person on board who was too weak to stand up and walk, he jumped in the truck to investigate. He then ordered me to get up, but in a barely audible voice, I replied that I was too sick to stand up. I was coiled up facing the other way, so he turned my body toward him to get a better look at my face. I still had the cap pulled over my eyes and, when he saw me sweating and shivering, he let me be and then ordered everybody back on the truck,” Morlee said, even now still amazed that Captain Quaqua did not recognize him.

But, just as he survived that failed ambush attack, he attributes this to the intervention of a divine power that wanted him to live to achieve great things.

And, when Morlee finally arrived in Monrovia, he would rejoin his family and set out to forge a new life. Joining the Lutheran Church, he became a youth leader and an evangelist, but he still struggled with dealing with his brutal past.

“I still had this war effect. Sometimes I would have flashbacks of battlefront scenes with all the dead bodies, along with all the bad things that I had experienced, including my brother’s murder,” Morlee said of his struggle to forge a new life.

During this time, he was chosen to participate in a 5-day trauma healing program organized by a group from the Lutheran Church, an experience which he describes as a life changing one where he, along with other participates, were able to share each other’s stories and learn how to cope with their trauma.

That experience led Morlee to want to share what he learned with other former combatants to help them also recover from their traumatic past. And, that was the beginning of the seed that germinated into the National Ex-combatants Peacebuilding Initiative (NEPI), Inc.

Eleven years later since its founding, NEPI’s name has now morphed into the Network for Empowerment and Progressive Initiatives, a reflection of Liberia’s transitioning since the end of its civil war in 2003, from peace building to the reestablishment of democracy and youth empowerment.

Through the support of many partners over the years, NEPI has been working at the grassroots with Liberia’s most disadvantaged war affected youths. And, even though they still struggle today with paying the US2000 annual rent for their office space and finding funding to support their programs can be a challenge, Morlee and his colleagues remain steadfast because they know their work is of critical importance to their nation.

And, more than anything, it is this sense of duty to the cause – a new cause not to destroy, but to rebuild – that seems to drive Morlee and NEPI’s mission.

To find out more about NEPI’s work and/or to support the organization’s efforts, check out their website at: www.nepi-liberia.org or send them an email: nepilib@yahoo.com.

You may also reach them by telephone: +231 (0)886-494-706 or +231 (0) 886-836-553

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