When the account of the beginning of Liberia’s notoriously cannibalistic civil war is told, it starts with how a small band of Libyan-trained guerrillas attacked the Liberian border outpost of Butuo on December 24, 1989, plunging the country into a 14-year internecine war.
But the stage for Liberia’s descent into a fratricidal civil conflict, fueled in large measure by festering tribal animosity, was almost certainly set on this day twenty-seven years ago. If December 24, 1989 is the day that Liberia’s civil war began, then November 12, 1985 is the day the battle lines were indelibly etched in blood, catapulting Liberia on an inexorably path to war.
On November 12, 1985, General Thomas Quiwonkpa, a former Commander in Chief of the Liberian Army, staged a coup against President Samuel Doe, which initially appeared to be successful, but was crushed only a few hours later during the day.
Quiwonkpa, who was from Nimba County, was killed that day and President Doe would go on to exact brutal retribution on Quiwonkpa’s tribesmen. Thousands were killed, inflaming tribal animosity and igniting the flames of war that would consume the whole nation some 4 years later.
The story of that day could be told in so many ways, but the most poignant are the personal stories of those whose lives were impacted by the violent events of that day. One such person is Liberia’s President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a co-winner of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize.
As a staunch critic of President Doe and an opposition candidate for the Senatorial seat of Montserrado County, President Sirleaf would face some of the most harrowing experiences of her life on that day.
“The soldiers were shooting wildly and randomly into the air. My mother, being the prayerful woman that she was, immediately began to pray. She got on her knees right there in the living room and began asking for protection. But I knew the soldiers were wild and drunk and irresponsible. If I didn’t go out, they would storm the house and they wouldn’t care that my mother was praying. They would shoot her without a second thought. The idea terrified me. So I took a deep breath and stepped outside,” President Sirleaf said of her arrest on that day. [Excerpt: Sirleaf, E.J. (2009). This Child Will Be Great: Memoirs of a Remarkable Life by Africa’s First Woman President. (pp. 141). New York, NY: HarperCollins.]
After her arrest, President Sirleaf narrates a story about how she was humiliated, threatened with summary execution, and then thrown into a dingy cell were she faced the prospect of rape.
But the story of so many others, whose lives were also impacted by the events of November 12, 1985 have never been told. The following, therefore, is the story of one such person who despite being barely a year old in 1985, her life would become so intimately interwoven in the events of that day. Her name is Marconi and this is her story: