Love for US turns sour in Liberia's 'Deep South'

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The Independent Online

In Bensonville, the map says Africa but the eyes suggest a distant time and place: antebellum America. Rickety wooden houses with grand verandas dot the roadside. They have seen better days; the stilts are teetering, the shutters are falling off and some porches have caved in. The townspeople speak a heavily accented English with a hint of Southern lilt.

In Bensonville, the map says Africa but the eyes suggest a distant time and place: antebellum America. Rickety wooden houses with grand verandas dot the roadside. They have seen better days; the stilts are teetering, the shutters are falling off and some porches have caved in. The townspeople speak a heavily accented English with a hint of Southern lilt.

On Sundays, they attend the Zion Baptist church, where the pastors gives thundering sermons and the choir bellows hymns such as "Amazing Grace" and "Guide me, O thou Great Jehovah". The man who founded this town was Benson, whose freedom was bought at a Virginia plantation more than 150 years ago. But this is Liberia, half an hour's drive from the capital, Monrovia.

The bond between these worlds, Deep South and dark Africa, is symbolised at a monument on the edge of town: a model ship of the kind that carried 19th-century black Americans from slavery in the States to a home in Africa, and freedom.

The first freed slaves arrived on the Atlantic shore in the 1820s, wearing their finest tailcoats and top hats. Despite local resistance, they pushed through the thick forests and by 1847 founded the state of Liberia. Joseph D Moulson, on a wooden bench outside his house, told of his grandfather, Chersey Christian, who arrived from Richmond, Virginia, "small money and small clothes" said Mr Moulson, with visible pride. He planted potatoes, became a Baptist deacon and started a family.

Those transatlantic roots remained crucially important. "The US is our big brother," Mr Moulson said. But his wife, Sarah - a descendant of Benson Coaker, also of Virginia - said Liberians' love for America was not returned. "First time we looked, America and Liberia were so close," she said angrily. "Now it's become sour."

As President George Bush considers whether to send 2,000 US troops to end 14 years of violence, Liberians are praying for his help. After two rebel attacks on Monrovia last month that left 500 dead and almost toppled the besieged President, Charles Taylor, the country is on tenterhooks.

Mr Taylor is supposed to leave, but has not. Rebels are threatening to attack again. And while Mr Bush has promised to be "active" he still has not said whether he will send troops or just money.

Liberia is the closest thing America has to a former colony in Africa. The currency is the dollar, the flag is a star and stripes, and Monrovia is named after the fifth US president, James Monroe. Place names carry other familiar echoes, Providence Island, Maryland County, Virginia, Cheesemanburg. Major roads are referred to as "freeways", even if they are littered with roadblocks manned by drug-smoking militiamen.

Until Liberia plunged into civil war in 1989, the two countries were tied by money and politics as well as history. During the Second World War, Liberia declared war on Germany at America's behest. During the Cold War, inside the sprawling US embassy, CIA agents intercepted global communications. A Voice of America transmitter stood outside town as well as an Omega navigation station that tracked planes, ships and submarines.

But if the freed American slaves forged Liberia, they also bear some responsibility for its slide into war. In a classic case of the abuser perpetuating his own abuse, Americo-Liberians treated native Africans like the slaves they had once been. It became a unique system of black-on-black apartheid. At independence, indigenous Africans were denied citizenship. Those who dared revolt were brutally put down. Some were taken into domestic or commercial slavery. In the 1930s, President Edwin Barclay was found guilty of rounding up slaves for sale to cocoa plantations abroad.

Until a 1980 coup by Samuel Doe, an army sergeant and indigenous African, every Liberian president was an Americo-Liberian. The appointments were vetted by the Freemasons, a secret society.

These days the tensions have eased - Americo-Liberians make up 5 per cent of the population - but Liberians of all backgrounds are united in feeling the US has an obligation to rescue them. "We were there for them in the past," said Catholic Archbishop Michael K Francis. "Now they owe this to us."

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