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Interview with Sebastian Junger

Aired July 22, 2003 - 19:31   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: We turn to another major story, Liberia. The United States tonight is blaming rebel forces for the relentless bloodshed in the capital, Monrovia. Meanwhile, mortars keep falling in downtown Monrovia even as the rebels are reportedly calling for a ceasefire.
Our own Jeff Koinange is in the middle of all of this. He joins us live from Monrovia. Jeff, what's the latest?

JEFF KOINANGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, I can tell you we haven't heard any mortar fire for the last probably three, four hours, but that hasn't stopped the small arms fire from being fired. We -- actually AK-47 rounds have landed right here in the U.S. embassy compound. A couple of them landing in the grass behind me in the last couple of hours.

So that's still going on. If the ceasefire is in effect, I guess the word hasn't reached the ground yet. And obviously it's going to take a while.

Two things could be happening here, Anderson. Either the rebel leaders on the ground feel they have the momentum and want to take the capital and are ignoring their leaders, or it's going to take between 24 and 48 hours before the word filters down to the ground.

In the meantime, the CNN crew made their first trip into downtown Monrovia for the first time in two days, and we saw for ourselves the extent of the damage. We saw deserted streets, we saw where mortar shells had landed in the last couple of days. We saw bloodstained pavements where people must have died in the mortar fire.

And then we ran into the country's defense minister right in the middle of the street, where he told us the death toll was upwards of 600 and counting, many more injured in the hospitals. He did, however, plead with the United States and the United Nations to lift the arms embargo on Liberia. He feels this is the only way they can counter the rebel attack.

We asked him later on in the afternoon whether he had heard about the ceasefire announced by the rebels. He said he had heard nothing about that.

So again reports are very shifty on the ground. People aren't quite sure. It's still pretty fluid. And I can tell you, it's still very dangerous in the streets of Monrovia tonight, Anderson. COOPER: It certainly seems that way. Jeff Koinange, stay safe. Thanks for joining us tonight.

There's still, as Jeff said, no final word on a peacekeeping mission in Liberia with or without U.S. participation, for that matter.

Sebastian Junger is an author, a journalist whose been reporting on war, terrorism, and human rights for several years. He recently returned from Liberia, where he was on assignment for "Vanity Fair," and he joins us now.

Sebastian, it's good to meet you.


COOPER: What is it that we here do not get about what is going on in Liberia? I mean, you see those pictures. It seems so confusing. Tell tell us about it.

JUNGER: Well, I should say start by saying even people in Liberia don't really understand what's happening to them. One guy who was quoted in "The New York Times" today said, I don't understand, it's Liberians fighting Liberians.

Basically, Charles Taylor tentatively agreed to step down from the presidency in exchange for a cessation of hostilities. That was one of the demands by the rebels. He hedged on that. When I was there he retracted that statement. That triggered the second offensive of -- in late June, while I was there.

I left, and then this third offensive started.

COOPER: And now Taylor basically says, Look, if I leave now, you know, all hell is going to break loose. I mean, the rebels are poised on the city. It's worse if I leave now before a peacekeeping force comes in. Is that true?

JUNGER: Yes, exactly. He's sort of using that as a reason to not step down. He said, I will not abandon you to these murderers, meaning the rebels.

But, of course, that's a great way of continuing his hold on power. He's said he will not step down until there's peacekeepers on the ground. The Bush administration has said there won't be peacekeepers until there's a ceasefire. The rebels have said there's going to be no ceasefire until Taylor agrees to step down.

COOPER: And, I mean, it implies that he has a huge groundswell of support throughout Liberia. I mean, this is a man who was indicted by the United Nations for war crimes, for his involvement in the war in Sierra Leone, for supporting rebels there, getting diamonds. And it's often his militias, as I understand from what I've read about your trip there, is that -- I mean, it's his militia who are running amok, often. JUNGER: That -- it's the local security forces, the army, that the people are terrified of. I would not say that he has -- that Taylor has huge support.

COOPER: More so than the rebels, you think?

JUNGER: Oh, absolutely. I mean, the people I spoke with, many of them were hoping the rebels would take over. They're too terrified to raise any resistance against their own president. But it was the militias they were really scared of.

And the -- frankly, the journalists were scared of. I mean, these guys would cruise through town in their pickup trucks, shooting in the air, looting houses. They were absolutely terrifying. And we were all sort of hoping that the rebels took over, maybe things would be safer.

COOPER: The indication we've been getting from the U.S., it seems, at least publicly, is that they would kind of prefer Ecowas (ph), the sort of West African peacekeeping forces, maybe Nigerians, whomever, to come in and not really have U.S. troops on the ground. Is that, in your opinion, a good idea?

JUNGER: Well, in 1990, we were in the exactly same position, only Charles Taylor was the rebel, was leading the rebels. The first President Bush was asked to send U.S. peacekeepers, and he convinced the Nigerians to go in instead.

It was an absolute disaster. They Nigerians were so badly prepared, they had to borrow uniforms and shoes from one of the fighting factions. They wound up there looting just like the other factions were, and selling weapons to the factions who were fighting. It was an absolute disaster, and I find it hard to believe that it's being considered again.

COOPER: Do you think U.S. troops are going to go in.

JUNGER: I think they probably won't, but I think it might be a good idea.

COOPER: All right. We'll read about all this in "Vanity Fair," I guess the next issue.


COOPER: Sebastian Junger, thanks very much for coming in. Appreciate it.

JUNGER: Thank you.


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