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Liberia, symbol of freedom, now anything but free

By Jeff Koinange

CNN correspondent Jeff Koinange
CNN correspondent Jeff Koinange

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MONROVIA, Liberia (CNN) -- Liberia has always held a special place in my heart. It was the first country I visited outside my native Kenya.

Freed American slaves began colonizing Monrovia -- named for then-U.S. President James Monroe -- in 1822. The colony became the nation of Liberia when it declared its independence in 1847, creating Africa's first independent republic.

More than 150 years later, it is one of the continent's most troubled and tragic nations.

Dateline: June 2003. My CNN crew and I find ourselves in a convoy of vehicles heading to the front line. Rebel forces had tried to march on Monrovia before government troops forced them back. A shaky truce is now in effect, awaiting an official signing by the various factions fighting for control.

In the meantime, the government wants to show us it is in firm control of the city. President Charles Taylor has dispatched his own personal security team to guide us to the front.

The team is led by Lt. Gen. Macsfarian Jibba -- a 6-foot-4-inch, 300-pound, 30-year old former child soldier. His colleagues know him by his nom-de-guerre, "Bulldog."

On this day, Bulldog bears the scars of the latest rebel incursion: a bandaged arm where a bullet lodged itself between his wrist and elbow. But he smiles and brags how bravely he and his men fought to save their capital from attack.

"Monrovia is a hellhole," Bulldog says. "Anyone trying to enter our capital illegally pays the ultimate price."

Evidence of payment abounds. Dead rebel soldiers, their bodies everywhere, are a reminder of the brutality of war. I count over two dozen badly decomposing bodies strewn on the roadside. Government casualties have long since been removed.

Suddenly, we hear shots in the thick jungle beyond. We jump into our vehicles ready to bolt back to the capital. Bulldog smiles again. "Don't worry. It's just my boys letting me know they're around."

start quoteMonrovia is a hellhole ... Anyone trying to enter our capital illegally pays the ultimate price.end quote
-- "Bulldog," Liberian General

Out of the thick bush emerge several scary individuals armed to the teeth with everything from the standard issue AK-47s -- weapon of choice for Africa's armies -- to rocket-propelled grenades and surface-to-air missiles. It's enough of an arsenal to level a small town.

As the men draw closer, I also notice something else about their attire. Two of them have donned wigs, one blond and the other brunette, giving them a bizarre appearance that would not be unwelcome in a circus.

Another has mounted a blue flashing light on his head, the kind usually found atop police vehicles or ambulances. In this war, it seems fighters believe the more creative they are, the better their fighting skills.

Among the newly arrived troops, we learn, is Gen. "Cuckoo" Dennis. It is said that Cuckoo refers to how crazy he acts when he makes a kill.

According to legend, he likes to rip the heart out of a victim and squeeze the blood down his throat to drink down the strength of the enemy and possess his soul.

Cuckoo whips out his cell phone. Even the most hardened fighter in the jungle, it seems, has to reach out and touch a family member or two.

We move on. We're about to meet the commander of the Liberian Armed Forces, who is hunkered down with his troops at the front line.

We find him holding court at Saint Paul's Bridge, the gateway into the capital. He is Lt. Gen. Benjamin Yeaten. His alias is "Fifty." I ask one of the soldiers why they call him Fifty and receive a blank stare in return.

Suddenly one of them breaks into song. I learn the words go something like "Anyone who says no more Taylor, we kill you like a dog."

Even Liberian President Charles Taylor has a nickname: 'Chief'
Even Liberian President Charles Taylor has a nickname: 'Chief'

The Taylor it refers to is none other than embattled Liberian President Charles Taylor, the former rebel-leader who takes credit for starting a vicious civil war in 1989 that lasted seven years and cost over 200,000 lives.

A year after the war ended, Liberia held internationally monitored elections in which Charles Taylor overwhelmingly won. Even he has a nickname: "Chief."

Bulldog tells Fifty and Cuckoo that we are here at Chief's request. We are welcomed like old friends.

Fifty looks no more than 40. He's diminutive and soft-spoken, and I quickly surmise, commands both the fear and respect of his troops. I ask him for a status report on the latest rebel invasion. He too smiles easily.

"Everything is under control," he says. "We've managed to secure our city and drive the marauders back to where they belong. ... In the bush."

His men respond with an ear-piercing roar.

These guys are battle-hungry, I decide, the kind who wouldn't easily shy away from a good firefight.

The nation whose very name was supposed to symbolize freedom is anything but free.

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